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E-Readers Next Targets of US Conservative Book Ban Controversy

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E-readers have been targeted by conservatives on a book ban quest.

No longer satisfied with just going after school libraries and board members, the zealous book banners have now turned their attention to digital literature.

Conservative parents are pushing for digital libraries to be banned in schools, and stop kids from being able to download and read a huge variety of books on smartphones, tablets, and computers. They are citing the recent state mandate and anti-LGBTQ+ bill as a reason to restrict access to literature.

Over in Nashville, Tennessee, a school’s entire e-reader service was been pulled for a week, cutting literary access of over 40,000 students who could no longer freely read literature at their leisure. This decision was in reaction to one parent finding a single title that seemingly supported LGBTQ people when she searched the Epic library available on her kindergartner’s laptop.

Florida’s Brevard County school system pulled their own access to the Epic app from its computer system, as they did not want kids to have access to material that hadn’t been vetted by its own school librarians first.

In Austin, Texas, access was cut to the much-used and enjoyed OverDrive digital library, which residents had used for a decade. This since promoted a federal lawsuit against the county.

“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, who provide a lot of digital services to schools.

OverDrive is used by 75,000 libraries, and other institutions, in 100 countries, Potash said. 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.”

kid with e reader

The digital libraries have been a godsend for kids, teachers, and parents who can easily get access to any title for lessons. This has been particularly useful during the recent pandemic when children have had to stay home and have no access to the school library.

With this ease of access comes ease of censorship, however, and parents can now search digital collections for any content they do not like, and demand the school administrators censor or ban the title.

“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.

“It’s not enough to take a book off the shelf,” she said. “Now they want to filter electronic materials that have made it possible for so many people to have access to literature and information they’ve never been able to access before.”

A spokesperson for Brevard Public Schools, Russel Bruhn, explained that the Epic app was only removed temporarily and was not part of a campaign for censorship.

“We did not receive any complaints about Epic,” Bruhn said, but he acknowledged “it had never been fully vetted or approved by the school system.”

Epic says its online libraries are curated by employees to make sure they’re age-appropriate.

Bruhn said he had no idea how many of the system’s 70,000 students previously had free access, nor did he know whether access would eventually be restored.

“We’re not banning books in Brevard County,” he said. “We want to have a consistent review of educational materials.”

Kimberley Hough, the vice president of Families for Safe Schools and a parent herself, believes the state mandate and another new law have created a climate of fear.

“Our laws now have made everyone terrified that a parent is going to sue the school district over what they don’t really know if they’re allowed to have or not have, because the laws are so vague,” she said.

Robin Steenman, a Williamson County parent is against apps such as Epic, explaining that she does not want children to be able to seek out any LGBTQ pride titles at all, even if the kid would have to actively seek out the book within the app.

“It has still been made available to the student, regardless of whether it is assigned reading or not,” Steenman, who also runs a conservative group Moms for Liberty. “I guarantee that kids know exactly where to find it.”

Other parents were angry their children’s reading is being restricted by a small but loud group of conservative reactionaries driven by a vague state mandate and the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill.

“The whole point of Epic is it’s screened for appropriateness and diversity of thought,” said Anne McGraw, a co-leader of Williamson Strong, a group for more progressive parents.

Epic CEO Suren Markosian said that a statewide ban would not affect his business but that the negative impact on teachers and kids “would be catastrophic, as they lose access to tens of thousands of books that support independent reading, lesson plans, research projects and much more.”



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