Public Libraries, County Jails: Best Ways to Break into Correctional Partnership

Since the 1790s, American prisons have provided books to inmates (Darby, 2004; Mfum, 2012) and many facilities staff correctional libraries. As you might imagine, substantial literature exists on the subject of prison libraries, but very little concerns local level correctional facilities. With a trend in increasing populations and 1 in 35 adults under some form of correctional supervision, the United States of America holds the largest number of inmates in the world (De la Pena, 2004; Eggers, Munoz, Sciulli, & Crist, 2006; Hass & Saxon, 2012; Schwartz, 2005; Crayton et al., 2010; U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS] 2014 & 2015; Yamatani & Spjeldenes, 2011). Still, short-term facilities—jails and detention centers—often rely on public libraries for services and programs (De La Pena, 2004), and libraries are encouraged to respond. In the late 1970s, the American Library Association’s service standard policy first called “public libraries to extend their services to residents of jails and other detention facilities within their taxing areas” (American Library Association, n.d.; Baley, 1981).

A lack of research specific to jails has caused them to be seen as smaller prisons, an attitude causing widespread misunderstanding. (Pogrebin, Dodge, & Katsampes, 2001). The term prison refers to a secure State or Federal location holding persons convicted for crimes (De la Pena, 2004), and generally serving longer terms (Crayton et al., 2010). This contrasts detention centers and jails, terms often used interchangeably, which typically hold inmates for a shorter period of time and are locally operated (Crayton et al., 2010). While prisons house convicted felons, jails detain individuals awaiting trial, conviction, or sentencing (De la Pena, 2004). Most persons in jail have not yet been judged innocent or guilty (BJS, 2014) with 62% in a pre-trail status (Crayton et al., 2010). Some jail inmates may be serving short-term sentences for misdemeanors (Crayton et al., 2010). Another distinction is that jail populations can fluctuate with turnover averaging over 60% per week (BJS, 2014).

Libraries seeking information about partnering with a local jail may be disappointed. There is a gap in research for local level correctional facilities and public libraries. Even though “nearly three-fifths (59%) of all jail jurisdictions held 99 or fewer inmates” in 2006 (U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011), the literature has rarely addressed the needs of rural public libraries and jails (Conrad, 2012; De la Pena, 2004; Ellern & Mason, 2013; Gee, 2006; Pogrebin, Dodge, & Katsampes, 2001). How are public libraries and jails partnering with one another to provide programs to inmates and released persons? Which program components are considered successful?

To gain access to incarcerated persons, public libraries will need to establish a working relationship with jail staff. In order to maintain a healthy, productive partnership with a local jail, public librarians will need to fully understand the limitations inherent in working with a detention facility. This includes frequent interruptions like lockdowns and late lunches (Fife & Fong, 2015). Establishing and maintaining good rapport with jail staff will encourage open communication and is one way to develop support for new programming (Fife & Fong, 2015). Programs work best in facilities in which the staff is pro-education (Mattucci, 2006).

Understanding the needs of jail inmates is also important and needs has been defined in multiple ways. Simply put, “a need can be seen as a problem that can be solved” McKillip (as cited in Young, 1994). Grant (2002), though, identified need in the following ways: “felt needs (what people say they need), expressed needs (expressed in action) [sic] normative needs (defined by experts), and comparative needs (group comparison).” The normative needs of prison inmates are known and may overlap those of jail inmates, but that assumption should be validated.

Statistically, incarcerated persons tend to have lower educational levels than the general population (Darby, 2004). According to the 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics for Education and Correctional Populations, 47% of local jail populations had not acquired a GED or high school diploma. Programs for adult inmates are often designed at the sixth through twelfth grade levels (Shaw & Berg, 2009; Crayton et al., 2010).

