February 7, 2023

Penguin’s Ebook Decision Has Chilling Effect on School Libraries


girl with ereader and headphonesPenguin Group’s temporary suspension of Kindle access to its titles for libraries last week reaffirmed Wendy Stephen’s decision to go the public domain route. The school librarian at Buckhorn High School in New Market, AL, had feared just this situation: spending money on devices and titles only to have the rights potentially taken away and her students left without books.

“It’s too complicated and too dicey, and that’s why I decided to go with things not under copyright because it’s a lot cleaner that way,” says Stephens, who offers ebooks to her students—but only those that are free.

Penguin quickly decided to restore all access to its current digital titles, at least through the end of the year. But the company still restricts access to any new titles for library lending as it works out details with Amazon and OverDrive about how ebooks are returned or removed from Kindles when checked out by patrons.

But the effect of Penguin’s initial decision to pull its titles has a deeper meaning for school librarians and teachers who operate on slender budgets and can’t afford to have valuable classroom resources taken away from them. With schools just beginning to use Kindles, among other ereaders, the consequences of having titles vanish during the school year is particularly detrimental, leaving students without books for assignments and teachers scrambling to find alternatives.

“I had a teacher ask me about this, and luckily our content wasn’t affected but who knows what tomorrow will bring,” says Jennifer LaGarde, a lead media specialist with the New Hanover County Schools and a school librarian at Myrtle Grove Middle School in Wilmington, NC. “It’s making us rethink the devices we purchase. In order to allocate our limited funds to technology, we not only have to invest our entire budget but we have to sell the idea to our principals, parents, and PTA—and that’s scary.”

Librarians also say they’re putting their reputations on the line by pushing for more digital content—and fear a backlash from administrators and other higher ups when decisions, such as the one made by Penguin, are made. Obviously, librarians must now rethink which devices are the best to buy—and how much money to allot for an expanding digital library.

“Suddenly you’re left high and dry, and that’s troubling because your credibility might be made vulnerable at the school level,” says Susan Ballard, president-elect of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). “And it also toys with your trust in a publisher. I suspect this will give people pause.”

Yet Paige Jaeger, who has 59 Penguin books in her Overdrive collection with New York’s Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex Board of Cooperative Educational Services (WSWHE BOCES’), believes publishers eventually will figure out the details on digital rights—just as the music industry did a decade ago. The coordinator of school library services for WSWHE BOCES says she’ll still buy titles for schools—but if Penguin won’t let her purchase new titles going forward, she may spend her funds on another publisher.

“By pulling this reaction instead of addressing the problem, Penguin is the one who will get hurt,” Jaeger says. “The money I would have spent with Penguin, I might spend on Random House. It’s not like I won’t spend it. As a library, we’re concerned but we’re not worried. History figures it out.”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.


  1. Ellen Hopkins says:

    Why not simply rethink buying single platform readers? You’d think some sort of competition among suppliers would help, not hinder.

  2. Martha von Schilgen says:

    Is Penguin refunding the purchase price is they charged libraries? As a librarian, I always believe that books I buy for my library are to lend to my patrons.

  3. I just wonder how much demand there will be for those public domain titles. In the US, public domain ends at about 1923, so the books are really all the old classics. Imagine if the school library had only books from that time period!

  4. Yeah, nobody reads Austen, Poe or Shakespeare anymore.