The Web pages described in this article can be found at:
Computers are becoming more prevalent in every aspect of our lives and with the development of networking technology this trend seems set to increase. Schools have recognised these trends and are introducing children to computers at as early an age as possible. If children's libraries are not to be left behind and more importantly are to continue in their role as literacy supporters they must begin to develop services which will also support these new electronic literacy skills.
However, it should be stated that these new services should not be developed at the cost of their more traditional services. Print based literacy will remain important and users of networking technology will still need to be able to read and write - only the context in which this happens will have changed. New IT services therefore must complement the library's traditional services and not detract from them.
UKOLN has recognised the importance of the development of new electronic services in children's libraries and is hoping to set up a project which will explore with a number of partner libraries in the UK exactly how children's libraries can develop these new services.
What exactly is electronic literacy?
Electronic literacy consists of skills which are both familiar and different from more traditional forms of reading, writing and communication. Reading in an electronic context, for example, still involves being able to understand language, spelling and grammar but now involves a monitor instead of a book. This appears at first to be a reasonably simple change but involves some complex issues. The transition is not simply learning how to read the words off a screen but also learning to navigate the document which is being read. Moving around the document is no longer as intuitive as just turning a page. To read effectively in a computer environment the reader must be able to scroll up and down through out the document. Hypertext documents are no longer simply linear and the reader must learn how to navigate the links and understand the concept of hypertext.
New skills are also required in order to write in an electronic environment. It is essential that a would be computer user has a certain level of keyboard skills. Once the keyboard has been mastered or at least familiarised the would be writer will have to learn how to use a piece of software which allows them to write. This could be anything from the simple Notepad to a word-processing package to an e-mail package.
Both reading and writing combine to allow people to communicate and again the electronic environment is offering new forms of communication. As well as ubiquitous e-mail (which is replacing letters, faxes and phone calls) there is now the option of using Internet Relay Chat (IRC), video-conferencing or MOOs. A MOO is a text based virtual environment which is based around the concept of rooms. Visitors to the MOO can explore a collection of 'virtual' locations and chat and interact with other visitors who are logged onto the MOO.
The project which UKOLN hopes to set up will explore how children's libraries can support these electronic literacy skills but within a literature based environment. The way UKOLN has identified for doing this is through the development of a WWW site which has as its theme a piece of children's literature. This would allow the computers and networking to be introduced into the children's library but within a strong literature context. The Internet can be used to allow children to experience stories and fiction in a new context, have opportunities to communicate in new ways and consequently become motivated and enthused about reading, stories and books whilst learning new computer skills.
A specifically designed WWW site like this would act as a controlled entry point to the Internet for the children and the library. It could be carefully designed so to ensure site users have the opportunity to learn all the skills that make up electronic literacy.
Before attempting to set up a large scale project which would incorporate these ideas it was decided that it would be useful to have a 'trial run' and see whether it was possible to design such a WWW site. When UKOLN was approached by a sixteen year old student called Stephen Hill looking for a six week work placement involving the Internet it was an ideal opportunity for this trial run to take place. Stephen was an equal contributor to the WWW site and many of his ideas were incorporated into the final result.
The experimental WWW site
Treasure Island was chosen as the theme of the site. It was important for the book used for the theme to be well known, have a strong story line and have identifiable themes. Treasure Island fitted all these criteria perfectly with its exciting storyline about pirates, treasure and sailing ships. These strong themes also meant that there were likely to be a number of resources on the WWW on these topics which could link into the site.
Importantly Treasure Island was also chosen because it was out of copyright. As this was a trial run for a larger scale project it was necessary to use a text which would not be bound by complex copyright laws. As Treasure Island was published over 70 years ago it is now out of copyright. This made a very simple and convenient solution to what threatened to be a very complex and time-consuming problem. (Also all images on the WWW site were drawn by Steven and so again copyright issues were avoided).
Although Treasure Island was ideally suited for our trial run it is unlikely that we will use it again in the full scale project. The language used in the book and its age could be a barrier for many children and also it is a very male orientated story. By using a more contemporary piece (despite the copyright difficulties this will raise) there will be excellent opportunities to involve the author and publisher with the project. It will also be possible to chose a book which better reflects the interests and issues facing children today.
The site's structure and look
It was important that the site was carefully designed making it as easy to use as possible, fun and entertaining. The pages had to attract the attention of the child and interest them. They have to make visitors to the pages want to send in e-mail, explore the WWW and become more interested in the book itself.
This page shows the site's cheerful, bright and cartoon based look. These three factors make the site look fun and consequently make it more appealing. The screen shot also shows the use of frames.
As users were likely not to be Internet adept and could generally be unfamiliar with computers it was decided to use frames. In this way a frame which has icons linking back to the Treasure Island site remains down the left hand side of the screen. No matter which links the user follows and even when they follow links outside of the Treasure Island site this frame remains in place. This makes navigation extremely easy and ensures that novice users cannot get lost. We were aware that some WWW browsers do not support frames and so ensured that on the opening page it was possible to link to a no-frames version of Treasure Island.
All the pages are written in a humorous way relaxed way with the intention of bringing the characters to life. The whole feel of the pages are hopefully very fresh and entertaining and appealing to children. A great benefit of having Steven working on the project was that his age made him an ideal critic for what would and would not appeal to other teenagers and children.
