Guest blog: Nicholas Harris is the Managing Editor of Q-files, the specially designed digital encyclopedia for children aged 8 to 13, and the founder of Orpheus Books. Here Nicholas discusses some of the benefits of digital resources…

At a personal level, all of us who work in the world of books – authors, publishers, readers, librarians – look upon digital publishing with a certain amount of equivocation. We are all book lovers, yet we have to accept that we are living in the digital era, so to ignore the obvious advantages of digital would be absurd.

As it happens, the physical book has survived – and thrived, admirably – in the face of the advance of the e-book. The two forms of the written word co-exist, with readers finding it useful to have either or both. Printed books for children are proving particularly robust. Even the most ardent digital enthusiast would agree that it is a good thing for children to discover their love of reading from the printed page.

When it comes to reference and learning materials, however, digital has several distinct advantages over print. Mainly, it’s more convenient and it’s cheaper – or even free. Many of us turn to Google to help answer our specific questions, or to Wikipedia, say, for in-depth information about a particular topic. There are, in fact, thousands of free online resources available for this purpose. We each of us carry around a vast reference library on our smartphones, and have quickly learned to take this facility for granted.

For students of all ages, the choices are somewhat fewer (Wikipedia and many other online resources are not written for children and teenagers in mind) and the challenges greater (the resources may be unreliable, something that a young user might not be aware of). Students need to be pointed in the direction of those digital resources that are designed for their use, and taught how to assess whether they are trustworthy.

Once there, the advantages of digital over print are significant:

Digital resources don’t occupy any physical space. Your library can “stock” any number of them while keeping space on the shelves for books, journals etc., etc. Even better, the students can have ready access to digital resources wherever they are, whenever they like. They don’t have to visit the library — or even be at school.

Digital resources are either free, or a lot cheaper than the equivalent amount of information provided in print form. So long as the resources are as reliable and authoritative as the print ones – something that is not always a given – a school library can offer a massive range of first-rate resources at a fraction of the cost of a print library. The costs of the devices, internet access and electrical power do have to be taken into account, however.

A good digital resource is right up-to-date. In a fast-moving world, with new discoveries, new inventions and new events happening all the time, it’s vital to keep up. Unlike printed reference works, permanently frozen at the date of their creation, a digital work can effortlessly incorporate these new facts as they happen; for example, the new date for the evolution of Homo sapiens (now 300,000 years ago, thanks to a study published in 2017), the discovery of a new species of an orangutan (November 2017), and the death of Stephen Hawking (in March 2018).

Digital resources may consist of mixed media – images, video, audio and animations – as well as text. They may also offer a read-aloud and translation facility, along with other useful things such as a citation tool or a word look-up. A printed resource has to make do with just text and images.

Finding what you are looking for in a digital resource is usually much quicker than flicking through the pages of a book or consulting its index. (Effective digital research skills, however, are an important pre-requisite.) Enter a keyword, and the search function will come up with results – and a measure of relevance – within seconds. Clicking on hyperlinks within the text of a digital work re-directs you to other useful sources of information, which is something that a book, no matter how detailed its footnotes or comprehensive its bibliography, cannot do.

Every student in the school can use a digital resourcesimultaneously. Unlike printed books, there are limitless “copies” of them, so they are always available.

Digital resources open up a range of possibilities that teachers can take advantage of as well. Digital resources are a gift for what is nowadays called the blended classroom, one that uses online content and tools as “integral aspects of instruction”. Text, illustrations, diagrams, photos or videos downloaded from a digital platform can be used for creating lesson plans for either the whole class or individual students. A digital resource is perfect for setting homework – although this assumes, of course, that every student has internet access and a device at home.

Q-files are sponsoring and Nicholas will be attending JCS 2018 From Digital Literacy to Independent Learning: challenges and opportunities for librarians and teachers.