I have never been an audio book user, because I process visual information more easily than auditory information. But when I began working at a public library, I noticed that our patrons love audio books. At my library, audio books are checked out almost as frequently as printed books. I closely observe our patrons’ habits because I have a keen personal interest in providing my community with resources that are needed and will be used. As I took note of my community’s affinity for audio books, I developed an interest in them and I wanted to learn how they could be used to better serve my community. My library primarily serves children and senior citizens, and I wanted to know how audio books (including books on tape, books on compact disc, and downloadable audio books) could positively impact each of these populations.
In the course of my research, I learned that when children who are learning to read use audio books in conjunction with a typical literacy program, the children become better readers and learn extra skills. Next, I learned that audio books are excellent resources that can improve quality of life for elderly patrons. The first part of this writeup will focus on audio books’ impact on children’s education. The second part of this paper will focus on the cultural impact of audio books as a library resource for visually impaired elderly patrons.
Using audio books to support the typical reading curriculum is known as supported reading. Children in supported reading programs read a book while listening to a recording of the same material. Struggling readers do not have to labor over each word; they can read and listen to a book repeatedly until they can read unassisted. The learning process is less frustrating and more rewarding for these children. Teachers report that children who use learn to read in supported reading programs do better than children who learn to read in unsupported reading programs. Children in supported reading programs develop larger vocabularies, have higher comprehension and word recognition skills, and use words more confidently because the audio books help them learn to pronounce words properly (RFB&D). Clearly, audio books have a positive impact on children’s learning.
The use of audio books in supported reading programs also teaches children to listen--not just to hear what is said, but to comprehend meaning and critical thinking. According to RFB&D, children with good listening skills are better able to follow directions, understand expectations, and communicate their needs. They are better at accessing the knowledge they already have, integrating it with new information, and turning this information into knowledge because they “have a framework for understanding new content and whether or not the content is relevant. As a result, they are much better at sifting through all of the information they receive and determining what the main points are and what are extraneous details (RFB&D).” Audio books have a positive impact not just on reading skills, but also on listening and critical thinking.
These listening and critical thinking skills will serve children well not just in the classroom, but throughout their lives as they communicate with others and enter the workforce. Audio books prepare children for the workforce in one additional way: The simple act of using technology, such as audio books, at a young age also helps children build tech skills they can use for the rest of their lives. Waters quotes an elementary school teacher who says,
"If we're going to prepare our students to live and work in the 21st century, we have to make sure that they are comfortable with 21st-century tools. They become the most proficient with these tools when they are connected to content, when they are an integral part of the core curriculum areas--language arts and reading, math, science, and social studies--across the spectrum."
Using audio technology in the classroom doesn’t just help children’s reading comprehension, vocabularies, listening, and critical thinking skills—it also prepares them for the technology they will someday use in the workplace. It is clear, then, that audio books can have a broad and positive impact on children. But how can audio books help older adults?
Modern medicine is allowing people to live longer than ever before, and as the baby boom generation ages, the elderly population will grow. As the elderly population grows, it will become more important for communities to meet the specific information needs of elderly individuals. The elderly population deals with three major categories of learning needs (Nablo 11). First, the elderly must learn to deal with major life changes such as the death of a significant other, limitations on their physical capabilities, and how to deal with loneliness. Second, they must learn to adjust to new tasks and roles, such as retirement. Third, they must learn to enjoy their spare time. Public libraries can make valuable contributions to all three of these learning areas, as well as helping elderly individuals make their lives meaningful and helping them stay in the mainstream. But first, libraries must make sure that their collections contain resources that elderly individuals can use.
What criteria determine which resources elderly patrons can use—do cognitive difficulties or physical impairments pose a greater challenge to the elderly population? Hales-Mabry suggests that learning, creativity, and cognitive ability do not substantially change with age unless there is a pathological cause. According to Nablo, studies have shown that older adults’ personalities are stable as they age, remaining much the same as when they were young. So elderly patrons need resources that address the needs mentioned above, but they will also remain interested in the same types of books, magazines, and newspapers they used when they were younger. Luckily, all of these resources are available in audio form (Evans).