The structure of the Web site
The content of the WWW site is structured into four different sections consisting of:
- The author;
- The book;
- and things to do.
The author section contains a very brief introduction to Robert Louis Stevenson and then lists other WWW sites about him. The aim was to use information available on the WWW - to link into the resources that were already available and so integrate the pages into the WWW rather than provide all the information on the page itself. If users of the page want to learn more about Robert Louis Stevenson they will have to leave the Treasure Island site and consequently will, during this process, become more familiar with how to use hypertext.
The second section, entitled the book, provides more detailed information about the story. It includes a brief plot summary, information on the characters and a link out to the whole online text (available elsewhere on the WWW). This link was included not to encourage visitors to read the book off the screen but simply because it was there and provided an interested link.
We decided early on that we would not try to make available ourselves the whole text of 'Treasure Island'. This was not simply because this would have been a time intensive task but because we wished the site to complement the book and provide information about it and make the visitor to the site want to go away and read it.
The Captain Flint page shows a page from this section of the site. Each character was given their own home page on which information was provided about their role in the book, how they are described by Stevenson and also what we imagined the characters would say if they could speak to the visitors to the site themselves. Again the idea was to make the site fun whilst passing on information about the story and the characters in it.
The third section contains links out to other WWW sites which are to do with the themes of pirates, treasure and so on. Frames are particularly useful for this section as the links will lead the users away from the Treasure Island WWW site. Again this section offers users the opportunity to become more familiar with the WWW and hypertext.
Things to do
The things to do section involves a more varied use of the communication tools that the Internet offers. One of the advantages of the Internet is the way that it allows fast communication in the form of e-mail. E-mail has, perhaps, been the most successful tool of the Internet and allows information to be exchanged quickly and informally. It was obviously important to include the use of e-mail within the site.
The book review page shows how e-mail is used to get visitors to send in a book review of Treasure Island. The visitor needs to read the book and then use e-mail to send it in - again combining the twin aims of encouraging reading (using the WWW site as a prompt) and becoming familiar with e-mail. Reviews received in this way are then added on to the WWW page so other visitors to the site can read them. In the full scale project we will hope to get the children submitting these reviews in the form of simple HTML documents.
Other pages ask visitors to e-mail in reviews of the WWW site itself and a description of a pirate they have made up themselves. Like the book review page each of these are presented as requests from the characters with the aim of bringing the book to life.
By thinking more laterally we also developed the idea of creating a quiz which could be completed on the site. This quiz requires knowledge both of the plot of the novel and information found on the WWW pages the site links to. Each question is followed by a drop down box which offers three possible answers. Once the visitor has selected an answer to each question they are then given a score. This score is presented as being calculated by Long John Silver who them a rating from the lowest of the low the 'cowardly landlubber' through to 'old seadog' to 'regular pirate' up, finally, to 'as good as Captain Flint himself'.
To complete the quiz the user must learn how to complete what is in essence a very simple online form and also move between the pages of the site. The quiz is the first example on the site of a page which was not straight forward and easy to write. In order to calculate the score achieved it is necessary to use a PERL script which involved some technical assistance.
The final type of interaction is made possible by using a MOO. The MOO as already mentioned is a text based environment where you can create rooms, characters, objects and then interact with them and more importantly with anyone else who is logged in at the same time. It is basically an open online social space which can be given a specific theme. We created a few rooms based on locations which appear in Treasure Island so making it possible to log in and explore the Island and even interact with the characters (which is dependent upon me being logged in as one of the characters).
This has all been achieved at a very low level using rooms on a MOO which was already set up by another organisation. This limited the extent to which the rooms could be developed we were only allowed to create a small number of very simple rooms. However, these rooms still allow visitors to communicate with each other in real time in an Treasure Island setting.
There are great opportunities for children's libraries in using MOOs. A MOO could be used to have a question and answer session with an author involving children from all over the country. With a higher level of programming a MOO could be developed which operated in the form of a game which required a detailed knowledge of Treasure Island for winning it e.g. making the user read the book. These games could even be completed collaboratively by children working in different libraries.
Similar interactive resources could be developed using IRC or even video conferencing.
Reaction to the site
Generally the site has been well received winning two 'site of the week awards' from major WWW education sites. In the three months the site has been available it has been visited at least over a 1000 times. Teachers and librarians have in particular been very enthusiastic about it.
One criticism which has been received is that the pages are slow to download because of the high number of graphics. Obviously a careful balance needs to be struck between a graphically appealing site (so the pages look attractive and interest the visitor) and the speed they take to download (children will not be willing to wait a long time). One solution for the full scale project will be to have the pages stored on the hard drive of the machines in the libraries which will make them much faster. The pages will still link out to the Internet but as much material as possible would be on the local drive.
Overall we have been very happy with the WWW site and the feedback we have received has encouraged UKOLN to pursue a large scale children's library Internet project. As of January 1997 this project was at the proposal writing stage. The project will be much more ambitious and is being developed in partnership with three UK city children's libraries.
The Treasure Island WWW site is definitely one way in which children's libraries can integrate the Internet into their services. It is perhaps even a model for children's library services of the future.