Cell phone book clubs: A new way for libraries to promote literacy, technology, family and community

textgirl2A friend of mine in his 40s is about to start teaching in Houston, Texas, and he recently shared a discovery.

Many teenagers in Houston tote cell phones, but don't know they can read library e-books for free on their phones. This would jibe with a 2012 poll showing similar ignorance among Americans at large.

A bigger issue also comes up. Just how much do young people care about books in the first place? Americans 15-19 spend only about four minutes reading for fun on a typical weekend day. Too bad. Students who love books are more likely to excel in school. So says a major U.K. study. This is hardly news to countless librarians, teachers and other literacy experts, including fellow researchers, and overlaps to a great extent with conclusions from a Nevada academic.

Now, what about students' mothers and fathers? Many parents could also benefit by reading more and serving as better role models for their offspring. The more words they know and speak to all their children--not just babies--the better. The actual content is just the start. Otherwise the books, especially the digital variety, will probably go unread.

In the right cities and neighborhoods, could the time have come for the creation of "cell phone book clubs" with a multi-generational approach to woo parents, not just texting teens like the one shown in the photo? Dr. Elizabeth Hoover, a former teacher, now chief technology officer for the public schools in my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, sees potential in the basic idea, as a LibraryCity video makes clear.

DrHooverVideoScreenShotCell phone book clubs could promote both reading and the knowledgeable use of the related technology. As I'll show, they could even help strengthen communities and families.

In some cases libraries might lend out easy-to-use Kindles and other e-readers to get technophobes started, then help them install the software on their cell phones, which are the rule rather than the exception in so many U.S. cities today. The rise of phablets, big phones approaching tablets in size, will only add to the popularity of this reading platform. A new phablet from Apple is rumored. And I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon, too, came out with a phablet of its own in time, now that it's making a big push in the cell phone area. May it do so! The more suppliers, the better.

Even phablets can't optimally display textbooks, particularly the kind with detailed illustrations. But they will be knockouts for the recreational reading so helpful to students' intellectual development.

Here's another caveat. Cell phones must not be the only way to enjoy or learn from books and other items. Especially I'm not suggesting that libraries toss out rare old editions or stop lending paper books to young mothers for them to read to their children. Still, cell phones could be a godsend as literacy-spreaders.

Many millions of young people carry them--for example, 78 percent of teens--and there is nothing wrong with using "Cell Phone" in the club names to grab their attention. The best phones for reading are smartphones powerful enough to run a variety of applications, including widely available software that displays e-books. And smartphones now make up 56 percent of the U.S. cell phone market.

Beyond the usual library habitues

ugandaposterThe cell phone book clubs wouldn't simply go after existing library habitues--among whom males are badly underrepresented--or limit themselves to library buildings.

Colorful posters promoting books would appear also on the walls at recreation centers and the common areas of public housing projects. People could even call up books instantly by scanning in QR codes from the posters, as is happening in Uganda (photo).

The clubs might show movies of free public domain novels like Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and of other widely available titles from the OverDrive service and the like. They could also serve pizza and other goodies and hold costume parties, and as one core activity, the clubs could let young people and parents discuss books face to face--both together and separately--rather than just online.

Local celebrities, including, yes, book-minded public officials, could talk up their favorite titles, and the clubs could also feature local writers of books meaningful to attendees.

Star athletes and coaches could discuss sports biographies and "how-to" sports books, and local police officers could drop in to discuss crime books. The politicians could dissect political memoirs and debate each other about both the books and local, state and national issues. Similarly local business people and others could offer their takes on business books.

People could even do two-way video from home or in other library branches or recreation centers if WiFi connections were robust enough.

Library patrons in Bexar County, Texas, which includes the city of San Antonio, are already enjoying book clubs from the all-digital BiblioTech library, via Google Hangouts. No need to leave their easy chairs. Imagine the benefits for invalids and the elderly, while others can still go to the clubs in person.