Beyond basic education it is important that life skills be developed: parenting, personal financial management, nutrition, and employability (Bates, 2005; Eggers, Munoz, Sciulli, & Crist, 2006; Khatibi & Grande, 1993; Schwartz, 2005). To this end, programs commonly address literacy, allowing inmates increased access to materials that address the issues above (Bouchard & Kunze 2003; Conrad, 2012; De la Pena, 2004; Khatibi & Grande, 1993; Shaw & Berg, 2009). Mental illness and addiction complicate an inmate’s ability to successfully access materials and programs (Alemagno & Dickie, 2005; Bates, 2005; Khatibi & Grande, 1993; Sheehan, 2014; Yamatani & Spjeldnes, 2011). Substance abuse treatment and domestic violence counseling may be a more appropriate beginning (Bates, 2005; Schwartz, 2005; Yamatani & Spjeldnes, 2011), which may be outside the scope of many public libraries’ services.

Multi-organizational support is a prerequisite to fully addressing the needs of an incarcerated person, for whom recidivism is of critical concern (Yamatani & Spjeldnes, 2011). Released inmates experience many barriers to successful reintegration such as difficulty finding gainful employment, denial of housing assistance and food stamps, or refusal of federal aid for educational development (Doherty, Forrester, Brazil, & Matheson, 2014; Hass & Saxon, 2012, Khatibi & Grande, 1993). These combined needs go far beyond the abilities of a library/jail partnership; support from social services will be necessary both before and after release. When considering a jail partnership, investigate whether other organizations are contributing to the cause.

While the above evidence-based needs have been true for decades, the idea that programs must adhere to them is changing. A more modern approach to program development is to consider what the inmates want to pursue and learn, another way of stating felt needs, which would only be determined by soliciting their feedback (Bouchard & Kunze, 2003; Conrad, 2012; Mfum, 2012).

The most successful library programs for this demographic include common components. Adult inmates require opportunities to solve problems on their own. Blending instruction with hands-on experience is critical to engagement (Mattucci, 2006). Intensive programs are more successful than lengthy curriculum (Mattucci, 2006). A literacy education program may incorporate the inmate’s family, as does the award-winning Read to Me program (De la Pena, 2004; Lilienthal, 2013; Schneider, 1996). Incarcerated parents can feel removed from their children’s lives and programs like this establish family connection (Pogrebin, Dodge & Katsames, 2001). Incarceration is not the limit of impact on an inmate’s life, but rather the wellspring for loss: property, vehicles, residence, jobs and personal relationships (Pogrebin, Dodge, & Katsampes, 2001). Calling the inmates to action for their own cause is vital:

A reentry process that does not engage the offender in becoming a productive member of society is likely to be another notation on the chart of “tried” strategies. The offender must be challenged to become a contributing member of society. Taxman et al. (as cited in Hass & Saxon, 2012).

Finally, evaluating a program is of utmost importance for any facilitator wishing to prove its effectiveness to stakeholders. With fewer tax dollars, rural libraries and jails experience less funding and municipal support than crowded urban locations. At mid-year 2014, 47% of jail inmates were housed in 6% of jails (BJS, 2015). Small libraries need studies that show partnering, programs and benchmarks relative to libraries of their own size.

Of these studies, which significant contributions were present in the literature? In 2006, Mattucci emphasized the importance of gaining staff support and the futility of attempting a program in a facility where staff does not believe in education or rehabilitation. He showed that intensive group learning was more effective than on-going curriculum. That same year, Gee (2006) conducted a comparative study between offered programs and inmates’ perceptions of them. He showed that success of a program must be relevant to the inmates’ needs. Both Mattucci (2006) and Gee (2006) implied that goal orientation is a critical factor for inmate motivation. By 2009, Shaw and Berg seemed to embody these lessons. They evaluated the impact of a word study literacy program for adult inmates in a county jail. The program was short, intensive and designed with the criteria of a jail environment in mind. Inmates’ perceptions were measured quantitatively and qualitatively, including whether they believed the program was beneficial and whether they felt more confident in their spelling abilities at the program’s conclusion. Finally, by 2013, Ellern and Mason addressed the lack of literature for rural jails and libraries by researching their local jail facilities and respective library collections.

