Should public libraries give away e-book-friendly tablets to poor people? $38 tablet hints of possibilities

NextYoung people love suitable paper books, ideally new, that they can own

Could the same idea work for econo-tablets that public libraries gave away to low-income families--with a big, fat, e-book-related icon smack in the middle of the home screens? Yes!

Don't just hand out gizmos, though.

Let the tablets come with old-fashioned encouragement from public and school librarians. Technology is no panacea. Kids should be able to own paper books, too, in fact, not just gadgets.

But e-book-capable tablets, especially with national digital library systems in place, could multiply the number of books matching students' precise needs.

Paper books could serve as gateways to E, and then children and parents could digitally follow their passions to the max, whether for spaceships, basketball, or knitting. A "quiet" feature could turn off Facebook-style distractions when tablet users wanted to focus on books. Protective rubber cases could guard against drops.

Just loaners for newbies

The tablets might be just loaners at first. You'd own one for real only after you had benefited meaningfully from an online or offline book club, or had watched and absorbed educational videos, as determined by librarians or teachers. Also, you would have to show knowledge of the the basics of the machine, especially for e-booking and finding useful information on the Web, not just entertainment sites.

Yes, the tablets should be for e-books as much as possible, rather than just YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and, ideally in time, a library social network called UsBook. But parents and children could also improve themselves through the just-mentioned educational videos. The videos could reinforce teachers and librarians' in-person tips on such topics as the best way to teach reading to a child. Librarians and public broadcasters in Colorado have already created literacy-related videos for the Web. Here's an outstanding example. "Five Plump Peas" not only teaches words but also helps parents develop children's motor skills and others.

Colorado uses videos to help teach parents to teach kids.Likewise, the videos could feature writers dear to young readers and help the children and their parents learn to use the tablets properly. Hate to read e-books on a black-on-white LCD screen? Find the background glow irritating? Well, the best e-book software lets you see white letters against a dark background if you want. Alas, typical e-book readers probably aren't aware of such a "switch," and instructional videos could make its existence known from the start.

E-book tips via videos from your friendly local public library

If nothing else, the videos could encourage parents and children to use the "quiet" feature when reading, and to change type sizes and styles to suit individual tastes. The videos also could help people cope with software crashes, inevitable with the current crop of low-cost machines. Crashes are not that big a deal if you know what to do. In addition, patrons could learn how to hook a low-cost keyboard up to their tablets for word-processing for school or work. Upscale Macs with silk-smooth responses for your fingers? Of course not. But an econo-tablet and cheapie keyboard would beat no tablet at all when an English or history paper was due, and videos could help students and other patrons master these basics.

Also, the tablets' video capabilities could enable low-income patrons to link up online with local social service agencies and health clinics, not just local public libraries--one more way to cost-justify the giveaways. They might even display full-motion pictures of agency staffers aiding the patrons, just as Amazon's May Day shows customer support people helping them. The video chats could be two-way when patrons wanted this. On top of everything else, low-income people could use the tablets for job applications and even remote interviews, as well as viewing job training videos.

In the past, tablet giveaways would not have been cost-effective, even with the various multiple uses of tablets and even with careful screening of recipients. But now $38 computers with seven-inch screens are on the way to the U.S. from Datawind, which anticipates a $20 price in two years. I've just ordered a UbiSlate 7Ci (the $38 does not include the $10 shipping), raved about by an existing user, and will write more later. I'll keep my expectations low for the display, with a resolution of 800 by 480.

Meanwhile I've tested a dual-core Nextbook from eBook Fun with 1024768-resolution on an eight-inch screen--picked up at Walmart for $100 (sometimes prices are higher), a fraction of the cost of a new iPad, even the earlier Mini models. The resolution is about the same as on an iPad One, which appeared with a 9.7-incher. The Nextbook's ballyhoo on the Walmart site includes the video shown at the start of this post, with a different opening screen shot. Here are additional details on the Nextbook and the general concept of libraries giving away tablets.

Rated an average of four stars by Walmart shoppers online, the Nextbook runs Kindle software and the included Nook app well enough for most people, and to my surprise, I can even read from images of the paper editions of Google Play e-books and move around without much delay while using the slider. Moon+ Pro Reader runs well; at least no surprises so far. Both it and Google Play Books also work with text to speech--I'd installed the Acapela speech engine and the British-accented "Peter" voice. OverDrive library software at times can be sluggish; pages don't always show up instantly on the screen. But it is still acceptable, and OverDrive's alternative cloud service works better.