Although librarians could start the clubs and take care of the day-to-day details--aided by volunteers and perhaps teachers if the means were found to pay for the latter--the organizations should try to bring in low-income people as advisors to be sensitive to their needs. Too many library activities in countless U.S. cities happen at hours inconvenient to the poor. Let's seek out their feedback from the start. And the same for other groups of patrons, including the regulars favoring New York Times bestsellers or literary novels.

Public libraries and their book clubs, however, need to try much harder to appeal to a number of segments of the community beyond just existing book-lovers. Of Americans responding to an ALA-commissioned poll in 2011, only 58 percent of men reported visiting a library in the year past, compared to 72 percent of women. And women outnumber men even more in book clubs, based on what I've noticed informally.

Library marketers should be more cognizant of gender differences and adjust their strategies. Even the vocabularies of men reveal oft-different interests. Cell phone book clubs shouldn't pander to gender stereotypes, and, in fact, they should encourage bright girls to seek careers in computer science. But they could also do something else. The clubs should help libraries reach boys and men--by associating book reading with tech--while also serving female patrons better and strengthening families and communities to the benefit of everyone.

Curbing cell phone abuse among the young

dailylimitHow could the clubs help families?

Well, here's just one example, ignoring others such as the use of cell phones and face-to-face activities to impart traditional parenting skills.

Librarians and volunteers for the clubs could teach parents how to use apps such as Screen Time Parental Control and Screen Time Remote Control to restrict their children's cell phone use. Phone companies often provide controls. But they tend not to be precise enough. That's unfortunate. Cell phones and social media at their worst are the new TVs, distractors from students' school work, as well as frequent enablers of cyberbullying.

Via Screen Time, parents can curtail their kids' Facebooking and other recreational activities, but still allow an unlimited number of hours for e-book reading on phones.  Notice the checkmark in the screenshot after the Facebook icon, and the absence of one after Google Play Books? The message to kids can then be, "Read X number of books, and you can get in more Facebook posts and YouTubes." While not every mother or father will go for this strategy--let's not make use of Screen Time the law!--it should be available for parents desiring it. As children got older, or as rewards for good grades, parents could always relax the daily limits on recreational cell phone-use.

Granted, apps like Screen Time are not foolproof. It did not count Netflix minutes when I used Chromecast to fling the signal from my cell phone to a flat-screen TV. Still, Screen Time works well enough to suffer a much-less-than-perfect rating of 3.7 out of 5 stars in the Google Play Store because so many young people down-rate this nemesis of theirs. At the very least, apps like Screen Time can serve as a handy reminder that parents care about their children's schoolwork. What's more, if a student abuses a particular application, such as one for a cell phone camera, Screen Time can block it entirely. It can also curtail or ban cell phone use during school hours and forbid it near and after bedtime.

Within restrictions that parents select, Screen Time does not get in the way of the overall Android experience. And that's important. It is good to see students--especially girls and members of minorities--revved up about technology. Some might even want to learn to create applications themselves, and cell phone book clubs could bring in tech-oriented speakers to educate them and stoke their ambitions.

The clubs could also help deal with the issue of cyberbullying on Facebook and elsewhere, which cell phones at their worst can aggravate. Parents need to encourage children to report cyberbullying, and the fathers and mothers of the offenders should understand the consequences of the bullying and know how to pressure their offspring to stop it.

More details on Screen Time for Android and Apple phones are here. Perhaps better apps are out there. But if nothing else, Screen Time shows how cell phone clubs could educate parents to limit and otherwise refine their offspring's cell phone use and teach other phone-related tricks.

In addition, the clubs could teach how to protect against cell phone theft. And they could provide safety tips to people who wanted to listen to text to speech or audio books when driving or jogging. When to do it? When not to, because the roads or the jogging routes are too hazardous? Given that many jogging paths are also bike routes, beware of listening to e-books and not hearing a cyclist approach from the rear. Techie bachelors might laugh at the safety concerns. Parents won't.