In conclusion, further research is needed. The nature of a jail as a short-term facility produces a climate radically different than that of a prison. Future researchers cannot rely on prison studies alone but must expand to the local level correctional facility and examine programs offered there. The product of partnerships between rural public libraries and jails should especially be the subject of research. Rural libraries’ severe limitation of resources (e.g. funding, staffing, and skills) hinders locally conducted evidence-based investigations of the jail and its underserved population.

A platform is needed for the exchange of program ideas, research, and lessons taken from existing partnerships between jails and public libraries. Currently, the information is disparate and difficult to locate, for which the most effective method has been contacting individual libraries. This question arises: what is a better platform for this type of communication? One possible solution I see would be to call upon the existing American Library Association’s (ALA) Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) to support research and communication between rural libraries on jail issues.


Alemagno, S., & Dickie, J. (2005). Employment issues of women in jail. Journal of Employment Counseling, 42(2), 67-74. Retrieved from

American Library Association. (n.d.). B.8 services and responsibilities of libraries. ALA Policy Manual, B.8.2. Retrieved from American Library Association website:

Bates, J. P. (2005). Life skills project. Journal of Correctional Education, 56(2), 101-107. Retrieved from

Bayley, L. (1981). Jail library service: A guide for librarians and administrators, 112. Chicago, IL: ERIC. Retrieved from

Bouchard, J., & Kunze, L. (2003). Teaching diverse students in a corrections setting with assistance from the library. Journal of Correctional Education, 54(2), 66-69. Retrieved from

Conrad, S. (2012). Collection development and circulation policies in prison libraries: An exploratory survey of librarians in us correctional institutions. Library Quarterly, 82(4), 407-427. Retrieved from

Crayton, A., Ressler, L., Mukamal, D., Jannetta, J., & Warwick, K. (2010). Partnering with jails to improve reentry: a guidebook for community-based organizations. Retrieved from Urban Institute website:

Darby, L. T. (2004). Libraries in the american penal system. Rural Libraries, 24(2), 7-20. Retrieved from

De la Pena, K. (2004). Public libraries and people in jail. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 44(1), 26-30. Retrieved from

Doherty, S., Forrester, P., Brazil, A., & Matheson, F. I. (2014). Finding their way: Conditions for successful reintegration among women offenders. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 53(7), 562-586. doi:10.1080/10509674.2014.944740

Eggers, M., Muñoz, J. P., Sciulli, J., & Crist, P. A. H. (2006). The community reintegration project: Occupational therapy at work in a county jail. Occupational Therapy in Health Care, 20(1), 17-37. doi:10.1300/J003v20n01-02

Ellern, G. D., & Mason, K. (2013). Library services to inmates in the rural county jails of western north carolina. North Carolina Libraries (Online), 71(1), 15-22. Retrieved from

Fife, D., & Kim, F. (2015). Comparing notes: A conversation about library service to county jails. Public Libraries, 54(3), 31-34.

Gee, J. (2006). Education in rural county jails: Need versus opportunity. Journal of Correctional Education, 57(4), 312-325. Retrieved from

Grant, J. (2002). Learning needs assessment: Assessing the need. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.), 324(7330), 156-159.

Hass, A. Y., & Saxon, C. E. (2012). From the inside/out: Greene county jail inmates on restorative reentry. International Journal of Offender Therapy & Comparative Criminology, 56(7), 1037-1062. doi:10.1177/0306624X11418914

Khatibi, M., & Grande, C. G. (1993). Correctional education planning: A systematic approach to vocational training. Journal of Correctional Education, 44(3), 152-155. Retrieved from

Lilienthal, S. M. (2013). Prison and public libraries. Library Journal, 138(2), 26-32. Retrieved from

Mattucci, R. (2006). Personal reflections on Austin MacCormick’s 1931 correctional education book: The integration of vocational, academic, and social education. Journal of Correctional Education, 57(1), 26-41. Retrieved from

