How do you decide which apps to purchase? With limited time and budgets, many youth librarians are looking to app review sites and other sources to help them decide which apps are worth giving a try and possibly adding to professional or personal collections. It can be hard to narrow down the choices in various categories and decide which app is best. And as the industry continues to grow, we will continue to see new review sites popping up and others fading out. More and more, app recommendations and information are services that parents, students, and kids are looking to librarians to provide.
There are as many methods for app research as there are people. To get you started, I’ve compiled a list of some favorite sources and what I like about each one. Some of them are specifically children’s app review sites and others have a broader scope. Some have formal criteria and some simply write out their opinion. As I’ve explored review sources, I’ve begun to notice which reviewers or sites share my personal philosophy on what makes a good app. Just like a friend who knows me well and can recommend a great book, these sites have become trusted resources that aid me in making decisions for my library and my family.
As with book or film reviews, it’s important to consider the perspective of the reviewer. Some reviewers are educators, some parents, some both. Some review for profit and some not. And every review site has it is own specific focus. Some rate apps with an emphasis on educational content, others on the quality of entertainment. Neither method is right or wrong. As long as the criteria is clear, the source can be helpful.
“Best of” Lists:
“Best of” lists might be one of my favorite things about the Internet. I have bookmarked so many of them from various sites like Macworld, NPR, Wired, or Babble. Sometimes the perspective of the list doesn’t perfectly match what I’m looking for as a librarian or parent but it’s helpful to see what’s popular and be familiar with it. Sometimes an app is popular because it’s an educational gem and other times it is popular because it’s just plain fun. Both are ok with me, depending on the intended usage!
Recent lists I’ve enjoyed browsing include this one by Babble, this extensive resource by Digital Media Diet that starts with 50 apps for toddlers and continues through teens, the Guardian’s 50 Best Apps, and MacWorld’s App Guide. So many times I’m made aware of great lists like this through blogs like ALSC or other librarians or through Twitter.
App Review Sites:
There are many App Review sites out there but the following are my recent favorites in no particular order.
I like AppSmitten because they send personalized app recommendations via email. This helps me find out about great apps without having to browse for them. Their emphasis on the best of the best makes my life easier as a librarian and a mom and I really like that. I know I’m not going to see every app I might be interested in through this one source but that’s ok with me. It’s still one of my favorite go-to resources for finding neat stuff. It’s rather brilliant and I have gotten some great ideas from their recommendations. Their reviews are also clear and concise and the AppSmitten homepage offers the ability to browse and search through their drop-down menus for more app discovery. I also really appreciate AppSmitten’s interactivity via Twitter. I love the personalized feel of their recommendations.
Digital Storytime simply has tons and tons of app reviews. It’s a go-to site for me to check out new apps or to browse for apps in a certain category. Their interface is simple to use and shows the prices upfront, which I love. They offer lots of choices for narrowing down your browsing including age, price, language, and quality. They also offer an email newsletter and handpicked daily app deals. Digital Storytime gives apps an overall rating in 9 categories which include things like interactivity, re-readability, and animation. The synopsis and details tab is very helpful to quickly see the length and other important details.
I like Common Sense Media’s app reviews (and their other reviews) because it’s a trusted source in my library’s community and the site is visually clean, organized, and easy to use. There are so many different ways to browse for apps: by age, by subject or skill, by learning rating, etc. I like the visual cues in Common Sense’s rating system because it makes it easy to see at a glance which apps might interest me from the browsing page. Then if I want to explore further, I can click on the title of the app for a more in-depth review, sometimes including screenshots. There is an age recommendation and then using a green, yellow or red circle they note if the app’s content is appropriate for most kids at that age. They also give an overall rating in stars and a learning rating (BETA) with shaded in books from 1 to 3. Their overall approach to ratings is explained here.
An added bonus is that they make it really easy for me to Pin or Share the apps I’m finding. This is great when I’m browsing and not yet ready to buy. The other thing I would mention about Common Sense Media is that they are really focused on age-appropriateness and learning potential of apps. Sometimes there’s not as much information given about how the app itself functions.
I really like School Library Journal as a review source in general so it makes sense that I would appreciate their app reviews. I seem to find more of the truly special apps on the SLJ blog, in my opinion at least. This is where I come when I want to be wowed by the power of digital media. Their reviews are always in-depth and often give programming or service ideas that help me to know how the app might be useful in a school or public library setting. SLJ is also really great about giving detailed information about how the app functions. If I have enough information about what the app actually does, I can more easily tell whether it would be appropriate to use in a program or storytime or if it would be better to install on our early literacy iPads. Or it might just be something neat for me to share via my library’s blog or with patrons in other ways. Having the specifics really helps with this! SLJ also tends to have a stronger focus on enhanced books than other review sources and I’ve found some really amazing nonfiction apps here!
Don’t underestimate personal recommendations, especially if you are just getting started. Ask a librarian friend or parents in your storytime what apps they like and why and then go exploring. I find great app recommendations from friends and colleagues, either in person or via blogs and other internet chatter. Some of my favorite apps have been recommended to me by other librarians, parents, and/or teachers in a more informally than via a review site. Based on their recommendations, I give them a try and see if I like them. No rubric required!
A common complaint I hear from those who are just beginning to explore the world of apps is that the choices are overwhelming. They don’t know where to begin. But there’s no time like the present to start exploring! So what are your favorite sources for finding out about great apps? Please share in the comments below.
Andrea Vernola is a Children’s Librarian at Kalamazoo Public Library. She is a member of the ALSC Children and Technology Committee. She can be found on twitter as @librarianandi.