E-book literacy: A "must" for cell phone book clubs to teach

The clubs also could pass on tips on matters such as selection and use of e-book hardware (including phones) and the related software. Librarians love phrases such as "information literacy." But how about another one--e-book literacy?

E-book savvy can make a huge difference in enjoyment of digital books. The issue for patrons isn't just ignorance of libraries' e-book offerings.

Most also don't know how to download e-books or browse digital libraries efficiently, so that, for example, they can see only the OverDrive books currently available for  checkout without a waiting period. The real solution would be better-designed online libraries. But with e-book literacy campaigns, plenty can happen even now.

Other e-book literacy issues arise. Many patrons, I suspect, don't even know how to search for a word or bookmark or highlight text. And how to deal with the issue of links, so that they can increase understanding of content, as opposed to merely distracting the reader or steering her off-course? Or use search capabilities and the other special features of e-book technology to help critically analyze a nonfiction book or read between the lines of a novel? And could it be that in some instances the small screen of a cell phone will let the reader focus more closely on the material? How best to take advantage of this?

There's also the tricky matter of picking the right e-book reading software in the first place. While this proposal for cell phone book clubs isn't a software or hardware guide, let me give you some examples of the nuances that many librarians are missing. We begin with OverDrive library software for consuming e-books and other media. It has improved markedly in recent years but is still not the optimal app for everyone. For example, it lacks text to speech capabilities.

One alternative is Mantano Premium, costing a mere $5 from the Google Play Store (a less powerful free version is also available). Mantano works with text to speech on Adobe-DRMed library books from OverDrive. English language learners can especially benefit from TTS even though it is no substitute for parents reading to children--ideally among the top goals of cell phone clubs. Mantano leaves Kindle software in the dust in terms of font choices or the ability to add all-text bolding or otherwise improve the reading experience for many. For public domain books or privately purchased ones without DRM, the best choice for many sophisticated readers would be the well-regarded Moon+ Reader Pro, another $5 program, likewise offered for free in a less powerful version.  Moon can't handle DRM but offers TTS and scads of font options and can display books in the popular ePub format.

How many typical librarians, alas, even know of the existence of Mantano, Moon+ Reader Pro, the DRM-capable Aldiko and other apps that might be better suited for individual patrons' needs? Precious few, I'd daresay. The popularization of the cell phone book clubs would help change this and also help create a demand for more flexible e-reading software from Amazon and other major companies. Come on, Amazon. I read more easily with heavier fonts, and when I owned and edited the TeleRead site, I spent years publicly asking you to offer all-text bolding as an option on your e-readers and within your apps. No luck, perhaps because you've favored a KISS approach to keep support costs downs. But what if phone clubs educated readers to expect more and got them more interested in e-reading in the first place--not just the library kind but also the bookstore variety, as a way around library waiting lists?

In the hardware area, too, librarians should avoid one-size-for-all approaches act as if they are helping patrons find the right hearing aids.

People will fare better with individual "fittings." If a patron complains of glare from a cell phone or tablet, for example, why can't a librarian pull out a Kindle Paperwhite or other E Ink machine with "front lighting," which softly shines on the "paper" rather than at the human reader directly? E Ink is even starting to show up in cell phones these days. The first models are dodgy but the tech will only get better. Besides, E Ink cases for LCD phones are about to hit the market.

Also, with proper guidance, most people can deal with the glare issue on LCD phones and other glowing mobile devices.

For example, if the software allows--this is true of Mantano and OverDrive apps--they can use my beloved boldface on all text. That, in turn, will allow a lower level of LCD backlighting and thus let you run your gizmo longer before you must recharge the battery. Some e-book fans sensitive to light even have grown accustomed to reading white words against a black background. Many considerate spouses use this combination anyway when their husbands or wives want to sleep and they themselves want to squeeze in more reading.

Do you see all the possibilities here for librarians helping patrons read e-books more easily, without or without the inevitable advances in technology? Of course, the best way for librarians to become e-book literacy experts is to read E themselves and look for solutions personally, as opposed to writing off digital books because of the eyestrain issue or any other. We are talking about access to books and knowledge.