Mfum, C. (2012). Prospects and challenges of prison libraries in ghana: A case study of the nsawam medium security prisons. Library Philosophy & Practice, 1-24. Retrieved from

Pogrebin, M., Dodge, M., & Katsampes, P. (2001). The collateral costs of short-term jail incarceration: The long-term social and economic disruptions. Corrections Management Quarterly, 5(4), 64-69. Retrieved from

Schneider, J. (1996). Prison libraries change lives. American Libraries, 27(10), 46. Retrieved from

Schwartz, S. (2005). Life skills project. Journal of Correctional Education, 56(2), 115-123. Retrieved from

Shaw, D. M., & Berg, M. A. (2009). Jail participants actively study words. Journal of Correctional Education, 60(2), 100-119. Retrieved from

Sheehan, R. (2014). Women exiting prison: Supporting successful reintegration in a changing penal climate. British Journal of Community Justice, 12(2), 57-66. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2003). Education and Correctional Populations. (Report No. NCJ 195670). Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2014). Correctional populations in the United States, 2013. (Report No. NCJ 248479). Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2015). Jail inmates at midyear 2014. (Report No. NCJ 248629). Retrieved from

Yamatani, H., & Spjeldnes, S. (2011). Saving our criminal justice system: The efficacy of a collaborative social service. Social Work, 56(1), 53-61. Retrieved from

Young, G. L. (1994). Needs assessment in program planning. College Quarterly, 2(2), 1-6.

Amanda J St John is Circulation Manager at Hailey Public Library.

Here to Help: Your New Intellectual Freedom Committee


The ALA Intellectual Freedom Manual describes intellectual freedom as “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” For most Americans, this concept sounds fairly reasonable and consequently not of particular significance in our daily lives. Even for those of us in the library world, intellectual freedom is certainly recognized as a core value but rarely a primary concern as we go about our duties. Of course there are the dramatic moments, such as with recent campus protests, when the issue of free speech takes over our news and sparks our interest or even a good debate or two. However, most of the time intellectual freedom is not prioritized in our professional or personal lives.

As the new ILA Intellectual Freedom Committee, this reality has been a quandary for us as we try to discern not only our responsibilities for this group, but also identify issues of value to Idaho. In starting our work, we’ve been looking at a variety of resources and have begun to outline a few topics of interest.


Access to information and ideas– even ideas with which we may not personally agree– is a cornerstone of the role libraries play in our society. Last summer a group of community members in Coeur d’Alene attempted to have John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novella Of Mice and Men removed from the ninth grade curriculum. They cited the work’s use of coarse language and “dark themes” related to the Great Depression as reasons why it should be kept from students. Fortunately, their motion was defeated by a 4 to 1 vote by the school board.

Some patrons do not like profanity in library materials. Others do not like depictions of violence, sex, anti-capitalism, religion, homosexuality– the list goes on and on. Still others object to people accessing certain websites or digital materials within the library. As the ILA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, we stand firmly against censorship in our libraries, but as librarians we recognize that even as we battle attempts to control or restrict library materials, we must also continue to work with the patrons who are most adamant about removing “offensive” materials. We know what we believe; how do we spread those beliefs throughout the community? That is a question we hope to answer by working with other librarians in Idaho.


One good way to make our beliefs known is through clearly stated policies regarding intellectual freedom, censorship, etc. These can be difficult to craft! As your Intellectual Freedom Committee, we want to start reaching out to Idaho librarians to offer our assistance in making strong policies. Whether we can serve you best as a sounding board or if you need examples of other library policy statements, we are here. In the future months we will be offering webinars on this very subject.

Responsibilities and Capacity Building

In exploring these issues, it is important to acknowledge the complexities and deeply held personal beliefs that create challenges to intellectual freedom. Most librarians believe information can enlighten, but it is also reasonable to believe that information can be used to discriminate or even victimize. Whether it’s micro-aggressions, hostile workplaces, propaganda, or an attempt to groom a victim, words can hurt. How do we enable intellectual freedom while not ignoring the harm that can be done?

