E-reader apps that became a lifeline for students during the pandemic are now in the crossfire of a culture war raging over books in schools and public libraries.
Conservative parents have pushed schools and public libraries to close their digital programs, which allow users to download and read books on their smartphones, tablets, or laptops, in several states.
Some parents want the apps to be prohibited for their children, or even all students. They are seeing results.
After a parent searched the Epic library available on her kindergartener’s laptop and found books supporting gay pride, a school superintendent in a Nashville suburb took his system’s e-reader offline for a week last month, cutting access for 40,000 students.
A federal lawsuit was filed against a rural county northwest of Austin, Texas, after county officials cut off access to the OverDrive digital library, which local residents had used for a decade to find books to read for pleasure.
On Florida’s east coast, the Brevard County school system removed the Epic app from its computer system, stating that it did not want students to have access to material that had not been vetted by their school librarians.
OverDrive, based in Cleveland, is used by 75,000 libraries and other institutions worldwide, including prisons and militaries, according to Potash. Local librarians, he said, hand-pick which titles are available to area residents or students in every case.
The fact that it’s now so easy to pull the plug on thousands of book titles is itself a revelation to some users of e-reader apps, which have become part of the basic digital infrastructure at many schools and public libraries. People use the apps to find e-books that are available for borrowing and then read them in the same app or on another, such as Amazon’s Kindle.
E-reader apps haven’t completely replaced printed books, which schools and libraries frequently purchase because they own the paper versions, whereas e-books are licensed from publishers for a limited time. However, schools and libraries sign up for apps like Epic, Hoopla, and OverDrive because readers like the convenience of e-books and teachers get more assignment options — especially during pandemic-related school closures.
The apps frequently market to schools and libraries as a quick way to diversify their digital shelves, particularly after racial justice protests in spring 2020 drew attention to the lack of diversity in many traditional institutions.
However, convenience is a two-edged sword. Previously, a parent might not have been able to find out what was in a library collection, allowing students some freedom to roam the stacks. They can now easily search digital collections for books with objectionable content and request that school administrators censor or limit access with a few mouse clicks.
She claims that book-ban campaigns that began by criticizing school board members and librarians have now shifted their focus to the tech startups that run the apps, which have been around for years without much controversy.
Kimberly Hough, a Brevard Public Schools parent with two children, said her 9-year-old noticed right away when the Epic app disappeared a few weeks ago because its collection had become so useful during the pandemic.
Brevard Public Schools spokesperson Russell Bruhn stated that the district removed Epic due to a new Florida state law requiring a book-by-book review of online libraries. The law, signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, requires that “each book made available to students” through a school library be “selected by a school district employee.” Employees curate Epic’s online libraries to ensure they are age-appropriate, according to the company.
The conflicts reflect how some school districts and parents are only now catching up to the amount of technology that children use on a daily basis and how it affects their lives. According to LearnPlatform, a North Carolina company that advises schools and ed tech firms, students in kindergarten through 12th grade in the United States used an average of 74 different tech products during the first half of this school year.