Why library guru S. R. Ranganathan would have loved cell phone book clubs

While academics endlessly debate the finer points of e-books vs. paper, they all too often forget S. R. Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science in regard to access and related matters.

As the main precepts of modern librarianship, Ranganathan's laws have inspired the cell phone book club idea and others such as LibraryCity's proposal for a  national digital library endowment, featured recently in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Law #1: "Books are for use." Yes, use cell phone book clubs and other strategies to spread them around.

Law #2: "Every reader his [or her] book." Imagine all the thousands of books online beyond a library's physical holdings! And librarians and good search engines can help connect people and books. So can social media associated with the cell phone book clubs and other library services.

Law #3: Every book its reader." See the possibilities associated with Law #2.

Law #4: "Save the time of the reader." Download a favorite without having to drive to the library, even though plenty else can await you there if librarians are doing their jobs right--from story-hours and book clubs to lessons in 3D printing.

Law #5: "The library is a growing organism." E means libraries can expand patrons' choices without building expensive additions. And the endowment concept could kick-start the library e-book market and thus increase librarians' bargaining power with publishers, so that libraries finally could take advantage of the economies of e-books. The publishers themselves would win through expansion of both the library market and the demand for retail books.

While the cell phone book club idea could be important in its own right, it is part of a much broader vision in the spirit of Ranganathan, especially the idea of national digital library endowment and separate but tightly intertwined public and academic systems online.

About the name "cell phone book club"

But why call the groups "cell phone book clubs," if they offer plenty beyond books? Well, I myself see books--at least good ones--as among the best promoters of sustained thought. You can even think of library books as an anti-crime measure. Note the success of literature programs that increase the self-awareness and empathy of adult offenders, all of which ties in with recent research suggesting that good novels might make you a better person.

Alas, many librarians are eager to toss out books as a calling card. Wrong!

Books remain one of the biggest reasons why Americans, particularly members of minorities, patronize libraries in the first place. Cell phone book clubs would be especially useful during the summer, when students from poor families normally regress academically.

While I've prefaced "books club" with "cell phone," there is no need for the latter phrase in cities where other names would be better. Libraries could still offer cell phone book clubs as simply one option; most book clubs if desired could still be plain "book clubs." And even within cell phone book clubs, people could read on tablets and dedicated e-readers like Kindles--or read off paper. But cell phones are the technology of choice for many women, poor people and members of minorities, if we think of hours they spend talking, texting and otherwise using them.

So why can't smartphones--generally more affordable than tablets and desktop computers--also house people's digital bookshelves of both borrowed and owned books?

Thumbs up from a street-smart teacher

I tested the cell phone book club idea on Aixa Dengate, a bright, mostly Hispanic teacher of special-ed who lives in the Old Town section of Alexandria--Amazon's reading city #1, which really isn't. While Ms. Dengate  teaches in nearby Fairfax County, she gets around Alexandria and has been studying our city for her classes at George Mason University. Like me, she was appalled by the recent $25K cut from the book budget of the Alexandria library system, the topic of her recent commentary in the Alexandria Times.

Ms. Dengate gives the cell phone book club idea a thumbs-up if executed well with cultural and community factors in mind. She is aware of the massive influx of Central Americans in Northern Virginia and notes the language-related challenges of many of the newcomers and their lack of a tradition of book learning in their families. Students in the Alexandria school system together speak more than 100 languages. Their parents have come here for a variety of reasons. Some have fled wars and other threats to their safety, but they and many others also see the U.S. as a place to own big-screen TVs and, yes, fancy cell phones.

Along the way, as Ms. Dengate wisely reminded me, the clubs could provide opportunities for community, for neighbors to get to know and help each other, rather than simply being settings for self-improvement. Exactly! For example, cell phone clubs could promote use of services such as Nextdoor--perhaps even one of a kind--which offers easy-to-use cell phone apps. Via the apps or regular e-mail, neighbors could swap tips on childcare or find baby sitters or learn about crimes in and near their homes.