Yet if we desire to achieve the great ideal of intellectual freedom, how can we realistically increase capacity within the state’s library workforce to handle these intellectual freedom situations. Even a basic question like, “The Library Bill of Rights: What’s in it and does anyone ever really use it?” can be a challenge. What topics are of interest to you? What issues would you like training on? What resources would be valuable to you?


As your state’s Intellectual Freedom committee, we exist to assist you. If you encounter any challenges to materials in your libraries, please let us know at We can offer explanatory materials and operate as a liaison between your library and the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. However, you don’t have to wait until a challenge arises to get involved! This winter we are offering our first (of many!) Google Hangouts for Idaho librarians to connect with one another and discuss their understanding of the intellectual freedom challenges we face today. More information will follow soon on the ILA Facebook page. Please join us, so we can start building a strong consensus among librarians in our state about how we can best protect the right of our patrons to access material and have their personal information protected. We are excited to start working with you!

3D Printing: Establishing a Legitimate Service through Skyforge

Originally printed in PNLA Quarterly

3D printing seems to be blowing up the internet and the world right now. From owners printing prosthetic legs for their dogs, to a Sonic Screwdriver for our Teen Doctor Who Christmas Party, the applications and uses of this technology continue to excite and amaze us. In addition to democratizing manufacturing, it has equipped entrepreneurs with easy access to prototyping, and given students the ability to see their theoretical designs take shape in the real world. Although several staff members, and a few Friends of the Library, were interested in 3D printers, it didn’t seem like an attainable project for my library. The Community Library Network is a rural county system in North Idaho. We have seven library locations including Athol, Harrison, Hayden, Pinehurst, Post Falls, Rathdrum, Spirit Lake, as well as a Bookmobile. Altogether we serve over 100,000 Idaho residents across 1,150 square miles and two counties.

Offering programs, events, community outreaches and online services for members of all ages, 3D Printing was something we hoped to do in the future, but it was an ambition that didn’t have wheels on the ground yet. But then, my library  was dropped into this new world when we received an open source RepRap MendelMax 3D printer through the Idaho Commission for Libraries pilot project, “Make It @ the Library.” Seeking to bring the concepts of makerspaces into libraries, “Make It” has trained three different cohorts of librarians in robotics, circuitry, building, and 3D printing, and provided tools to use with members in each subject.

Immediately after having our 3D printer shipped to us, we couldn’t wait to bring it out into the community. We scheduled several school showings during Teen Tech Week 2014, and also featured it at several library events. Every teacher, student, and library member was dumbfounded not only that we had a 3D printer, but also by the potential it had. Several community members heard about our printer and requested we print their designs. Immediately we realized there were many aspects of facilitating a 3D printer service that we had not yet considered. A few key questions we asked included who will handle the manufacturing process of the 3D printer? who will troubleshoot designs? who will pay for printing? and how will all of these things flow together?

In these initial prints, a staff member received a 3D design from a library member, typically through email, and carried it through the entire process of 3D printing. Most of the time this included three different computer softwares, knowledge on troubleshooting failed prints, and sometimes up to fifteen hours of calibrating, baby-sitting, and troubleshooting the 3D design. Bear in mind that staff members were still unfamiliar with many aspects of 3D printing and were having to research and experiment with different fixes to common 3D printing problems. It quickly became obvious that the ratio of staff time to completed prints was too great to consider it a legitimate model for a public access service. Consequently, staff still used the 3D printer at special events in the library and out in the community, but community members did not have access to the technology.

Fast forward a few months, and a networking opportunity at Gizmo-CDA, a Coeur d’ Alene Makerspace, completely changed the story. Staff had the chance to meet Chris Walker, the CEO of Element Robot, when our hot pink 3D printer, Pinkie Pie, caught his eye. Element Robot is a local tech company based in Moscow, Idaho. After some calibration and network setting, he was able to demonstrate his Skyforge system. In the simplest terms, Skyforge is a cloud-based service that streamlines and simplifies the 3D printing process. Skyforge allows organizations and their members to upload designs, adjust the settings of a design, accept payment, and finally automates the 3D printing itself: from heating up the nozzle to cooling down the bed. Impressed with the potential of the service, staff asked for and were granted a trial period with Skyforge.

