| March 28, 2010

E-Books Help Worldreader Tackle Cultural Imperialism


Here’s a tough issue people ask us: Is Worldreader accidentally practicing a new form of cultural imperialism?

Well. It’s a fair question, and comes up as you watch the video and see Richard talk about downloading The Bible. (Richard isn’t the only one, by the way: in our earlier trial in Barcelona we observed one student reading The Bible right next to another looking at El Pais‘s coverage of Real Madrid football. Different people, different religions.) It is an issue we need to be sensitive to, and as we pre-loaded the books we were quite aware that the authors of Fairy Tales Every Child Should Know probably didn’t really have every child in mind.  (We included Folks Tales From Ghana as well, and the students liked both.)

But seeing what happens in the class, we believe our efforts could have the opposite effect. As we’ve mentioned, many schools in the developing world do have access to at least a few books… but which books? Often they’re those that donors either have too many of (remainder or second-hand books), or books with an agenda. We were struck by the presence of The History of the State of Utah in the sixth-grade classroom; our friend Ricky Schroder guesses it got there thank to the efforts of Mormon missionaries. But no matter: the point is that after all of the hassles of distribution of books, what often arrives are not quite the right ones.

Books requested by the students, including re-loads of accidentally deleted texts.

E-readers are different. They’re just as hard (or likely harder) to distribute as physical books… a shipping container can ship 25,000 books or 25,000 e-readers. But once in people’s hands, they provide access to hundreds of thousands of books today, and millions in the future. And if we do our job right, those books will be the world’s literature– not only internationally recognized books, but also books from local publishers which will then be available to all.

In Ayenyah, it was wonderful to see students finish a book and then realize they could get another, right then… not just whatever someone had placed on the shelf, or whatever book might or might not arrive in six months, but another book they really wanted at that moment. In this case, it was a second Curious George book… but in the future, it could be any book at all.