In a similar community vein, teenagers could bring younger children up to speed on both reading and technology and help them associate the latter with the former. The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy has been promoting the kids-tutoring-other-kids approach, and perhaps the Alexandria public schools could give credits or other kinds of recognition to T.C. Williams High School students who helped younger children. T. C. students could themselves use cell phones to augment their recreational reading on tablets or at times free them up for their parents' use.

Jibing with the community approach, ethnic and religious organizations could be allies in the cell phone book club movement. Libraries could show them how to set up their own cell phone clubs. Same for groups of individuals who simply happen to be friends. Here in Alexandria, the library commendably lends "kits" of paper books to people who want to start their own p-book clubs.

Actual books and written suggestions, however, should be just part of the equation.

Both paper book clubs and the digitally oriented variety won't get off the ground without promotion and enough attractions, such as movies, to draw people in. That will mean enough money to pay for library staffers to go about these duties and also provide the content. One way to lessen costs, of course, would be to use the already-mentioned  volunteers as promoters and as tech and literacy coaches. The city might even pay students over the summer to help promote the cell phone book clubs. Furthermore, how about teaming up with high schools and colleges to come up with promotional materials? Just look at the hip video that film-making students at Harlandale High School created for the all-digital BiblioTech library in Bexar County, Texas. Who better to understand K-12 students than other students?

Also, I can see local online publications partnering with public library systems to publicize the activities of the clubs-just as the clubs themselves could help make young people more aware of local media. A win for all! There might even be media-oriented cell phone book clubs, one way to discover and develop new talent.

Not for every city or every reader, but definitely worth considering

Granted, cell phone book clubs may not be right for every town. Perhaps patrons in exceptional places are already up to speed on the tech and use of library e-books, and beyond that, existing programs may already be performing the functions of cell phone book clubs. So let me talk up the idea in a generic way rather than saying every city must have them.

Still, Ms. Dengate's observations remind us that major literacy problems and related challenges are alive and well here in Alexandria despite Amazon's bizarre hype about us as America's "most well-read" city, and we'd better do something--some mothers cannot even perform  elementary school math. More than half of the city's K-12 students qualify for free or reduced-priced student lunches.

TaIking to local public librarians in Alexandria, I was pleased to find them at least open to the consideration of cell phone book clubs, once the library system has mulled over the results of a needs survey. I suspect that many people in Alexandria  hold library cards, but don't use libraries regularly. They may not be sufficiently on the radar. I was pleased to learn from Renee DiPilato, the library system's deputy director, that the libraries used both quantitative and qualitative methodology in the survey and among other things "used both mobile and landlines" and "nine focus groups." Cell phone book clubs could fit in with existing library programs and boost library-book circulation, which, even with a number of well-off "power readers" to raise the average in Alexandria, is only mediocre following years of underfunding for content.

Very much on the positive side, the Alexandria libraries are offer e-book petting zoos, a concept that cell phone book clubs could adopt. People can try out the technology and get questions answered. Lynda Rudd, the technical services director who herself reads e-books on cell phones, tells me that the libraries draw many fewer requests from cell phone users for tech assistance than from owners of Kindle-style e-book readers and of tablets. Ms. Rudd believes that  the phone people in this case are a savvy bunch on the whole, and I can see her point. Shopping for a smartphone, they know ahead of time what they want to do on it--including, it would appear, read e-books.

'Face to face' as a way to reach a different kind of cell phone owner

But I have in mind a different kind of cell phone owner or prospective owner, who might not think of calling or visiting a library to get advice on e-book reading, especially since they are not book readers in the first place.

Without prompting, the same kind of reader is unlike to partake of the virtual book clubs on platforms such as Goodreads, especially if a library system has not localized the digital clubs (check out the Bexar BiblioTech E-Book Club within Goodreads). Food and neighborliness and other lures could draw them into face-to-face book clubs and later the virtual kind. Or in some cases, online could encourage visits in person.

