The International Children's Digital Library: A Case Study in Designing for a Multilingual, Multicultural, Multigenerational Audience

By Hutchinson, Hilary Browne; Rose, Anne et al. | Information Technology and Libraries, March 2005 | Go to article overview
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The International Children's Digital Library: A Case Study in Designing for a Multilingual, Multicultural, Multigenerational Audience


Hutchinson, Hilary Browne, Rose, Anne, Bederson, Benjamin B., Weeks, Ann Carlson, Druin, Allison, Information Technology and Libraries


The challenges encountered in building the International Children's Digital Library (ICDL), a freely available online library of children's literature are described. These challenges include selecting and processing books from different countries, handling and presenting multiple languages simultaneously, and addressing cultural differences. Unlike other digital libraries that present content from one or a few languages and cultures, and focus on either adult or child audiences, ICDL must serve a multilingual, multicultural, multigenerational audience. The research is presented as a case study for addressing these design criteria; current solutions and plans for future work are described.

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The Internet is a multilingual, multicultural, multigenerational environment. While once the domain of English-speaking, Western, adult males, the demographics of the Internet have changed remarkably over the last decade. As of March 2004, English was the native language of only 35 percent of the total world online population. As of March 2004, Asia, Europe, and North America each make up roughly 30 percent of Internet usage worldwide. (1) In the United States, women and men now use the Internet in approximately equal numbers, and children and teenagers use the Internet more than any other age group. (2)

Creators of online digital libraries have recognized the benefit of making their content available to users around the world, not only for the obvious benefits of broader dissemination of information and cultural awareness, but also as tools for empowerment and strengthening community. (3) Creating digital libraries for children has also become a popular research topic as more children access the Internet. (4) The International Children's Digital Library (ICDL) project seeks to combine these areas of research to address the needs of both international and intergenerational users. (5)

Background and Related Work

Creating international software is a complex process involving two steps: internationalization, where the core functionality of the software is separated from localized interface details, and localization, where the interface is customized for a particular audience. (6) The localization step is not simply a matter of language translation, but involves technical, national, and cultural aspects of the software. (7) Technical details such as different operating systems, fonts, and file formats must be accommodated. National differences in language, punctuation, number formats, and text direction must be handled properly. Finally, and perhaps most challenging, cultural differences must be addressed.

Hofstede defines culture as "the collective mental programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another." (8) These groups might be defined by national, regional, ethnic, religious, gender, generation, social class, or occupation differences. By age ten, most children have learned the value system of their culture, and it is very difficult to change. Hofstede breaks culture into four components: values, rituals, heroes, and symbols. These components manifest themselves everywhere in software interfaces, from acceptable iconic representations of people, animals, and religious symbols to suitable colors, phrases, jokes, and scientific theories. (9) However, as Hoft notes, culture is like an iceberg: only 10 percent of the characteristics of a culture are visible on the surface. (10) The rest are subjective, unspoken, and unconscious. It is only by evaluating an interface with users from the target culture that designers can understand if their software is acceptable. (11)

Developers of online digital libraries have had to contend with international audiences for many years, and the MARC and OCLC systems have reflected this concern by including capabilities for transliteration and diacritical characters (accents) in various languages.

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