The trial period consisted mainly of visits to high school classrooms. Students were initially familiarized with the underlying concepts of 3D printing and design, given instruction on using the Skyforge network, and then asked to order a design from the library using the Skyforge system. Close to ninety students were included in this preliminary test of the service. Without counting the time of actually 3D printing the designs themselves, or any allowance for troubleshooting difficult jobs, ninety prints would have taken far too much staff time to undertake without Skyforge. Staff members would have had to collect ninety different files, ensure the files had the proper 3D printing settings, change any that didn’t, and then ensure the 3D printer correctly manufactured each of the designs.

Skyforge allowed us to complete the printing of ninety student prints in about a month and a half. Putting that into perspective, Skyforge allowed us to print an average of three designs every workday. This was in addition to the regular work of staff members who still hadprograms, events, and other responsibilities to complete. Some of the primary benefits of the Skyforge system are the ability for users to upload files from any internet-connected computer and to adjust design settings themselves, thus automating the 3D printer manufacturing process. Each of these aspects of the service cut down on staff time dramatically. Besides offering the initial training, clicking a start button to begin the print, and removing the finished object from the printer, the only task staff had was troubleshooting a few student attempts at uploading their designs.

Following the simplicity and success of the pilot project, the Community Library Network currently has a contract with Element Robot to use the Skyforge 3D Printing system. While we have had the service, we have been greatly impressed with its features. Several members who have had experience with 3D printing enjoyed the ability to complete a 3D print without having to oversee every step of the process. Members who had no experience whatsoever were also given access to a 3D printer and became familiar with the process of 3D printing. Payment has also become easier since joining the Skyforge network. Members pay for the volume of 3D printer filament their design uses; Skyforge estimates this price before the design is ordered, and members can pay for their design online using Stripe, an alternative to PayPal. Finally, the customer service and support of Element Robot has been invaluable with our 3D printing service. The small team of 3D printing enthusiasts at Element Robot has worked tirelessly to improve the user interface, quickly respond to any technical difficulties in the hardware or software, and has given advice when a design does not work.

While Skyforge was a very effective answer for our library’s needs, it is obviously not the only method for delivering 3D printing services to a community. Several libraries across the state of Idaho have automated services, or offer 3D printing services in another fashion. The Albertson’s Library on the Boise State University (BSU) campus has built a system for handling a large quantity of 3D designs, and the Meridian Library District is another example of a library that is putting 3D printing services into practice. If your library is considering 3D printing services, there is further information included at the end of this article.

So many of our library members have watched a YouTube video describing some awesome feature of 3D printing, have an uncle with a 3D printer for his business, or an older sister who uses a 3D printer with her robotics team at school. This project has allowed us to find ways to take 3D printing from the theoretical idea to offering services that allow anyone to get exposure and experience with 3D printing. Will 3D printing change the future of manufacturing? Will it revolutionize medical practices? Will it change the way we buy things? Very possibly; and because of that possible future, let’s get 3D printing into the hands of as many people as we can, and get those ideas extruding into the future.


  • Albertson’s Library 3D Printing Service

  • Gizmo-CDA; Coeur d’ Alene’s Makerspace

  • Make It @ the Library Facebook Page

  • Meridian Library District’s Nick Grove on 3D Printing

  • Skyforge 3D Printing System


About the author:

Nick Madsen is a Youth Services Specialist at the Community Library Network at Hayden. He received a Master’s in Information and Library Science from the University of Kentucky in 2013. He wears many hats, but typically plans and implements programs for elementary through high school students. Simple science, bringing new ideas to students, and 3D printing are some of his passions.