MobileRead, a leading e-book community, is one good indication of the synergies here between on- and offline. Its site abounds with virtual forums. And yet their members--from Paris, France, to Phoenix, Arizona--also have engaged in "meet-ups," face to face. For that matter, a commercial service named Meetup hasn't fared so badly, not with more than 13 million claimed members. The idea is to bring together local people with common interests to "learn something, do something, share something." Such a goal overlaps with the community approach Ms. Dengate and I have in mind for the cell phone  book clubs, and a mix of face to face and the Google Hangouts could go a long way, especially with use of a Nextdoor-style service (what a great built-in way to alert people of club gatherings!).

I can see cell phone book clubs as operating not just at the local but also the hyperlocal level. They could focus on specific geographical area, as well as on age groups within them, even though different generations could still come together when a book or other topic was right. You're heard of hyperlocal news sites for news, down even to the neighborhood level.  Now think of the idea of hyperlocal librarianship and of cell phone book clubs as one form of the concept (note: I do see at least one previous use of the term--in fact, a second as well).

Before a library system poured money into a citywide or countywide push for the clubs, librarians and volunteers could patiently experiment with the concept for one neighborhood and thoughtfully refine the idea before spending more.  A highly localized needs survey would be a good first step.  Take it for granted that mistakes will happen, including major ones. Just start small, learn, then change. Expand to more neighborhoods once the basics are worked out. And whatever you do, make sure you have a mobile-friendly Web presence for the library as a whole and especially for the cell phone clubs. Give the clubs special pages highlighting the  content and services of greatest interest.

From the beginning, the cell phone book clubs should work with local educators in terms of promotion as well as selection of featured books. Libraries should reach out to educators and volunteers and, in time, to employers, once the programs are at full scale. Just like software teams, cell phone book clubs could be company activities when appropriate. Clubs might also start in nursing homes, on military bases and in other special institutional settings.

Interestingly, the club concept might also fit in with the Little Free Library idea, under which a civic-minded booklover sets up a little box where neighbors can deposit books and also borrow them (video here). Perhaps in some poorer neighborhoods, the same boxes could house WiFi hotspots to simplify access to the virtual components of the clubs. And if nothing else, the boxes could point people to the bigger collections of books available through library systems, as well as special forums where L.F.L. neighbors could share comments on individual titles, either publicly or just for their neighbors. Here's to reading in any format!

For families who can't even afford the usual cell phone arrangements

Economic barriers needn't prevent anyone from joining a cell phone book club. As noted, even many disadvantaged people and their children carry around phones--the better for the kids to stay in touch with mom and dad when the parents are juggling around multiple jobs.

Still, let's suppose the worst possible scenarios, such as in the poverty-stricken Black Belts of rural Alabama and Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. One way or another, we should buy smartphones or make them available for free or on extended loan for the poorest of the poor. Phones fit for reading books sell for less than $100 new on Amazon, and beyond that, remember that smartphones can usable with WiFi, including Skype voice, even if the owners lack subscriptions to the usual phone services.

I see several possible ways to get phones to the very poorest people:

1. Telephone companies could recycle used phones for tax breaks and perhaps make free or discounted subscriptions available.

If low-income parents couldn't afford phones for themselves and their children, they could receive them for free or at least for an extended loan, just as some homeless people in California do, complete with texting capabilities. Other people making less than about $14,000 qualify as well. Perhaps the day will even come when tech-savvy educators and librarians have a new rallying cry: "One tablet and one cell phone per child!"

As for actual phone service, many low-income people throughout the U.S. could qualify for discounted service through the FCC's Lifeline program. Like discounted broadband from Comcast and competitors, this is not a total solution. I'm no sure if the Lifeline site even mention data plans; I couldn't find any in a search. Do they even exist at the national level for qualifying individuals? Still, this basic phone assistance is better than nothing at all and in medical emergencies could literally be a lifesaver. If nothing else, library and school hotspots could be a fallback for e-book downloads. Update: All this assumes that Lifeline will continue. I'm not sure, given recent changes at the FCC.

