February 17, 2018

President Obama Announces New Library Initiatives

Obama and Osman Yaya (2)

President Obama and Osman Yaya

At a visit to Washington, DC’s Anacostia Neighborhood Library on April 30, President Barack Obama announced two new initiatives that promise to rally America’s libraries, publishers, and nonprofit organizations to strengthen learning opportunities for all children, particularly in low-income communities. The plan, dubbed the ConnectED Library Challenge, will engage civic leaders, libraries, and schools to work together to ensure that all school students receive public library cards. Commitments from 30 library systems are already in place.

As part of an effort to provide broad access to digital content, the Open eBooks Initiative has secured a promise from the “Big Five” publishers and a number of independent presses to provide $250 million in free ebooks to low-income students. Some 10,000 popular titles will be made available over the next three years, and libraries have joined forces with nonprofits to create an app to deliver the content, as well as material from the public domain.

The new programs are an outgrowth of the president’s original ConnectED initiative, announced two years ago with the goal of transforming teaching and learning through digital connectivity and content. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is investing $5 million in support of the ereader app, as well as tools and services to help the public more easily access ebooks and other digital content.


The American Library Association (ALA) and Urban Libraries Council (ULC) have committed to working closely with the White House in order to help the initiative realize its goals. Emily Sheketoff, executive director of ALA’s Washington Office, described the initiatives as natural outgrowths of work already in progress in a number of libraries across the country.

For the Library Challenge, ULC and ALA reached out to 30 library directors, who in turn got commitments from their school superintendents and local political leadership to design a library card program for their districts. IMLS created a platform for all the communities involved to discuss the issues they encounter, Sheketoff explained, “so that all libraries would have the opportunity to move forward with a plan, with some best practices, and some ideas of how they can implement it.” IMLS plans to convene these working groups later in 2015, with ALA and ULC publicizing the information through their respective channels.

The New York Public Library (NYPL) will play an important role in the new effort through its development of the new content delivery app. The app, which will allow users to seamlessly browse and read ebook titles on a variety of devices—including tablets donated as part of the ConnectEd initiative and smartphones, which are increasingly used by Americans at all income levels—will be released later this year.

Sheketoff noted that she hopes some of the $100 million worth of devices that Apple has promised to donate as part of ConnectEd will go to libraries as well as schools. “We know that children don’t take books from school for reading for pleasure,” she told LJ, “so if he really wants people to be reading for pleasure those devices should be going to the library.”

In a statement, NYPL president Tony Marx said, “The New York Public Library is proud to participate in this important program, which will have tremendous social benefits in terms of literacy, and will mark a groundbreaking shift in how publishers provide ebooks to the public. The program is certainly in line with the Library’s mission to make information—and by extension opportunity—available to all, and we look forward to working with the White House on this and other projects in the future. We also look forward to continuing our work with publishers, as we maneuver the relatively new, ever-changing world of e-content.”

NYPL will also partner with Firstbook, a nonprofit that coordinates book donations for children in need, to help make sure that ebooks reach students in low-income families.

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) will work closely with IMLS, NYPL, and Firstbook, mobilizing its national network of librarians to help coordinate public domain books for inclusion in the program, and to help connect children with books that match their reading levels and interests. Librarians will work with publishers to create recommendation and suggestion lists.

“We view this initiative as a critical next step in DPLA’s overall mission to maximize access to our shared culture,” said DPLA executive director Dan Cohen in a statement. “With the centrality of books in our culture and the importance of encouraging reading both for learning and for pure enjoyment, we felt it was essential to find creative ways to increase that access.”

Anacostia broader shot (3)

President Obama at the Anacostia Neighborhood Library, Washington, DC


President Obama has been working to highlight the importance of lifelong learning and the crucial role of America’s public libraries. The president visited the ImaginOn branch of the Charlotte Mecklenberg Library, NC on April 15, and recently paid public tribute to his fifth-grade teacher, adding, “This is a story that every single kid in this country, regardless of background or station in life, should be able to tell. Sharing stories like these helps underline the vital importance of fighting for that reality.”