Children’s Apps and Games at the Meridian Library District

Shalini Ramachandran works at the Boise State University library and is an MLIS distance student at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

With the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, web technology has become part of our everyday lives. Because the touch screen is simple to use, it has made our busy, multitasking adult schedules a little easier to navigate. There is an app for everything from shopping, to getting directions, to finding classes at the local gym. Children are also drawn to the mobile devices that they see their parents use. Because touch screen technology is more intuitive than a computer, we see more children, under the age of 5, playing and interacting with screens. There are also hundreds of apps and games available for children of all ages, many of which claim to be educational or help with school achievement. As a mother of a 10 year old and a 4 year old, both of whom use my phone and tablet to play games, I have wondered about the quality of these games and whether they are actually beneficial for children. I decided to do some research to find out more.

brain puzzle
Image credit: Toca Boca. Some rights reserved.

On the one hand, there is a school of thought that any media exposure, whether through T.V or computer screen time, is harmful to young children. On the other hand, there are companies that advertise astounding intellectual gains for children from use of their digital products. The reality for parents is that we have to look somewhere in between. Zero screen exposure can be unrealistic for families; most homes with children have mobile devices, and often, younger children see their older siblings playing a game and want to join in as well. Fortunately, there is credible research being conducted on gaming technologies and some of their positive effects. Not all of the “educational” apps are truly educational, but there are many really good ones. As a graduate student in library science, I took a class called Apps and Games for Children this summer, and came across some excellent resources that I will share here. I also visited the Meridian Library District in Meridian, Idaho, as public libraries can provide carefully considered suggestions for both reading materials and media resources for kids.

I found the three criteria recommended by educational media analyst, Lisa Guernsey, to be especially useful for how to choose high quality apps and games for children. Guernsey calls it the 3 Cs: Context, Content, and Child (cited in Julius). Context is about the purpose of the activity, what happens while the child is using the program. Young children learn through their senses. They learn best when they are being interacted with, talked to, read to, and played with. Some of you may have seen this sign, often posted in libraries: “There is no App to Replace the Lap.” Most early childhood research confirms that this is the case. What this means in terms of app usage is that for children under 5, the most beneficial apps are those that we can play together with them. Of course, most parents need time, here are there, for a break where we have children tinker independently with devices. There is no harm in that. But the biggest learning benefits for small children come from the human interaction, not just the app; a well-designed app promotes both hands on learning and social connection. The second C Guernsey mentions is Content. Researchers give high marks for apps and games that are creative and open ended. In contrast, games with violence and developmentally unsuitable content receive poor reviews. The final C is the child. Children learn in a variety of ways: active, exploratory, and sensory. The screen is just one of the ways to learn and play. Too much screen time can take away from other important activities such as reading, writing, socializing, pretend play, and active play. Balance is key.

When I visited the Meridian Library District this summer, the library was humming with children and parents, reading and checking out books, playing at computers, and on iPads. I asked Youth Services Librarian, Laura Abbott, about how the library selected their games and apps. She explained that all the technology in the Youth section was chosen for high quality educational content, good reviews from independent sources (such as Commonsense Media and Library Journal) appeal to kids (fun, interactive, and intuitive), and age appropriateness. Clearly, the Meridian Library pays close attention to the 3 Cs guidelines.

A question that is sometimes raised in discussions about childhood education is why have technology as an interface for learning at all? After all, many of us learned to read, write, and think, without apps. Why not just have pencil and paper, like the old days? This argument has some weight. In terms of the learning process, an app may not be superior to the low-tech ways that we gained knowledge in the past. However, there is good reason to expose children to technology at an early age, the main one being that computers and mobile devices are part of modern society. Not being able to use them with expertise will become a significant drawback as children proceed through school, into college, and the workforce. As the NAEYC and Fred Rogers Center joint paper on technology and media for children points out: “Young children need opportunities to develop the early ‘technology-handling’ skills associated with early digital literacy that are akin to the ‘book-handling’ skills associated with early literacy development (National Institute for Literacy 2008). The International Society for Technology in Education (2007) recommends basic skills in technology operations and concepts by age 5.

child with phone
Image credit: Spitzgogo_Chen. Some rights reserved. Cropped.

