openebookslogoPublishing Perspectives is carrying a story about the Open eBooks initiative, which we last mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Open eBooks is a program and e-reader application intended to make thousands of best-selling e-books available at no charge to low-income children.

An impressive number of well-known organizations and companies are involved in the program:

The Open eBooks program is made possible by a coalition of literacy, library, publishing, and technology partners. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), First Book, and The New York Public Library (NYPL)—with content support from digital books distributor Baker & Taylor—created the app, curated the ebook collection, and developed a system for distribution and use. Financial support has been provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) with content contributions from major publishers, thanks to the contributions of the ebook platform delivery service, AXIS 360 from Baker & Taylor.

It also includes age-appropriate content from a number of major publishers, including Bloomsbury, National Geographic, and all five of the Big Five. This will definitely provide some good publicity for the participating publishers—and after the agency pricing antitrust debacle, the Big Five could use all of that they can get. The catalog of e-books available through the program is valued at more than $250 million, though the Open eBooks site does not explain how that figure was derived.

Educators, librarians, and program leaders who work with low-income children can sign up for the Open eBooks program and request access for the children they serve. Then students can download the app to their mobile devices and log in with an access code to download and read e-books. Children will be able to check out any title whenever they want, regardless of how many other children might have it checked out at the same time.

This sounds like a great program from the standpoint of giving kids in need access to all the e-books they can read. When you consider how cheap hardware has gotten, it could be very helpful in education.

Screenshot_2016-03-04-06-18-38Speaking of cheap hardware, the Open eBooks app will absolutely install and run on both my $10 LG Sunrise Tracfone (no longer available for $10, unfortunately, though the Straight Talk variant of it is currently $20 on and the $40 RCA Voyager II tablet. The Open eBooks app isn’t available on the Amazon Fire store, but I just checked my $50 Fire that I’d patched to include the Google Play store and it didn’t object to installing the app either. Of course, I can’t get any use out of the app without an access code, but it’s gratifying to know it would run on one of these cheap devices for kids who had one.

In our post about the program in February, David Rothman was not thrilled that the program used the term “Open” in its name, given that the e-books are almost certainly laden with DRM. I tend to agree, and would also add there’s also the possibility of confusion with the Open eBook Publication Structure, the predecessor to the EPUB format. Of course, OEBPS isn’t actually in use anymore, but even so, people would remember the name.

Still, in talking about how the program is available to low-income kids at no charge, there aren’t a whole lot of other words that are quite as descriptive. And if someone else did have to use the name “Open eBooks,” at least it was a program having to do with childhood education. While it will remain to be seen how well the program will work, having it available is definitely a good idea.


  1. That’s good news, but don’t forget something that matters more—a desire to read coupled with a belief in its importance and particularly its enriching qualities

    Years ago, I did some volunteer work at a boy’s home that judges in the county that contains Dallas had created. They’d realized that they were seeing in court young boys who couldn’t be sent back to their dysfunctional homes but would be utterly corrupted by a prison system. The answer was a good one. Home-like housing in a rural setting well outside the city with foster parents, generally older couples who’d already raised a family of their own.

    The boys were fun and it was obvious the environment was good for them. The got good, regular meals. They ran in the open fields. They never missed school. They played chess. Far different from where they’d been living.

    They even read newspapers, although I found one aspect of that disturbing. Given a Dallas paper, they’d look at the front page below the fold. Why? Because that was where the local crime stories went. Often that would feature someone they knew. That there was a larger world than crime and getting caught was still beyond them. Their view of life remained limited

    The same was true later when I ran a group home for drug addicts who were a bit older, again as an alternative to prison. At best, if I got them to consider life without drugs, they could only see themselves becoming a drug counselor. Drugs was all they knew. It was their entire world. Sad.

    One summer when I lived in Washington, D.C., I met a fascinating older black woman who worked with poor teens getting the interested in Shakespeare. That was good, but for one aspect. Her come-on was that there was a lot of sex in Shakespeare. I felt like telling her that what you really need to do is get them interested in all the now bawdy parts of Shakespeare that aren’t about sex—like to be or not to be in Hamlet. Again, these kids needed to read stories that’d get them interested in a larger world, something different from the dysfunctional fast track to single motherhood on welfare for the girls and drugs/crime for the boys.


    Giving these kids a free and seemingly random collection of modern books won’t do that. They need books that will enlarge their minds and get them to think outside their limited culture and, more important than that, they need a flesh-and-blood human being to push them along that path. They need story-tellers more than mere ebooks.

    That’s also why, for this year’s Black History Month, I thought of releasing my own list, one deliberately intended to get black kids thinking about something other than being black. It’d be books about kids who not only aren’t American and black, with all the dysfunctional obsessions that creates, but live in situations where that’s not even an issue. It’d be tales like Treasure Island, where a young British boy with spunk defeats pirates almost single-handed. It’d be like Anne of Green Gables, where a lonely Canadian orphan girl with an over-active imagination finds she can make genuine friends, something she has never done before.

    Books should broaden lives not narrow them into easily manipulated identity blocs. And to do that, often an adult pushing them along is needed.

    G. K. Chesterton said that long ago. Against the internationalists who wanted to prevent war (they claimed) by crushing patriotism, he offered an alternative. Teach kids patriotism in school, but use stories set in other countries. Teach Germans not to invade France by telling them tales of patriotic Frenchmen. Then they’d understand why invading France made no sense.

    We need something similar to counter all the modern jingoists who, rather that pervert nationality, pervert racial, ethnic, religious, class and sexual identities. And yes, I’m looking at you Hillary, Bernie and Trump. We need kids to read stories that expose sexual (Hillary), class (Bernie), and racial/ethnic (Trump) identities for the lies they are. Make Hillary fans read stories about good men and faithful husbands. Make Bernie fans read about generous rich people. Make Trump fans read books about people who succeed without being pompous idiots.

    Remember books aren’t good in themselves. They can teach hate as well as love. Mein Kampf and Das Kapital illustrate that. Only good books are good. Kids need to be guided to those good books and persuaded to love them. Reading trash teaching trashy living. Enjoying virtuous tales teaches virtue.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride (YA novel about 1870s North Carolina)

    • The desire to read matters, truly enough, but instilling that is the job of the educators who will get kids into the program, and they’d be trying to do that anyway. But giving kids easy access to the reading material is important, too. And what is any library, after all, but a “free and seemingly random collection” of books?

      We don’t even know for certain that Open eBooks’s collection are all “modern,” and even if they are, there are plenty of free public-domain classics that they don’t even need to be part of the program to get into.

      Once the desire is there, the ability to download any book from the collection that they want to read will surely be helpful when it comes to exercising that desire. No need to worry about venturing out in potentially unsafe parts of town, for example.

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