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Student drawings share progress on reading goals at a California charter school.
Student drawings share progress on reading goals at a California charter school. Credit: Nichole Dobo

More than $250 million worth of electronic books will soon be provided to children in low-income communities.

Nine major book publishers will partner with nonprofit organizations to provide free e-books to community libraries, according to last week’s announcement from the White House. And more than 30 cities, including Chicago, Baltimore and San Francisco, signed on to the president’s challenge to sign more children up for library cards.

The announcement was the latest update to President Obama’s ConnectED program, which seeks to improve teaching and learning through expanded access to digital materials and new technologies. Commitments from the federal government and private organizations are estimated at $10 billion over the next five years, according to the White House.

The free books and a push to put more library cards into the hands of children were just part of last week’s announcement. It also included efforts to make sure the digital books are easy to reach and attractive. For instance, volunteer librarians from the Digital Public Library of America will work with the New York Public Library to increase access to age-appropriate titles. And graphic artists will work with an organization called Recovering the Classics to improve fonts and designs in books to make them more attractive to children.

Digital books tend to be cheaper than traditional print versions, creating a potential cost-savings in an expensive line item in many library and school budgets. But advocates say that’s just the start of what is possible.

Some organizations are working on electronic school textbooks that go beyond reproducing the simple text experience in a digital format. They offer embedded video and interactive features that could improve teaching and learning. And some say open-source textbooks could further change the textbook market dynamic because they offer high-tech textbooks for a hard-to-beat price: free.

It’s not a quick fix.

Digital textbooks require a digital device and Internet access, both often lagging in low-income communities. And if a child lacks Internet access at home, he or she might not be able to make much use of digital books unless they are at school or the library. About 70 percent of public libraries report they are the only source of a free Internet connection in their community, according to the White House announcement about the new digital books.

The program will offer about 10,000 books to children. Tools to distribute the books are being developed through partnerships with public libraries and private organizations, according to the White House. No date was given for when the books would be available to children – nor any word on whether the digital books come with the tradition of a library return due-date.

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