“I love it!" UWM, Waukesha County public libraries collaborate on app to track reading

MILWAUKEE -- Read the “Poky Little Puppy” to your toddler 58 times? Now there’s an app to track that!

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Waukesha County public libraries collaborated on a free app for parents to track books read to their children. The app supports the popular “1000 Books Before Kindergarten” program offered by libraries nationwide.

The goal is to encourage parents and grandparents to read to children, fostering literacy later on. (See http://www.wcfls.org/early-literacy for more information.)

Until now, parents have had to log the books read to their children with pen and paper, turning in their reports to the libraries where children earn rewards, said Angela Meyers, coordinator of youth and special needs services for the Waukesha County Federated Library System. She thought the process could be simpler.

“Keeping track of the folder with the reading logs was sometimes a hassle, so we wanted to take a paper model and make it digital,” Meyers said.

The library didn’t have the money or staff to develop a smartphone app, so Meyers, who earned her master’s degree at UWM, turned to the university’s App Brewery, which helps students fine tune their skills by working with real-life clients from nonprofits. While the School of Information Studies sponsors the brewery, participating students come from a variety of academic programs that prepare them for careers in information studies and technology, graphic design and computer sciences.

“We would not have been able to do this without the help from UWM and the App Brewery,” Meyers said.

The 1000 Books Before Kindergarten app already has 316 users and 412 children after a “soft launch” this spring, Meyers said.  While the app is set up to work with the Waukesha County libraries’ program, families in other areas can use it.

“We’ve had downloads from Canada and Australia,” Meyers said. “When it was mentioned on the ALA (American Library Association’s) Facebook site, it got 60 ‘likes’ the first night.”

The app is available for both iPhones and Androids.

“It’s awesome,” said Natasha Heinlein, of Muskego, who’s been using the app as she reads to her 3-year-old son, Eli, and 18-month-old daughter, Evy.  “I love it, and it’s really easy to use. It’s a much more convenient than remembering to write down every book.”

The app allows librarians to catch families up by transferring books from the paper log if they have children like Eli, who has already read more than 300 books with his mom. His favorites include “I Love You Stinky Face,” “Wacky Wednesday,” “Fraidy Zoo,” and anything about dinosaurs.

“I like to read to him, and I know he’s learning a lot,” Heinlein said. “Sometimes we just enjoy laughing together about silly stories.”

The app allows parents to set up profiles for each of their children, App Brewery Manager Dustin Hahn said. Grandparents, aunts, babysitters, siblings and others who read to a child also can sign into the child’s profile from their smartphones and log books. Entering a book can be as easy as scanning the barcode on it.

The Waukesha County libraries’ app is one of two including “1000 Books” in its name. Meyers said the advantage of the app developed at UWM is that it incorporates feedback from users and is supported by the library system.

“Our library patrons can go into the library to have a conversation about the 1000 Books program and talk to their librarian about the app, and get incentives along the way,” she said. “I can't think of one other app where you can actually walk in or call someone to give feedback. I think that's kind of neat.”