At his visit to the Anacostia Neighborhood Library, in one of the district’s poorest neighborhoods, Obama stated: “I really want to talk about how we can harness the amazing technological revolution going on to help people read and be able to get great jobs and start their own businesses and do great things.”

Obama stressed the value of reading, and told the assembled crowd of middle schoolers, “We’re going to provide millions of ebooks online so they’re available for young people who maybe don’t have as many books at home, don’t have access to a full stock of reading materials.”

While he mentioned that libraries around the country were taking part in his initiative, he said, “The New York Public Library in particular is taking the lead” on the collaboration with book publishers.

Osman Yaya, a sixth-grade student at Wicomico County Public Schools’ Bennett Middle School in Salisbury, MD, interviewed the president and asked questions that had been submitted beforehand. Viewers submitted thousands of questions, said Yaya; one was, “Did you enjoy reading [when you were a kid]? What types of books sparked your imagination and interest?” Yaya also asked Obama about his own books.

The President said that he enjoyed Dr. Seuss, the “Hardy Boys,” and The Lord of the Rings. “I’m still a big Dr. Seuss fan—The Sneeches, Horton, and all that stuff,” he said.

“I also enjoyed reading science books,” he told Yaya. “I loved reading about planets and dinosaurs.” In high school, he read Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby, and later was motivated to think about becoming president by the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King. ”The people who really inspired me were people who were bringing something back to the community or making something better.” Obama added, “I used to love libraries and reading I still love reading, but I don’t get to read for fun as much as I do for my work.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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  1. Pam Gardow says:

    I applaud this wonderful initiative, but must strongly disagree with Emily Sheketoff’s statement, “We know that children don’t take books from school for reading for pleasure.” The Eau Claire, WI school district (and a great many other Wisconsin schools) makes reading for pleasure a priority! We not only support reading by providing popular books, best sellers, magazines and graphic novels in print, but have an extensive collection of e-books and e-audiobooks available to students all year long through Overdrive. We encourage summer book checkouts, both print and electronic, to prevent “summer slide” in reading skills, and we partner with our public libraries on reading initiatives throughout the year. We are also investing in a program that allows students to download popular magazines to read on their devices. That being said, I agree with Ms. Sheketoff that some of the Apple devices should certainly go to public libraries. I think both schools and public libraries share the goal of encouraging children and young adults to read for pleasure as a way to improve literacy skills.

    • Julie Hooper says:

      Amen! I find it shocking that the executive director of ALA’s Washington Office would make such a statement. Surely she MUST have been misquoted. Ms. Sheketoff, please clarify yourself. School libraries and public libraries need to build strong partnerships to encourage the develop a lifelong love of reading. We need cooperation not competition!

  2. D. Martin says:

    Has anyone in this discussion mentioned libraries, or learning commons, within the school? I get the feeling that if they are addressed at all, they will be afterthoughts. There are many students who cannot get to the public library and need a decent school library. In many places school libraries are woefully underfunded, understaffed, split into classrooms, or non existent. I have not heard the administration’s current thoughts (if any) on the subject. Are they necessary or not?

    • MaryAnn Miller says:

      I must agree with public schools being an afterthought. I hear wonderful things and promises made for technology and putting books in kids hands, but never see it trickle down to the public high school that I work at. We are so short on computers it is laughable. We have 80 computers in our library computer lab, for 1800-1900 students. We do have a few rolling carts of laptops that teachers can check out and a small English writing lab upstairs, but not nearly enough and s to fully support the teachers and students. I am trying to link our classroom libraries to the school library to give the kids access to more books. This is only because of the generosity of the teachers who let me catalog their personal books that they buy for their classrooms. I too must strongly disagree with Emily Sheketoff’s statement, “We know that children don’t take books from school for reading for pleasure.” Of course they do! I personally talk to students everyday to make sure they are getting the kind of books they like. I know in a perfect world the numbers would be higher, but it saddens me that she thinks librarians aren’t out there on the front lines encouraging these kids to read. We are out there, and we are making a difference. If our hand weren’t tied behind our backs we could make a bigger difference. Because of another initiative/law of Mr. Obama, I have been cut to 29 hours a week (district can’t pay for insurance) and our contracted full time librarian has so many extra assignments that he might be in the library 1/2 hour a day. Libraries ARE the great equalizer, and we really need someone to hear us.

