Curl up with a good laptop


Online library offers children stories from around the world By Hilary Masell Oswald


Imagine this: You finally convince your child to put on her pajamas, brush her teeth and wash her face. After three glasses of water, eight extra kisses and a search for her favorite stuffed animal, you agree to read a bedtime story. Instead of heading to the bookshelf, you pick up your laptop and log onto a Web site that is gaining attention across the world: the International Children's Digital Library at

Launched in November 2002, this is a free online library of approximately 300 children's books from 45 different cultures. Four years from now, officials say the site will house 10,000 books from 100 cultures, all fully illustrated and in their original languages. Many also will be translated, offering families the opportunity to learn about the world through stories.

Building and maintaining such a library seems like a daunting task, but E. Jane White, the site's director, is unabashedly enthusiastic about her job. And she is happy to give credit for the ambitious project to a collaboration between Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive and Dr. Allison Druin of the University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Lab.

They asked: Can the digital age really fulfill its promise to provide public access to information for the benefit of everyone? They were answered with grant money and support from organizations across the globe, including the Library of Congress, the National Science Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany, and the International Board of Books for Youth to give birth to the International Children's Digital Library.

All they had to do then was convince authors, illustrators and publishers from hundreds of cultures in dozens of languages to contribute their work to a free digital library. "We are like fishermen," White says, "we cast our nets widely, and we pull up all kinds of treasures." Those treasures include stories from Croatia and the Philippines, and in all five of the Pacific Island languages.

The International Youth Library in Munich, which was built in after World War II, contributes many books; so do many national institutes of children's literature. White says she merely asks nations and cultural groups to contribute books that symbolize the lives of their citizens—and they eagerly agree.

Publishers have little to lose and might have something to gain, White says. The library provides publishers with information on a relatively uncharted way of presenting books. Some of the most beloved books in the collection—such as Gerald McDermott's Sunflight, the most popular of the bunch—are out of print. The library might just reconnect publishers and authors, especially if information indicates there are still avid readers of certain titles, she says.

Those readers are often children. So, young researchers are invited to come twice a week after school and for a two-week summer session at the University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Lab to help identify stories that should be online.

Adult researchers learned students tend to categorize books by the color of the cover or the feeling the books give. The International Children's Digital Library now allows users to search for books by cover color or by emotion. Users can also find books by selecting a certain language, genre, or region of the world. Sunflight, for example, can be found by searching for books in "make-believe books," "orange," "scared" or "Europe."

The site is just a lot of fun to visit. However, White and her colleagues continue to build it because they want these stories in the hands of children all over the world, she says. And it is perhaps the most practical way to share literature.

"Despite the fact that it might sound counter-intuitive at first—to put a library online for the world to read—the response from developing countries has been very encouraging. They are more likely to have access to computers with 56K dial-up connections than they are to have the resources for building large, physical libraries," White says.

The International Children's Digital Library offers children and their families an opportunity to discover stories that tickle the imagination and learn about other children's lives.

"There is something marvelous about knowing that a site exists that really and truly relies on the integrity of all nations to contribute stories that reflect their cultures," White says.


-- Hilary Masell Oswald is a writer living in Naperville.


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