The Kindred Philosophies of Mia Learning and Public Libraries
by Diana Black
Previously, we wrote about the many reasons why Mia is indebted and also complementary to librarians and libraries – for instance, how much of the metadata she uses is first created by them and how she points kids in their direction for guidance, mentorship, and to find their home away from home. Yet to discuss, however, are some subtler ways in which the philosophies of public libraries and Mia Learning align. Although unlike public libraries, our services are not free, we believe our work is consonant with theirs in several respects. Members of our staff have professional backgrounds in public libraries, so we feel confident that we know a thing or two about what libraries stand and strive for.
Last year, the American Library Association (ALA) revised its strategic initiatives to include a new direction prioritizing “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.” Each of those three is also key to Mia Learning. As Reading Specialist Leigh Ellis Beauchamp attested in a guest blog post back in August, Mia has unique potential to meet the challenge of making reading more equitable, accessible, and inclusive for disadvantaged and marginalized children. Mia can provide the invaluable support that is so often difficult to access in underserved communities. Mia also recommends books that help broaden kids’ interests — including by exposing them to books written from different identity perspectives and by “own voice” authors (for a definition of this term, see our interview with Rowan Walker). With her guidance, they do not just stick slavishly to their stated preferences: she shows them how they can connect existing tastes, hobbies, and perspectives to new and exciting possibilities.
In a further effort to give kids who use our software the opportunity to empathize with others both similar to and different from themselves, we designed Mia’s appearance and cast the live action actors who portray her protégés to create a diverse group to which we hope all kids can connect. It’s more than just window dressing: We’ve worked hard to make sure the characters are authentic and their stories nuanced. We believe visibility and representation are a small but vital step toward a more equitable society, and want to give every child the chance to find joy in their reading in community with others. In addition, we look forward to expanding our partnership with Book Trust, a wonderful non-profit that gives kids in low-income schools the opportunity to choose books for their personal libraries each month. With their help, we want to offer Mia subscriptions free to students they serve.
Another key value that public libraries share with Mia is using technology alongside traditional print books to maximize the value. As long as we can remember, every couple of months yields another newspaper or magazine opinion piece announced the imminent “death of libraries,” saying that Americans don’t read anymore, claiming libraries are “irrelevant” or “obsolete.” Yet libraries have proven time and time again that they are not one trick ponies. In fact, they are only increasing in relevance and utility when it comes to technology – whether providing computers where job seekers can apply for work, showing patrons how to use devices, hosting maker spaces, or offering subscriptions to digital media services like OverDrive and Hoopla. Mia Learning, too, considers print books at the heart of its endeavors, but it is no accident that Mia helps kids find those titles through an Web application. Just as they can log on to their library accounts no matter the hour, kids can talk to Mia any time. Mia can help kids access ebooks and audiobooks, but she specializes in getting physical copies of books into kids’ hands and onto their bookshelves. Essentially, she is complementing the access to print offered by local libraries with motivating, efficient, and highly personalized opportunities for book ownership.
Finally, libraries exist in part to help us understand ourselves and others better, to broaden our minds and widen the scope of our knowledge and, hopefully, compassion. As author Libba Bray writes, “The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of ALL human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance.” Holdings of every type and genre, from innumerable authors and artists, help make libraries the treasure troves they are, but they are also hotbeds of democracy and discussions. They are social spaces inclusive of the entire local community they serve, a contact zone and place to meet, mingle, and learn.
Like many a great librarian before her, Mia is dedicated to her mission: helping kids to find their newest favorite book: a book that allows them to imagine new possibilities and make new connections, a book that keeps them coming back for more.