President Obama’s $250 million eBook Program — The Good, The Bad, and The Maybe


The big ebook news of the week, via Engadget (“Obama to provide 10,000 free e-books through your library”):

“President Barack Obama announced a new program on Thursday aimed at delivering access for more than 10,000 e-books to financially strapped schoolchildren throughout the United States. The $250 million program will feature titles from numerous publishers including Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Hachette, selected by volunteers from Digital Public Library of America

It is a tremendous undertaking, and if nothing else, shows the large importance and impact that ebooks can hold for student education. Any joint project involving the White House, the tech industry, libraries across the country, and nonprofits has the potential to effect real meaningful change for a very large number of students and schools. It will be a very interesting thing to watch unfold over the coming months.

Already, others have noted that this joint effort can be related to more macro level factors in the book publishing industry (for example Flavorwire, “Can Obama and Big Publishing Save Children’s and YA Ebooks?”). On the surface, things such as this sound impressive: “unlimited access to all of the age-appropriate titles in their title catalog of approximately 2,500 books to school pupils, and Simon & Schuster, which will provide access to its entire e-catalog of books for children aged four to 14, comprised of 3,000 titles” (via The Bookseller, “Publishers give $250m free e-books for Obama scheme”).

But it’s not quite that simple, as Book Riot (“ ‘Free’ Ebooks Don’t Help Poor Kids”) weighs in with a useful perspective. With the key question centering around access to internet and devices to make use of those ebooks, free ebooks are not necessarily going to reach those students from lowest income families that are most in need:

“So why is it that, despite these numbers, the publishing industry takes on initiatives meant to reach poor kids and improve their literacy in ways that show a clear lack of understanding about the real problems these kids face? How come publishers and politicians choose to ignore those who work with children and teenagers struggling with access — to books, to reading, to technology, to a host of literacies, including digital?”

I don’t know what the answers to some of these questions raised are. It’s heartening to see efforts such as Obama’s ConnectEd initiative draw upon the resources of the tech industry, such as Apple and a host of others (via TechCrunch, “Apple And Others Fund $750 Million In Education Gadgets And Internet Broadband”) and nonprofit organizations including First Book (an organization that is doing some of the best work out there in terms of nonprofit education literacy efforts).

Either way, this ambitious ebook program, in addition to Obama’s recent efforts in cleaning up the for-profit college industry (see: The Atlantic, “The Downfall of For-Profit Colleges”) has made for a very interesting few months of news in the education world.


The official release from the White House has full details: “FACT SHEET: Spreading the Joy of Reading to More Children and Young Adults


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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