In response to a manufactured panic over books, there comes a capitalist solution to eliminate the professional knowledge and expertise of those who work at the intersections of education and literacy. Last week, a new program was launched, marketing itself as a means to help schools, libraries, and parents navigate the new reality of life with book bans. BookmarkED, who soft launched their product during a Texas State Senate Committee on Education meeting March 30, 20023, is “a solution to the ongoing challenge of banned and challenged books in school libraries across North America, with Texas being the fastest growing in this space, followed closely by Florida.” The soft launch occurred two and a half months before Texas passed the READER Act.
Founded by Steve Wandler, who works in the education technology space, BookmarkED aims to “empower parents to personalize school libraries.” The purpose is to ensure that parents get to decide the “individual literary journey for their children, based on their personal values and interests,” while teachers and librarians can keep “confidently recommending and providing more personalized books to their students, knowing precisely the learning outcomes they will achieve.” As a bonus, the technology will help libraries “simply and efficiently navigate the ever-changing challenged books landscape.” BookmarkED’s website states the idea was conceptualized by a Texas superintendent.
In the press release for the technology, Wandler noted that library workers rely on year-old data on book bans and that BookmarkED would provide current data on the books being banned across the country. He notes that “we equip schools with real-time data at the state and national level for challenged books, which no other solution in the market is capable of.” The press release cites data on book bans from the American Library Association’s report earlier this year.
Parents would be able to decide which books their kids have access to at the school library and have “real time” access to what their students are checking out. School libraries would know which books are being challenged statewide, ostensibly so they can take part in the mass censorship or prepare for challenges to those titles in their own collection. The website for BookmarkED purports this would save districts money around the book challenge process and ensure educators can make “informed selections for materials that support curriculum.” In a lengthier explanation at his blog, Wandler notes that such information would protect librarians and educators from liability. Again citing American Library Association figures, he writes that “with more and more books being challenged, school districts need a solution to track the latest challenges to ensure compliance.”
As if developing an app that creates a “personalized reading experience” for parents to control for their students in public institutions weren’t enough of a claim, things get muddier as Wandler notes that there currently exist no tools to help educators and librarians know what books are being challenged. In the same blog post, he writes:
“Libraries currently rely on challenged book data from the previous year, which is immediately out of date as more books become challenged. This is a skyrocketing expense as challenged book reviews and duplicate requests must be checked and updated manually. The ALA estimates these challenged book reviews cost $20 thousand per challenge, which is upwards of $32 million total.”
He fails to include a citation to the information provided here, wherein ALA estimates book challenges at $20,000 per challenge — a staggering and, most likely, incorrect figure all together. I’ve conservatively estimated about $800 per book challenge previously, and there seems to be no data on ALA’s website to provide evidence of the $20,000 cost. That said, in some Texas districts such as Spring Branch Independent School District, officials have cited a $30,000 cost for a single book challenge.
Moreover, the press around the app claims that there is no resource out there tracking book challenges beyond ALA’s annual list. This is patently untrue. Dr. Tasslyn Magnusson began tracking book challenges in October 2021, and her work was later picked up by EveryLibrary (January 2022) and PEN America (February 2022).
I reached out to BookmarkED for clarity around this particular feature of the app. If no database with up-to-date book bans exists — which it does — how do they plan to do this?
“In our conversations with school districts, we have heard that many do not have a centralized, up-to-date source for data on challenged books. While we cannot divulge the exact sources of all our data, we can say that we gather data from a variety of credible sources every day, including school district sources and non-profit datasets. This enables school districts and librarians to have access to this data in real-time on a state and national level.”
It’s not surprise they aren’t sharing their proprietary information, though the response raises more red flags. Are they scraping the work of Magnusson, as her work is compiled as non-profit dataset? Or are they turning to other “non-profits” like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Eduction and thus, BookLooks and RatedBooks, respectively? If the former, that’s intellectual dishonesty and theft, as it lifts the work of an individual without paying them; if the latter, that’s unquestionably biased information being passed off as data with which parents, educators, and librarians should use.
When asked how they anticipate this up-to-date information about book bans to be used, they took a hands off approach and again, offered an anecdote without context:
“With the recently passed Texas House Bill (HB) 900, school districts face a pressing need to meet the changing requirements for parental engagement on library books that children have access to. We ultimately do not decide the fate of a book, instead, we provide school districts and librarians the data and tools to manage the requirements of law. The reality is that many libraries are closing their doors without a solution to meet the compliance requirements of HB 900.”
Indeed, this right-wing bill is creating chaos for schools — and recall the lawsuit over this bill being heard right now. The last line, though, is presented without crucial context. Indeed, schools like Fort Worth Independent School District have shut down their libraries to be in compliance with HB 900. But the reason they shut down was because of how vague and overreaching the law is and the lack of information about what does or does not meet the law’s requirements. Schools like Houston Independent School District have also planned to shutter their libraries, but those were shut because of the state’s takeover of the district — and the state has a vested interest in shutting down access to books and information (see the READER act).
BookmarkED plays into the exact narrative that’s drawing book bans today. “Concerned parents” proclaiming parental rights suggest that educators and librarians are wasting taxpayer money on materials that they deem pornographic, explicit, or otherwise inappropriate for students. They launch dozens of book challenges in the targeted districts and take over school boards, forcing those districts to follow their own policies of protecting the rights of students to access information and reading material. This costs those districts a significant amount of money in staff time, which then those same parental rights activists point to as further waste of taxpayer money. Anyone who has been following the story of book bans for the last two years knows this is the point, and apps like BookmarkED are eager to cash in on a manufactured moral panic that aims to end public goods like schools and libraries all together.
Parents have always had the right to decide what their students do or do not have access to. Educators and librarians are trained professionals who know how to provide accurate, peer-reviewed materials for those students. What’s happening here is a right-wing movement to plow over that expertise in order to provide children with a singular view of the world and a singular narrative over what they can learn. In doing so, these parental rights activists are able to not only control what their children learn, but what every child learns — this, of course, is a gross overstep of being a parent into being authoritarian.
“The real magic of BookmarkED begins in January 2024 and beyond. We envision a future where young minds are encouraged to actively engage with books, explore their interests, and initiate conversations about the books and content they love,” writes Wandler on his blog post. “Soon we’ll be connecting learning outcomes directly with books via the platform. Educators can then tie reading back to their curriculum and suggest alternative books in the case of a challenge or parental objection.”
In other words, they’re going to have a direct impact on curriculum via the demands made by a vocal minority with a specific vision of a white, christofascist future in mind.
BookmarkED is incorporated in Granbury, Texas, where the school district has been one of the most targeted in the nation and showcased some of the most egregious behavior from adults in the name of “parental rights,” including a school board member breaking into a high school library to secretly look at the books. It is unclear whether or not there is a relationship between the district and the company.
Rather than investing in technology that does not report where it gets its information, perhaps the problems of book bans could be best solved with the tools already at the school’s disposal: its professionally trained and experienced staff.