Cell phone book club vision excites school librarian Njabulo Tazibona in Zimbabwe: How he can make it reality

njabuloWhile U.S. librarians mull over LibraryCity's proposal for cell phone book clubs, an African librarian already is gung ho about the possibilities if he can win over his stakeholders.

"The Cellphone Book Club is a very noble idea," writes Njabulo Tazibona, the school librarian and media center teacher at St. Columba's High School in a suburb of Bulawayo, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe borders South Africa and several other countries and was formerly the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. The photo below shows Bulawayo's central business district.

Bulawayo_CBD"As a young and tech-savvy librarian," Mr. Tazibona tells me after learning of the cell phone book club idea through LinkedIn, "I have and continue to advocate the use of technology to promote literacy across all possible areas--be it at school, work or home."

The numbers are on Mr. Tazibona's side. Sub-Saharan Africa is a hotspot for expansion of cell phone tech and cell phone reading. Mobile internet use in that region will almost double from 76,000 terabyte in June 2014 to 147,000 next year, according to an estimate in a Nigerian business magazine, which spotlights the literacy potential. Even allowing for optimism in the statistics, cell phones clearly are on the fast track.

And backing up Mr. Tazibona's faith in cell phones as literacy-boosters, a study for UNESCO found that parents commonly read to young children from the phones. See a YouTube summing up the study. Parents, of course, are the young people's main role models, and the children benefit even when adults read on their own.

So how else could cell phone book clubs promote literacy, technology, community and family? Check out the full proposal if you're a latecomer.

But in a nutshell, the club vision recognizes how ubiquitous cell phones have become and how the tech will be better and better for reading and other purposes--thanks to sharper, bigger screens and the advent of phablets, or cell phones almost as large as small tablets.

Not everyone will read off a phone or digitally in any way, far from it. Also, cell phones make lousy textbook replacements because navigation can be difficult and they can't do justice to detailed photos and other illustrations. But as a means to enjoy e-books in other ways, phones are already the main show in much of the world--hence, the focus on "cell phone" in the club names. Significantly, even recreational reading  can boost academic performance,

The clubs wouldn't just promote literacy through book-related posters and otherwise. They would also encourage smart use of technology to bring communities together, and parents would learn how to use programs such as Screen Time Parental Control to discourage children from Facebooking or YouTubing instead of doing schoolwork. It would be easier for families to be families. Zimbabwe does not come with quite all the media distractions that the U.S. does. But why not address those problems from the very start, taking local circumstances into consideration?

"The idea could work," Mr. Tazibona says, "but it will need a lot of buy in from people/stakeholders and to a certain extent funding.

"Zimbabwe isn't that advanced technologically, and some of the gadgets, especially Kindles, are not widely available and if there are very expensive.

"As for smartphones, almost everyone has one since people text or 'app'...every second," Mr. Tazibona tells me.

"App" refers to WhatsApp, which Facebook recently bought for $19B. No mystery why, it would appear from a Zimbabwean perspective.

"Cellphone Book Clubs," Mr. Tazibona tells me, "are very possible as people can discuss books on App, Facebook and even Twitter." Exactly! All of these services run on a variety of devices. When bandwidth is sufficient--don't expect this to be the norm in Africa soon, though it will be someday--clubs can even do two-way video with people at home. In the post outlining the cell phone book club vision, LibraryCity told how the all-digital BiblioTech library in Bexar County, Texas, was Webcasting and recording its book club meetings by way of the video capabilities of Google Hangouts.

"At my own school library," Mr. Tazibona says, "I have advocated the use of social media to try and promote literacy, and an e-book club is one of the reasons I included in my proposal to the school authorities--the headmistress and deputy headmaster.

"I'm hoping that if this becomes a reality, I will write a paper and present it at our next library association meeting so as to encourage others to do the same."

