A new web site will make thousands of children’s books from 100 different cultures available for free to internet-savvy kids around the world. When it’s completed in about five years, the International Children’s Digital Library will hold about 10,000 books targeted at children ages 3 to 13.

Designed by the University of Maryland’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab and the Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, the site’s goal is to expand children’s reading and learning skills while teaching them about other cultures.

“There are places in the world where you’re going to find a computer way before you find a library or a book store,” said project director Jane White.

A group of children played an important role in developing the web site, telling researchers what designs and icons appealed to them most. When some of the youngsters said they wanted to search for books based on how the stories make them feel, the designers responded, creating special indexes for funny or scary stories.

The site has colorful icons that allow even the youngest children to navigate without knowing what all the words mean. With the click of a mouse, kids can see the thumbnail-sized pages of a book unwind in a spiral or unfold like the panels of a comic book.

Seven-year-old Ben Hammer of Silver Spring, Md., one of the children who demonstrated the site at the Library of Congress, said he likes to look at the pictures of books even if he can’t read all the text yet.

“It’s more fun because you get to zoom through the books,” he said. “And I like doing stuff on the computer.”

Even more important for Jade Matthews, a nine-year-old from Bowie, Md., “the book is never checked out.”

The site officially debuted Nov. 20 with 200 titles from more than 27 cultures in more than 15 different languages. Many of the titles are classics, like “Alice in Wonderland” and “Robinson Crusoe,” that are no longer under copyright restriction. But some publishers—including Random House, Scholastic, and HarperCollins—also have contributed a few newer works from their extensive collections.

“We’ve worked hard to ensure international cooperation,” said White, noting that non-U.S. participants include the Finnish Institute for Children’s Literature, National Library Board of Singapore, National Library of Croatia, Swiss Institute for Child and Youth Media, and Zimbabwe Book Council.

“Every book that is added to the International Children’s Digital Library will be accessible by hundreds of millions of people around the world,” said Brewster Kahle, digital librarian for the Internet Archive. “Universal access to all human knowledge and culture is within our grasp, and this library project is bringing publishers, librarians, and researchers together to make a system that works for children.”

Access to the library initially requires a direct internet connection, such as a cable modem or digital subscriber line (DSL). Those connecting by phone modems will be able to access the site in summer 2003.

Links:

International Children’s Digital Library
http://www.icdlbooks.org

Internet Archive
http://www.archive.org

University of Maryland’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab
http://www.cs.umd.edu/hcil

Library of Congress
http://www.loc.gov