Why is audio format so good for the elderly population? Large print books are the leading resource for elderly individuals (Nablo 12), but large print books can’t serve the information needs of all elderly individuals. Most elderly individuals experience vision problem, including the loss of visual sharpness, the inability to see in dim light, the inability to distinguish colors, sensitivity to glare, a narrower field of vision, and the inability to shift vision between objects at varying distances (Nablo 3). Several patrons at my library suffer from macular degeneration, which has left them almost completely unable to read text. More than half of elderly individuals also experience some form of hearing loss—usually an inability to hear both high-pitched sounds and low-pitched sounds. But most elderly individuals do not become completely deaf. More than twenty-eight million Americans experience some kind of hearing loss, but only seven percent of these people are profoundly deaf (National Association of the Deaf). So using audio resources with headphones allows many elderly patrons to block out other sounds, turn up the volume, and overcome this problem.
But are elderly individuals able to adapt to new audio technologies? Consider this study of the Playaway device among users who described themselves as neither technologically proficient nor techno-phobic (Peters 34):
For five months (December 2005 through March 2006), the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center conducted a field test of Playaway devices. Fifty blind and low-vision individuals self-selected to participate in the field tests. The oldest participant was 88 years old, and the majority of volunteer testers who indicated an age on their feedback forms were in their 50s and 60s. The users who participated in this field test generally were pleased and encouraged by the Playaway device. Over 90 percent of the completed surveys described the overall experience as either very or somewhat satisfactory. The report concluded: "The experiences and feedback gleaned during this small field test indicate that libraries of all types should seriously consider a self-contained digital audio book device such as the Playaway as one way to introduce the pleasure and convenience of digital audio books to their service populations-users."
This study indicates that the majority of older users who are interested in trying new audio technology will be able to adapt, learn to use the device, and have a positive experience with audio technology. The report’s concluding endorsement and the recommendation that public librarians “seriously consider” adding Playaway devices to their collections indicate to me that audio books are a valuable resource for the visually impaired group that participated in this study.
Now that we have determined that audio books are an appropriate format for elderly individuals, let’s re-examine elderly individuals’ information needs to be sure that audio books can meet these needs. Elderly individuals must learn to deal with major life changes such as limitations on their physical capabilities. I have witnessed firsthand at my library how the simple act of learning to use an audio book device—whether it is a book on tape or CD, a Playaway, or a book downloaded to an mp3 player—can help an elderly individual deal with visual limitations. They also must learn to enjoy their spare time and adjust to retirement. I have seen that patrons who are enjoying their spare time with library resources adjust well to being outside the workforce, and the audio book can be a part of that. My research and observations have shown me that audio book resources make a cultural impact for senior citizens that is just as impressive as the learning impact they make on children.
Evans, M.K. “Serving the needs of visually impaired information seekers in UK public libraries.” IFLA Council and General Conference, Conference Proceedings: 66th, Jerusalem, Israel (2000).
Hales-Mabry, Celia. “The World of Aging: Information Needs and Choices.”(Chicago: American Library Association, 1993).
Nablo, Judy. “Ohio Public Library Services to Older Adults.” Master’s thesis. (Kent State University, 1995). 3 – 26.
National Association of the Deaf. “Statistics on Deafness & Hearing Disorders in U.S.” Deaf and HOH Culture Information. http://members.aol.com/deafcultureinfo/deafstatistics.htm. Internet; accessed 25 October 2007.
Peters, Thomas A. “Implementing and Sustaining a Digital Audiobook Service.” Library Technology Reports 43, no. 1 (2000): 30 – 35.
Recording For the Blind & Dyslexic. “Why Teach Listening?” Listening Through Learning. http://www.learningthroughlistening.org/Listening-A-Powerful-Skill/Listening-and-Learning/Why-Teach-Listening/94/. Internet; accessed 25 October 2007.
Waters, John K. “Out of Print.” T.H.E. Journal 34, no. 5 (2007): 31 – 36.
node your homework, yo.