Here's one way for the "reality" to come to Columba High School sooner than expected. Find out what models of cell phones the students are using. If they are smartphones--for example, Android models--then existing e-book programs like Moon+ Reader and FBReader will work. Free books can be downloaded from the Internet or else loaded into their memories in other ways, so students don't have to pay Net-related charges.

And if the phones are not "smart"? Even then, they might still contain Web browsers and be able to read files in HTML or .txt format from Project Gutenberg and other sources.

If the cell phones can permanently store downloaded files or can at least can accept plug-in memory cards readable on the browsers, then the students will be all set for offline reading--as long as the books are public domain titles or others without digital rights management.

In Mr. Tazibona's place, I would download a file for a CD or DVD full of classics from Project Gutenberg or else obtain a disc by mail. Or I would simply get files of individual books from Gutenberg.org. Listings for virtually all titles contain links to HTML and .txt versions.

He or tech-savvy students could then copy the Gutenberg books from a school desktop to students' phones. Might the copying service in fact be part of a cell phone book club that the school started?

Yes, all this would take time at first. But what was laborious originally would be a quick piece of cake after Mr. Tazibona and the students gained experience.

The rewards would be worth it. Gutenberg even has a CD of just old science fiction titles. As for modern books, Gutenberg offers at least some free ones, legally, and so does Feedbooks (modern originals here, free classics here). A program like Calibre could convert Feedbooks titles to HTML or .txt.

Perhaps a student or a faculty or staff member from a local college or university could help with the technical details if need be.

In addition, I have referred Mr. Tazibona to Worldreader, mentioned earlier on the LibraryCity site. A possible source of funding and advice? Worldreader distributes not only Kindles but also reading apps that can work on even primitive phone, and it is already working with the King George VI Centre & School for disabled children, right there in Bulawayo.

Given how many U.S. teenagers own cell phones--not all of them smartphones--I'd love to see Worldreader active in the States. I tried Worldreader software. It is no Moon+ Reader Pro, but undoubtedly will be improving as the most common phone technologies do. So will the connections, aided by developments such as the movement to use TV white space for longer-distance wireless than the usual WiFi offers.

If Worldreader made a big push here in the U.S., I would recommend different software, more in keeping with the higher expectations of American users. But Zimbabwe is not the U.S.

For now, my recommendation to Mr. Tazibona would be to aim for the Kindles for the near term if the money shows up, at least for use as the students' main reading tools if they do not own smartphones.

Still, books displayed less than optimally on primitive phones are better than none at all, no matter what the country.

We can't say that every phone-related literacy strategy in African would work in the States and vice versa, but all this is worth experimenting with--especially since America is a lot of countries. What might strike out in big cities, for example, might find a place on isolated Indian reservations in Colorado.

If nothing else, think of other international angles. Instead of just reading dry geographical descriptions of Zimbabwe, students in my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, or elsewhere in the U.S., could actually communicate directly with  their cell phone book club counterparts  and learn about life in Bulawayo. Students in clubs in different countries could even read some books together and compare impressions.

Yet another welcome possibility arises. The existence of cell phone book clubs would help create a built-in audience for Zimbabwean writers and publishers promoting their books. And I don't just mean novels but also nonfiction on subjects of high interest, such as sports, an important topic for Mr. Tazibona.

So here's rooting for Mr. Tazibona in his efforts to popularize the cell phone book club idea and related ones! And if in time Zimbabwe can even start a national digital library endowment--created with local resources and needs in mind, while reading out to international benefactors for funding--then so much the better. Librarians at the  University of Zimbabwe have already recognized the benefits of digital libraries. This interest, in turn, could lead to public and academic library systems online. The more content available, the better for cell phone book clubs and e-reading in general.

Zimbabwe already enjoys the highest or at least one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, 92 percent. But the direction has not been steadily upward, and  what's wrong with aiming for 99 percent and making literate people still more literate? Cell phone book clubs would be one way to get there and would especially complement the family literacy efforts and outreach initiatives of the country's current library system.

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