I was heartened to observe that children had a lot of opportunities to handle technology at the Meridian Library District. Even toddlers were enjoying tapping buttons and making things happen on the screen. Even if they may not be playing a game “correctly,” they are gaining valuable skills. In addition to the young ones, Meridian also caters to the technology needs of tweens and teens. The teen room had a lot of collaborative gaming going on when I visited. The library also holds Game Nights, where teens play “Hunger Games” (via Minecraft) in a group setting.

Given the aggression in the storyline of The Hunger Games, I wondered about the level of violence in the game content during the library’s group gaming events. Guernsey and others have raised concerns about early exposure to intense media content. Gratuitous violence in video games is problematic, but the Meridian library is careful about screening for such negative content. Besides, some exposure to higher conflict themes can be developmentally appropriate for older children. My own 10-year-old plays Minecraft, and I figure that childhood play scenarios that involve difficult and even somewhat scary situations can be ways for children to understand and negotiate the world around them. In previous generations, children participated in backyard war games, “cops and robbers,” or other dramatic play. Today, some of that gaming action has shifted to virtual screens. Interestingly, education researchers Jose Bidarra, Meagan Rothschild et al. point out that online game-play may, in fact, have created more dynamic learning experiences for the current generation of youngsters: “[F]reedom of choice, challenge, participation, transparency, integrity, collaboration, fun, speed, and innovation has become a part of students’ learning experiences. In this context, playing games may be an important aspect of learning as this generation’s game-playing experiences are more widespread than the game-playing experiences of previous generations.”

The Meridian Library District’s technology resources are very good and thoughtfully chosen. Laura Abbott was also excited about the library’s plan to develop a new space for tweens, 10-13 year olds. The library studied the youth demographic in Meridian and found that the 3 top ages of library-card holders are 11, 12, and 13 year olds, whose needs are a little different from the older teen population. The library is, therefore, investing in books, board games, card games, and iPads for tweens. Apps and games are another tool in the arsenal for childhood learning, in addition to reading, school, and sports. Parents and educators can harness children’s natural enthusiasm for games to enhance their learning and academic skills. The Meridian Library District has recognized the advantages of introducing kids to technology at an early age, and is a leader in Idaho for creative digital programming for youth.

List of Apps available at Meridian Library District
ABC Theater: The alphabet Song
Adding Apples HD
Adventures of Captain Underpants
Alphabet Fun
Angry Birds
Animals in Pieces
Another Monster at the End of this Book
Ansel and Clair: Jurassic Dinosaurs
Apha Books
Art Makers by ABC
Atlas Matter (By Kid’s Discover)
Bobo explores light
Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe
Bug Zoo HD
Children’s Picture Dictionary
Color Uncovered
Critter Corral
Curious George at the Zoo
Cyberchase 3D Builder
Daisy the Dino
Don’t let the pigeon run this app
Dr. Seuss Bookshelf from Oceanhouse Media
Draw along with Stella and Sam
Easy Studio
Eddy’s Party!
Elmo Loves 123’s
Endless ABC
Faces iMake
Felt Board
Fish School HD
Geography Drive USA
Growing Readers
iLuv Drawing Animals
Kids Discover Space
Kids Maps
Musical Me
My Storybook Maker
OM Bookshelf from Oceanhouse Media
Pete the Cat
Press Here
Reading Rainbow
Tacky the Penguin
The Sneetches
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Toca Band
Twinkle Twinkle
Wild about Books


Bidarra, Jose et al. “The AIDLET Model: A framework for selecting games, simulations and augmented reality environments in mobile learning.” International Journal of Web-Based Learning and Teaching Technologies. 8(4) Oct 2013: 50-71.  Retrieved July 20, 2015.

Julius, Gloria. “The 3 Cs for Choosing the Right Technology (Mobile Apps) for Children.” Feb 18, 2014. Retrieved July 20, 2015.

“Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8.” A joint position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. Adopted Jan 2012. Retrieved July 20, 2015.