No iPad but surprisingly good for the price

Granted, the Nextbook is definitely not the equivalent of a recent iPad, even by the usual standards for machines with the Android operating system. Memory is only 8GB; RAM, just 1GB; and the processor chip is a now-mediocre 1.5GB. Battery life for e-book-reading is probably only a few hours, based on others' impressions. The Nextbook runs Android 4.1, not the latest, 4.4.2, and the video camera's quality is as lousy as you'd expect. But the Nextbook does come with 802.11b/g/n WiF. Netflix and YouTube at least were very playable on the Nextbook, suggesting that, yes, this can be useful for instructional videos as long as the volume on the videos is adequate. Via the included Boat browser and Google's Chromecast (available for around $30 if you look around), I could even send an HDTV signal to a flat-screen TV. That sounds like overkill for the cash-strapped. But consider the possibility of instructional videos on large and increasingly affordable TV screens, more than a few owned  by low-income people before they became poor. I didn't test the Nextbook's HDMI plug--my adapter isn't handy at the moment--but that option is presumably usable even now.

Significantly, better and faster models of econo-tablets of various makes will be on the way, and libraries should be looking ahead and experimenting on a small scale (please don't buy thousands of Nextbooks or others, and please take it for granted that lots of lemons will be among them and arrangements with vendors should allow for this!). Walmart is selling other tablets  for as little as $50 for a four-inch model (three stars) and $58 for a seven-incher (four stars). Of course, this isn't an ad or any kind of endorsement for Walmart in any respect.  The tablet from Walmart is a major example here because the stores are so ubiquitous in the States and are in many other countries.

Let's also envision some libraries and schools buying up scads and scads of refurbished iPads. They shouldn't let vendors dictate their technological strategies and should avid chasing after the latest, greatest and most expensive technology, particularly for mass purchases. Instead our public agencies should strive to offer the most value for the tax dollar, and I see the ownership strategy as one way to do this. The creation of national digital libraries, with a wide range of e-books, apps and other items useful even to people with older machines, would help. Let patrons focus more on books, other  content and basic concepts and worry just a little less about the latest hardware. Buy recent machines for in-library use and as non-ownable loaners in the beginning (later the new will turn old--right for borrowing). However, for home use, concentrate more on getting patrons excited about what they can do with tablets and other devices of any age. They themselves can buy newer hardware when they're able to afford it for themselves. An older machine is still a good, dramatic change from nothing at all.

What's more, in the end, even newer machines, better than today's, will sell for a pittance, so old vs. new won't quite matter as much in the end. One more caveat. Don't buy old for the sake of old if support costs will be too high. If schools and libraries bought older iPads on a large enough scale, perhaps they could work with Apple and other companies to keep support infrastructure intact and security measures up to date.

Yet another possibility would be to give away inexpensive E Ink readers, which I suspect will go for well under $30 or $40 new in the next few years. In fact, libraries ideally could let patrons choose between tablets and E Ink readers.

Gadgets as promoters of the book culture

Some snobs undoubtedly will be aghast at the prospect of plebes enjoying e-books, especially on less-than-the-most-modern machines made for Walmart shoppers. So be it. The idea here is to encourage young people and their role models, their parents, to read and learn and otherwise improve their lives (even if the hardware isn't in the luxury class). This thinking almost surely is in line with the opinions of a prominent U.K. research who recommends e-books as as one way to spur children to read and thus boost their academic achievement in general.

Despite all the laments on the decline of the book culture--and, yes, I agree with the warnings despite many encouraging new developments, such as the creation of some very smart book blogs, some written by professional reviewers--it is not too late for libraries to play a prominent role in restoration of the culture to full strength. Experiments with giveaway e-book devices should be on the laundry list of corrective steps. Just make certain that the devices come with access to the right content and with an abundance technical support from librarians or, on technical matters, vendors or nonprofits. And if arrangements can be made with cable companies or other Internet providers for connectivity at home, not just the library, then so much the better. Unlike so many of the well-off literati, low-income people lack time to visit libraries constantly in person, especially if they are juggling multiple jobs or are just too plain fatigued from work, as is so often the case. In particular, the sick and disabled--two categories overlapping often with "poor"--suffer when libraries neglect patrons beyond their walls.

Perhaps groups such as Reading is Fundamental could participate with libraries in the borrow-and-own programs for the tablets. Donations from multiple companies--let's not turn this into simply a promotion program for one vendor like Amazon, despite all the potential positives--might also be useful as a start. Furthermore, if the cable companies take an interest and provide tablets as part of their connectivity programs while addressing the programs' current shortcomings, I am fine with the PR benefits they'll reap. But kids and families first! Societal benefits ahead of promo, please.

Related: Jim Duncan, Colorado Library Consortium executive director, speaks out in LibraryCity series on public libraries and the Digital Public Library of America, as well as The nuts and bolts of using tablet computers, e-libraries, and family literacy initiatives to encourage young children to read and How to get the most out of library e-books via the right gadget, text to speech, and otherwise.

Note: This is a "first edition," with further proofing to come. Two other matters. I've just noticed an RCA nine-inch tablet selling for about $90 with a later version of Android, although the screen resolution isn't as good as the Nextbook's. Battery life could be longer, though.  Also, I'll welcome possible feedback from other countries, especially India, where people have so laudably worked toward ultra-low-cost tablets.

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