E-reader apps that became lifelines for students during the pandemic are now in the crossfire of a culture war raging over books in schools and public libraries.
In several states, apps and the companies that run them have been targeted by conservative parents who have pushed schools and public libraries to shut down their digital programs, which let users download and read books on their smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Some parents want the apps to be banned for their children or even for all students. And they’re getting results.
A school superintendent in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, pulled his system’s e-reader offline for a week last month, cutting access for 40,000 students, after a parent searched the Epic library available on her kindergartner’s laptop and found books supporting LGBTQ pride.
In a rural county northwest of Austin, Texas, county officials cut off access to the OverDrive digital library, which residents had used for a decade to find books to read for pleasure, prompting a federal lawsuit against the county.
And on the east coast of Florida, the Brevard County school system removed the Epic app from its computer system, saying it didn’t want kids to have access to material its own school librarians hadn’t vetted.
“Over 20 years, there’s not really been any history of a sustained challenge like this to our public library service,” said Steve Potash, the founder and CEO of OverDrive, which has been a gateway to e-books for two decades through apps such as Libby and Sora.
OverDrive, based in Cleveland, is used by 75,000 libraries and other institutions, including prisons and militaries in 100 countries, Potash said. In every case, he said, the local librarians hand-pick which titles are available to area residents or students.
“Individuals who are not supporters of materials with certain diverse voices — probably without reading the material — are creating an alarm,” he said. “We stand with and trust librarians and the professionals.”
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 available to borrow and then read them either in the same app or download them to another, such as Amazon’s Kindle.
E-reader apps haven’t replaced printed books, which schools and libraries often still buy because they own the paper versions, whereas e-books are licensed from publishers for a set period of time. But schools and libraries sign up with apps such as Epic, Hoopla and OverDrive because readers say they like the convenience of e-books and teachers get more options for assignments — especially during pandemic-related school closings.
The apps often market themselves to schools and libraries as a way to quickly diversify their digital shelves, especially after racial justice protests in spring 2020 drew attention to the lack of diversity in many traditional institutions.
But convenience is a double-edged sword. In years past, parents might not have been able to find out what’s in a library collection, giving students a certain measure of freedom to roam the stacks. Now, they can easily search digital collections for books with content they object to and ask school administrators to censor or limit access with a few mouse clicks.
“The terrifying thing is that they can be censored with the flip of a switch, without due process, without evaluating the substance of the claims,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association.