2. Library systems in affluent areas could set up programs aimed at the gadget-crazed, under which they could buy current hardware, keep it for a short time, then donate the gizmos to the local library system for local use. It's easy to return Apple and Android phones to factory settings, so the phones work as if no one owned them before.

3. There could be direct donations of popular phones, easy for librarians or volunteers to wipe out and install e-reading-related apps and other useful ones.

4. A national digital library endowment could work with local library systems to experiment with giveaways, either directly or by facilitating the work of others in this area. Perhaps it could pay for software for librarians, volunteers or others to install on donated phones.

Cell phone clubs as narrowers of the digital divide in other ways

No, I don't see cell phones as full closers of the digital divide. They are great for many people for recreational reading, especially of fiction, but should not replace laptops or desktops for heavier-duty school use. You can't as easily fill out a job application on a cell phone as on a laptop or tablet. Speeds tend to be lower. And carriers have hurt the poor, minorities and others by cutting back on unlimited data access plans. Furthermore, although recent cell phones are great for videos, you can't create text on them as easily as on other devices.

Even so, to become a good writer, it helps to be a good reader, and in this and other ways, cell phone book clubs could help endlessly. If nothing else, remember that libraries provide desktop computers and broadband connections. In this respect, special kudos to Alexandria officials despite their miserliness toward purchases of library books. They have been beefing up Alexandria's library system with strong broadband. I suspect the librarians at the Beatley Branch wouldn't cotton too well to every patron streaming Netflix at once, but when I tested the WiFi there, the service worked well.

If only top-notch and extra-affordable broadband could make it into all of America's poorer neighborhoods, and not just their libraries! Much-touted discount programs from Comcast and others are better than nothing but are a long way from full solutions, especially for low-income people without children in school. And what about residents of rural areas lacking good broadband from any company? Furthermore, the recent idea of WiFi hotspot giveaways to poor people is wonderful but is hardly a permanent solution.

Perhaps, however, the cell phone book club concept can help create a demand for ubiquitous WiFi or variants from cities and counties.

State laws have often thwarted plans for municipal or county WiFi, and I congratulate FCC Chair Tom Wheeler for wanting to preempt these lobbyist-created abominations (more details here). We're not talking Washington abstractions here. The more universal we make broadband, the more useful the cell phone book club model will be as a literacy-promoter and community-enhancer for public libraries.

Needless to say, although I've focused here on the United States, many of the same concepts might work out with suitable modifications in other countries, including those aided by the World Reader program.

Note: I have reversed the planned order of postings. I was originally going to focus on the one-tablet-per-student program at Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School and talk up the related possibilities for closer cooperation between school and public libraries. That's still on tap for sometime in July. I reordered the articles simply because I wanted to acquaint you first with the details of the cell phone idea, so the possibilities for the school would be in context. Meanwhile consider the above a "first edition," since I'll undoubtedly be making tweaks. Suggestions, corrections and other feedback are welcomed from librarians, educators, parents, young people, and anyone else! If you want to reach me directly, I'm at dr@librarycity.org and 703-370-6540.

Update, July 15, 2014: Freshened the information on E Ink phones and added a reference to possible FCC changes in regard to Lifeline.

Update, July 19, 2014: Here's a great technical tip from Bill Smith, a science fiction writer: "For low-income families, public domain or freely available e-books without DRM can be converted to plain text or HTML via Calibre... and then loaded onto a memory card and read in many low-end 'Feature phones.' These simple phones are often just $20-30, most have a web browser and if it has a memory card slot, you can load the books onto the card and read in the web browser. It is a very low-cost entry level for e-book reading." What's more, you can buy a used smartphone for well under $50 and enjoy superior e-reading programs such as the incredible Moon+ Reader. Moon's all-bold mode could be especially useful for low-quality screens.

Editor's note - this article was re-published with permission from the Library City blog.