Six Social Publishing Challenges

Getting books into the hands of children is vital if kids are to learn to read. But there are many significant challenges facing those who wish to build a nation of story-readers and story-tellers. Five of these challenges are:

  1. Affordability – the average storybook in a book shop is expensive and many caregivers / parents find that children’s books are priced beyond their means.
  2. Diversity – storybooks often don’t reflect the multiple cultures, different family types and range of heritages.
  3. Home languages – when children learn to read, the should be doing so in their home languages but storybooks are not published in all the vernacular languages
  4. Distribution – making storybooks available, especially in remote areas, is a logistical challenge.
  5. Emerging writers – if we are to address some of the above challenges, then we also need to grow our own young authors..

Social Publishers are publishers who create reading materials for neglected audiences. Rather than operate on a profit basis, these publishers are driven by a mission. They see their books as a social goods, to be directed where they are most needed.

In South Africa, to make books affordable, accessible and available, social publishers like African Story Book, Bookdash, Fundza, Nal’i Bali and Vula Bula have adopted a range of innovative book production and distribution practices. Almost all have digital editions of their books available, formatted in PDF, ePub or as a webpage. Some of these storybooks are published under a Creative Commons licences. Sometimes they also have apps available for mobile devices are associated with these projects. Caregivers can freely install these apps, download the different books and store and read them from their mobile devices.

The above mentioned challenges are being addressed by social publishers in different ways. Below are a few specific examples of how certain projects are working with highlighted issues.

  • Fundza & the Author Challenge – Fundza are making it possible to become authors Their “Developing Young Writers” programme is intended to prompt young readers to become writers. Aspiring young voices can showcase their writing on the fundza.mobi site.
  • Bookdash & the Funding Challenge – Bookdash have a different book creation model. They generate publishable story books very rapidly. They facilitate an event and challenge multiple story production teams to create a storybook in 12 hours. Groups of four creative professionals (illustrators, authors, editors and designer) voluntarily combine their skills to create a complete creative commons storybook in one day.
  • Nalibali & the Distribution Challenge – Nal’ibali works to build a larger community of reading enablers across the country who are interested in storytelling, reading and writing with children. They distribute the message about reading by running high-visibility media campaigns (TV, Radio, Newspapers, Billboards), a network of reading clubs and also offer paprents and caregivers a library of multilingual stories and resources.
  • African Story Books & the Diversity Challenge – African Story Books have taken an open education resources approach to book production. This alternative model involves books licenced as creative commons materials that can be re-used and remixed. Their platform has a facility for users to alter, translate or create new stories and select different images. This has meant that their books have been translated into 111 languages
  • Vula Bula and the Language Challenge – Vula Bula is an African language graded reading series. Rather than translate books from English, they commission indigenous South African writers to write stories in their home language. These illustrated stories are contextualised to the young reader’s inner world and life experiences. The text within these books is based on the specific orthographical building blocks of each language.

The 6th Challenge – Obscurity

The one challenge that has not been mentioned is the inconspicuousness of these projects. Commercial publishing still holds most most of our attention, especially when it comes to storybooks. While these social publishing initiatives are as innovative as they are exciting, they need to also become sustainable. This is THE problem that requires immediate attention. If social publishing is to continue to offer new routes to entrench reading and writing habits in children’s daily lives, then broader uptake and ownership of such projects is necessary. Social publishing needs to become a mainstream player within the development of reading. Visible support, especially from those who access and use children’s books frequently, like librarians, teachers, social workers etc. Financial backing from the state, large multinational or corporates in required. Obscurity is their biggest challenge.

Our first mLiteracy Workshop

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Last week, I spent two days on the east rand, working with Ekurhuleni librarians and running a pilot workshop about mliteracy. We set out to explore the combination of free WiFi and mobile devices. We wanted librarians to become comfortable with these two technologies in a library setting. Our focus was on accessing early reading materials. We wanted to show them how digtitized and freely available story reading materials could be accessed via mobile devices.

Working alongside this group of people was very satisfying. They were very interested in using mobile devices within their libraries. Participants seemed to enjoy the experience. Comments about the workshop included “I’ve learned a lot of things I didn’t even know about”; “the Workshop was excellent”, “liked the informal and fun way the workshop was presented” and “this workshop should be done regularly to keep us updated.”

The workshop was about introducing early reading resources that social publishers are producing. We addressed the variety of issues associated with using using mobile devices in a library setting. A large part of the programme was focused on making librarians comfortable with change. While many welcome the introduction of new technologies into a library, there are some who are wary of the unintended consequences of a mobile friendly library space.

The workshop was designed to allow space for questions, opinion and doubt. Activities like “Emoji Tracker Cards” – an ongoing feedback exercise that offered participants to express their reactions,  “Hopes and Fears” – a process of articulating both positive and negative sentiments about technology and “Shades of opinions” – a set of opinions about changes in the library, allowed participants the opportunity to become comfortable with each other and the workshop programme*.

The workshop was a pilot. I’m hoping that senior management within library services will see the value in it and offer #mLiteracy learning opportunities to more librarians. If you are interested in keeping up with the project, please mail me at mlit3racy at gmail dot com, and I’ll put you on our mailing list. If you are interested in attending, please apply.


*A participants workbook will be available to all participants.

Shades of Opinion

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Free Wi-Fi is no longer a novelty. Across South Africa it’s becoming easier to turn off your data in restaurants, malls, banks and petrol stations. Local governments in Gauteng still remain the most generous provider.  At 300 MB of free data per day, a committed data guzzler can save 9GB worth of data bundles every month.

In libraries, the “no phone signs” are disappearing as many realize that the combination of Wi-Fi and mobile phones are attracting new patrons. Greater visitor numbers are not the only benefit. Members of library communities, equipped with their own feature or smart phone, can learn how to make productive use of information. Many librarians recognize the need to support their local communities technology aspirations. Access to data also offers a library community a new opportunity to develop digital capacity and a route to digital inclusion.

E-books on mobile devices can be positioned as a threat to reading. My perspective is that the two compliment each other. They enable a digital reading experience. Over the last year (with generous support from the Goethe Institut), I’ve been working on a programme to enable librarians become more comfortable with working in a data rich and phone friendly library. Together, we are asking how librarians and their patrons can they take advantage of a data surplus and their own mobile devices to access e-books, audio-books, newspapers, social publishing projects and other forms of digital information.

To stimulate discussion around the changing roles of librarians and to unpack how a library user feels about these changes in a library, I’ve created a collection of cards 10 called “shades of opinion”. Numbered 1 to 10, each card highlights a common opinion about change in a Gauteng library.  The cards offer a librarian the opportunity to gauge their colleagues or library patrons opinions. The “shades of opinion” cards can be used as the basis for engagement or discussion. There’s no right or wrong answer. If you want to take this conversation online, please do, The cards are also available on Instagram. I’d be interested to hear what the various responses are.

Free Wi-Fi in libraries , in conjunction with various local content initiatives, offer a librarian a golden opportunity to work in partnership with a ubiquitous tech – the mobile phone. Check out our #mliteracy hashtag. You’ll soon be hearing much more about this topic.