  3. A. Hvinden says:

    I agree that while the initiative that Mr. Obama is rolling out is a great thing, there are many holes to this plan. I was pondering this article as well as reading many others and I have to wonder why isn’t this proposed App rolled out through the school libraries/public libraries? Why is the administration and book publishers working to develop an entirely separate app to give access to ebooks in low income neighborhoods? Speaking of low income neighborhoods, how are the citizens of these cities that are deemed “low income” supposed to access the app? If the Gallop Poll results are correct, only 62 percent of people have computers in their home. If it is an app, I can only imagine a problem with access to an app that is mobile device based and not be an online program. Plus, in many schools, access to internet, mobile devices and computers are generally restricted. Pushing publishers to donate ebooks to this app, instead of reducing ebook prices for school and public libraries to continually increase their collection is a serious oversight. In a public library setting, via Overdrive, ebooks are only allowed a certain number of checkouts before a library has to renew the subscription. Is this going to be the same in this App that the ConnectEd initiative is pushing? Are the free books that the publishers donating going to require a check out process?I just feel that there are so many questions and I feel that the focus of this was deemed without the input of academic and public librarians.

    • MaryAnn Miller says:

      You are so correct in your summation! Another thing that concerns me is the middle class student. They are the ones that seem to always come up on the short end of things. Just because you are not considered “low income” doesn’t mean your parent have the money to buy extras like books. It also doesn’t mean that you have access to a computer. I remember once having a student whose parents felt like books were a waste of money and would not allow her to buy any. Her parents felt like libraries were for things like that. I sure didn’t mind slipping her a few of my books so she could feel what ownership of good books felt like, and I hope she will be the kind of parent that will provide books for her kids. I too believe the publisher route is not the right way to go. And as far as input, heaven forbid they talk to the people who actually experience what it is like in the library with the students. They will never fix problems by assembling “experts in their field” and fact finding groups that sit around a table and pontificate and analyze the problem. Go around the country and talk to lots of librarians. Lots as in thousands, schools as in many different socio-economic backgrounds, public libraries as in small and large, rich and poor.

  4. Something that will help our failing education system in this country would be to have a NATIONAL MANDATE that all public schools (Pre-K – Grade 12) MUST have a School library with a FULL TIME LIBRARIAN!!! At least one, the bigger the school the more students the more libraries and librarians there should be. There has been study after study that proves libraries and librarians in schools makes a BIG DIFFERENCE.

    • MaryAnn Miller says:

      Where is the LIKE button! So true!

    • Also looking for the LIKE button!!

    • Amen! And don’t you think that where the do have school librarians, they already work with the public library to get kids signed up for cards and summer reading programs? Certified school librarians are so important for developing that book collection that students will want to take home for pleasure reading. Not to mention digital literacy and research skills. So often in these times of tough budgets the library takes the hit and doesn’t get any updated or new technology, not to mention the book collection not getting updated updated because of a lack of funds. Or even cutting the existing librarian. School funding needs attention!

  5. How about giving school libraries and public libraries money to purchase eBook readers that can be checked out and funds to purchase the ebooks! All of us working together will enable libraries to provide the service instead of purchasing a tablet for every kid. That way, students would have some responsibility in taking care of the tablets if they are lost or broken the same way we do with books. Who do I call?

  6. Nicole says:

    Whille I laud the intent of this initiative, I see a flaw in rolling it out. How are low income students who don’t own a computer or mobile device (because, well, their parents can’t afford it) going to get access to all of those free ebooks? I work with plenty of low income families who love books, but they distrust technology or they can’t afford it. These families own dumb phones, don’t have wifi at home, and do not have computers or tablets at home. And what about the homeless low income students? That’s a similar situation. While many school systems nationwide have put iPads in the hands of students, those iPads are school property and must be returned the last day of school. Depending on the state, then students have 2-3 months without access to these ebooks. How do the president and the Big Five propose to address that problem? The spirit of the initiative is to be commended, but it would have been helpful if they were a little more grounded in what it really means to be low income.