Sunday, February 27, 2005

What you don’t see in the University of Maryland laboratory that is home to the burgeoning International Children’s Digital Library are books. Nothing beyond a few computer instructional manuals, that is.

The books exist online, since the goal of this unusual project is to make available in digital form some of world’s best children’s literature and have age-appropriate material in as many languages as possible organized under special categories for easy reference.

Another novel concept is having children age 3 to 13 participate in the creation of the library, especially in the design of the Web site ( To this end, half a dozen pint-size volunteers known officially as the University of Maryland Kids Team meet over milk or water and cookies for 90 minutes after school twice weekly on the College Park campus. Their reward at year’s end is a computer-related present or toy.

Under the direction of Allison Druin, 41, assistant professor in the College of Information Studies, the project is in its third year and is expected to continue indefinitely with funding in the millions of dollars coming from foundations and corporate sponsors.

Some children have been involved since the project’s start, others are in their first year. Wanting a balance of age and gender, Ms. Druin initially held an open house. Word-of-mouth drew others and currently there is a waiting list to participate.

The children, whom she refers to as “my short graduate students,” meet as equals with the staff in the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, spending half their working time on Gateway computers. But the lab also has colorful play tables, comfortable chairs and sofas, a whiteboard, marker pens, crayons and plenty of drawing paper.

A life-size stuffed doll named Noobie — short for “new beast” — has a computer in its furry belly and is a mascot of sorts. The now-defunct Noobie — technically, the Noobie Design Playstation — was part of Ms. Druin’s master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology exploring how technology can be made relevant to the needs of young people. As such, it represents her mission as a researcher.

“Dragging the computer into the children’s world and not dragging children into the computer world,” she explains.

She already had a degree in graphics from the Rhode Island School of Design and went on to get her doctorate from the College of Education at the University of New Mexico. (Her husband is Ben Bederson, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab.)

The staff of 15, which includes graduate students from various disciplines, amass book titles through the cooperation of libraries here and abroad, as well as through authors who own their copyright and want their out-of-print books to live on. Early on, the children met with Library of Congress specialists to discuss selection criteria, but most of what they do each week concerns design matters and how best to use the library.

“Copyright issues are a challenge,” Ms. Druin admits, “but being an international library makes it both harder and easier. It depends on the country. We are working with the national library of New Zealand, who went to all their premier authors asking for permission to make their books available in a digitized version and 37 authors agreed, including some of their top people. Every country has different reasons to do this.”

They go country by country, culture by culture. Serbia wanted a national library for children and so gave the project a number of books. “We by no means pretend to be experts in other countries’ books,” she says. “We work with organizations and libraries that are knowledgeable. And kids in those countries suggest selections.”

To date, 600 titles are available in 30 languages — the books’ original languages, not translations — assigned for reference under a number of eclectic categories. One category listing is by the kind of characters featured in various books. Another is the way certain books make readers feel.

The categories aren’t fixed, since the site itself is under constant scrutiny. “You can’t change the color [of the Web site’s background], but everything else is up for grabs,” Ms. Druin reminded her young cohorts one recent afternoon. (Green was chosen as the most acceptable color universally in cultural terms, she says.)

Research procedures here are decidedly — and intentionally — offbeat.

Wearing jeans, a baseball cap, and pink and black sneakers, Ms. Druin sat with her legs tucked up under her during “transitioning” time with the children gathered at a round table in the middle of the room. The group consisted of Jamie Gilkeson, 9; Chelsea Hordatt, 9; Zoe Jeka, 10; and Genna Kules, 9. Two of the regulars were missing.

The session began with a review of the library’s home page and ended with some of the children changing drawings they had done of themselves for the site. Early on, Jamie raised his hand to speak. “No raising hands here,” said Ms. Druin at once. “You think this is school?”

“This is a school,” said Jamie emphatically.

“No, we are a research team,” she said, going on to ask: “What do you guys most like about being design partners?”

“I like the bags of stuff,” volunteered Zoe, referring to the collection of play materials they use to experiment with different words and patterns for the Web page in a free associative way. They talked a few minutes about what they like about the page while Ms. Druin posted their reactions on “sticky notes” on the white board under “Likes” and “Dislikes.” There weren’t many dislikes that day.

“The problem is they know the site too well,” she told visitors.

Each child keeps a written journal as well, a sort of memory book in which to experiment with prototypes of the library’s pages. Ms. Druin monitors by suggesting options, but more often by praising results. “That’s cool,” she will say often by way of encouragement.

“Jamie, you have serious energy going there,” she said at one point, noticing him scribbling rapid-fire over and over on a page with a single crayon.

Parents’ involvement is critical, too, since they are responsible for bringing and collecting their children on time each week. Scott Gilkeson, a Takoma Park computer software consultant, does it willingly, seeing the experience as good exercise for his son’s imagination and a contrast to the standard routine of a school classroom.

“Jamie was excited from the beginning. Early on, somebody in the project said, ‘We listen to what the kids say,’ and Jamie said, ‘I’m going to go where they listen to me.’”

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