Imagine being a new reader at your current age — maybe you’re learning a new language, maybe you’re coming to literacy later in life for other reasons. You want to practice, but what kind of beginning-level readers are in your local library? One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish is funny, sure, but you’d prefer to learn about useful and interesting topics relevant to an adult life, wouldn’t you? Or maybe you’re a teenager, a high school student who is working hard to learn about the same topics as your peers who can read fluently. It’s easy to get discouraged when you can’t find any books that meet your needs.
These are the gaps addressed by Tar Heel Reader, a collaboration between the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies and the Department of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina (thus the name). Tar Heel Reader, launched a little over a year ago, offers
“a collection of free, easy-to-read, and accessible books on a wide range of topics. Each book can be speech enabled and accessed using multiple interfaces (i.e., switches, alternative keyboards, touch screens, and dedicated AAC devices). The books may be downloaded as slide shows in PowerPoint, Impress, or Flash format.”
Gary Bishop has a more technical explanation of the way it all works here.
Tar Heel Reader books are created by users all over the world, in various languages, using a book-writing “wizard” that accesses Flickr images (only those with amenable licenses, and always credited to the owner) to illustrate the books. As I write this, there are over 4,600 books available — and I’ve made 67 of those.
This week, Flickr Commons images were added to the already rich supply of images available to Tar Heel Reader authors. To try out the new options, I made two books using only Commons images. WWII: Women Working spotlights the gorgeous color photos of wartime factory workers in the Library of Congress uploads; and Ellis Island tells a first-person story of early-20th-century immigration, using the New York Public Library’s uploads on the subject, mostly the portraits by Augustus Sherman, Chief Registry Clerk. Thematic sets like these are easy to convert into picture books — the images (from a given era, or even by one photographer) share a look that gives a book a stronger visual identity, and they’re already focused on a specific topic.
I’ve used current images to make books about voting, First Amendment rights, air travel, thriftshopping, hats, popcorn, gingerbread houses, Groucho glasses, you name it; but for making books about history, historical images are invaluable. Which is why I’m excited and grateful to have Flickr Commons images to play with at Tar Heel Reader. And I think the readers and teachers will be happy to see them too.