For most of America’s 10 million middle schoolers, English class means enjoying—or, perhaps, enduring—the timeless narratives of the Western canon: Fahrenheit 451, Black Boy, The Giver, Parable of the Sower, 1984. Teachers order these books every year, and school librarians stock up for fall classes. It’s a cash cow for book publishers and distributors—and they intend to keep it that way.
Over the past decade, Silicon Valley’s tech behemoths have discreetly and methodically tightened their grip on American schools, and the pandemic has given them license to squeeze even tighter. By 2017, tens of millions of students were already using Google Chromebooks and apps for reading, writing, and turning in their work. Google Classroom now has more than 100 million users worldwide—nearly seven times the number reported in The New York Times three years ago. When we emerge from the pandemic, schools will be even more reliant on such systems. Industry is bolting an adamantine layer of technology onto the world’s classrooms, in what amounts to a stealth form of privatization.
The benefits of e-books may seem obvious. They should provide a cheap, convenient way to supply millions of kids with classic novels: They don’t wear out, they can’t get lost or be defaced with underlining, doodles, or the name of your latest crush, and, with a pandemic still raging, they provide a safe, instantaneous way to distribute books to students who are stuck at home.
But in practice, this convenience comes at a staggering cost. Billion-dollar companies like Follett and EBSCO are renting e-books to schools each year, rather than selling them permanent copies. By locking school districts into contracts that turn them into captive consumers, corporate tech providers are draining public education budgets that don’t have a penny to spare.
So how much does it cost for a school to rent a book? I asked Chrystal Woodcock, library media supervisor for the Menifee Union School District in Southern California.
The Diary of Anne Frank, “a really important, classic piece of literature that social studies teachers have taught forever,” Woodcock said, “costs $27 per student for a 12-month subscription.”
In other words, you buy the book for $27, and it just—expires?
Yes, Woodcock said. “You have to budget for that every single year … The Diary of Anne Frank, Lord of the Flies. The books that are part of our ingrained culture. Like in California we read Island of the Blue Dolphins, about a Native American tribe that lived on the islands off the coast.” (A hauntingly lovely book that I was assigned myself as a child, an agreeably raggedy paper copy that had passed through many other hands before mine.)
Paper books are much cheaper than e-books, and studies show that even the youngest readers prefer them. Some providers offer “library editions” with a lifetime guarantee. “So literally, like if a child wrecks it, I just send it back to them and they send me a brand-new book,” Woodcock said. “I’m only paying maybe $15 for that book, and it will last forever.” But the advance of technology in schools, coupled with the pandemic, mean that she has no choice but to pay up for e-books instead.
Menifee is a one-to-one district—each child has access to a tablet or netbook—with some 15 schools serving kindergarten through eighth grade; there are 10 books in the district’s English curriculum. “And I’ve got about 1,200 kids per grade level,” Woodcock said. “I’m looking at having to spend $200,000 to buy those 10 books for the year.”
So why not shop around for a better deal? She can’t. Just as you can’t use iPhone apps on your Android phone, a school district’s choice of software providers locks administrators into a tangled web of agreements, training, and financial and organizational investments that publishers exploit to their advantage. California requires providers to sign a privacy agreement promising not to sell student data, further limiting options, Woodcock said, because not all providers are willing to sign.
Menifee uses Destiny, a library management system operated by Follett, a private company with $3.1 billion in revenue. Destiny offers books on various terms, from “unlimited” to “single-user access” to what Woodcock calls the “painful” subscription tier, which includes The Diary of Anne Frank and Lord of the Flies.
Menifee is better off than many school districts. A middle-income city nestled in California’s inland empire, it got emergency Covid relief funding that enabled it to spend $200,000 on e-books this year. Other districts aren’t so lucky. Librarians quoted in a 2019 study were spending as much as 42 percent of their annual budgets on e-books, and that was before the pandemic.
Across the country, budget cuts have hit school libraries hard. In 2010, Los Angeles eliminated librarian positions in elementary schools altogether; it scaled back in middle schools the following year. In 2014, a School Library Journal survey showed that 94 percent of librarians were using their own money to pay for library resources for their students.
Woodcock proposes what is surely a fair deal: Schools should be able to purchase e-books outright, rather than having to rent them. “I buy it, I own it. It doesn’t go away.”
Another obvious way to relieve the pressure on schools would be to expand the use of free public resources like the Internet Archive’s Open Library, which lends e-books on traditional library terms (you can’t download books from the Open Library; you can only borrow and read them). Early in the pandemic, the Open Library made waves by creating a temporary resource, the National Emergency Library, dropping restrictions on the number of people who could access a given title simultaneously. With bookstores, libraries, and schools closed all over the world, Internet Archive staff reasoned, students needed emergency access to books.
In a better world, Chrystal Woodcock would have been able to offer her students two weeks’ access to Open Library versions of Cat’s Cradle and The Bluest Eye. But Hachette, HarperCollins, Wiley, and Penguin Random House—four of the world’s largest publishers, representing in excess of $10 billion in annual revenue—jumped at the chance to sue the Internet Archive, and forced it to shut down the National Emergency Library.
The suit seeks to destroy the Open Library altogether. But what publishers truly want is the end of ownership. If they win, books will someday become like movies on Netflix—something that schools, and all of us, will have to keep paying for forever.