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In this Leadership Insights video interview, Amanda Razani speaks with CEO and co-founder Steve Wandler of BookmarkED about the dilemma faced by parents and librarians when it comes to the types of books available in school libraries and how to solve it with technology and innovation.



Amanda Razani: Hello, I am Amanda Razani with Digital CxO, and I’m excited to be here today with Steve Wandler. He is the CEO and co-founder of BookmarkED. How are you doing?

Steve Wandler: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me, Amanda.

Amanda Razani: Glad to have you on our show. So you’re very involved in the digital education industry. Can you tell me a little bit more about BookmarkED and the services that you provide?

Steve Wandler: Yeah, for sure. So we are a company based out of Texas, we are actually only nine months old, and we’re growing like mad, we’re already up to 20 people, but what BookmarkED is really focused on is protecting libraries. There’s a lot of things happening right now with people and organizations trying to remove books out of libraries, which I totally understand, there are some inappropriate books in libraries, but other people are also trying to challenge other books that another group of people might not agree with. So how do you deal with that? We can all agree what books shouldn’t be in K-12 libraries. I think once we agree on what shouldn’t be in there, then how do you manage the fact of someone disagrees with the book or agrees with the book, how do you ensure that if a parent or a family disagree with the book in a library, that that child will not go home with that book? So we help manage all of that for libraries. Right now we’re doing it for K-12, but we envision going off into all libraries, public libraries, and even bookstores.

Amanda Razani: Absolutely. Even as an avid reader, I will say there’s a time and place for some books, and there are certainly some books that shouldn’t be in those age levels, but can you explain what are some of the concerns with some of the books just to give our audience a better understanding? What books are they trying to make sure do not get into the libraries?

Steve Wandler: I’ll speak specifically of school public libraries because that’s where our focus is right now, and what is trying to be prevented is explicit and inappropriate material in our libraries. Now, explicit and inappropriate, very different. But explicit, of course, we don’t want explicit books. And, again, like I said, I think most people agree what teenagers or elementary schoolers should not be reading, but usually the state or a state is starting to restrict and require certain books to be removed out of the libraries. The problem with all of that is that list is changing all the time, what is explicit, what isn’t, new books are coming out all the time, how do librarians manage that and who’s going to manage that process? So that’s really the issue is we want to remove certain books, but how do we use software to be able to manage that? Because clearly a librarian can’t scan 10 or 20,000 books in his or her library. It’s just impossible.

Amanda Razani: Absolutely.

Steve Wandler: So we have made them responsible for the books that are in the library, yet we have not given our librarians the tools to help them manage their libraries. Typically, what we’ve seen is library software is predominantly about checking a book out and checking a book back in and collecting a fine. That is what we’re hearing library software is predominantly being used for, and there’s a need for that, we don’t want to focus on those things. The check-in, checkout process, it’s been going for 100 years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We’re not trying to fix that. What we’re trying to do is create a layer above that and it’s like an antivirus. And so how do you prevent the books that are explicit or inappropriate from coming into the library? Maybe even shuffling those books around. They may go from an elementary school library to a high school library.
That’s the inappropriate side is a lot of these libraries that are being attacked in America because they weren’t supposed to be in a elementary school library, but it probably was meant for a high school. And then what happens is they challenge the book or the book is put on a band list and now it’s just [inaudible 00:05:02]. And that’s what we’re seeing is nobody knows why it was banned or challenged necessarily because there’s thousands of them happening yearly, so they just look at a list and they go, “Yeah, we don’t want that book.” Or they go through a review process, which is costly and lengthy to review every book. There’s just got to be a better way. And that’s what we’re trying to do is create a better experience. And with the technology today, we can solve a lot of this.

Amanda Razani: Certainly, yes. I imagine there’s a lot of stress both on the parents that are concerned for their children, but also on usually the one librarian in a huge library, how is she going to find the time to try to sit and sort through those books, and she can’t read all of those books. So what are some of your solutions then with software? How do you propose to solve this problem?

Steve Wandler: Well, reminding ourselves that we’re nine months old and growing like crazy, we’re trying to figure that out ourselves. So I think there’s some basic fundamental things that we’re really focused on right now and that is how do we stop and search for the explicit material that are in the library, so that’s one of the things that we’re focused on, and we can use machine learning and AI to do some of those things, but do it in a way that is contained and smart, not relying on… That’s a difference, with machine learning, we can make it smarter. I think AI, we’re a little early to be fully implementing AI into something like this. But definitely from a machine learning perspective we can solve a lot of these problems. And then there’s the part of the parent as well of how do we use technology to get more access for the parent to understand what books their kids are reading.
The parents are never really being invited into the library. I know they are, I know they’re invited, but let’s face it, they’re not coming into the library. They’re looking in their childs backpack and looking at the books that they’re taking from the library, but yet they don’t know anything about those books, and just like the librarian that’s not going to read all those books, the parents aren’t going to read all these books either. And so we need to give tools to the parents to know what their kids are reading so that parents have the option to restrict a book if they don’t want and prevent all of this challenging nonsense for the most part is just allowing parents to make those decisions for their kid.
And so that’s the other side of how we propose to do this is, yes, we can look and keep libraries safe from explicit books, but really what we want to do is prevent books from being challenged and keeping as many books on the shelf as we can, because that’s your First Amendment right. And we don’t want to remove books, but we do want to be able to give the ability to restrict books if you don’t want your child to read those books.

Amanda Razani: Definitely. So really there’s two different solutions that you’re working on here. One is allowing for the librarian to understand what book she has in the library and to be able to sort properly and put them in the correct libraries or remove them. And the other is access to parents to see a list or a database of these books and to be able to quickly see what the books are about and what’s in them.

Steve Wandler: That’s correct, yes. So ultimately the bigger vision is once we solve the we don’t want these books going home with our kids problem, or these are the books we do want to come home with our kids, it’s a very small number of books that we’re talking about here. Even if it’s 20,000 books, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a very small number, and even if it’s bigger than that. Let’s focus on the books that kids can read rather than focus on the books they can’t. So really that’s where we’re going is once we know what parents want to guide their children on, we can focus on what that child’s interested in and find more pathways for that child to read more books. This is about literacy. It’s not about book challenges and banning, although that’s the first layer that we have to solve in order to get there, because if we take the kid down certain pathways that the parent may not approve of, that’s not okay. We’ve got to solve the challenge book problem first.

Amanda Razani: Absolutely. That brings me to another question. Right now we’re really just talking about the paperback or hardback books in a physical library, but in this day of digital learning, a lot of books are online, so where are you at with online books in the education system?

Steve Wandler: Well, look, we know we need to go there and we know we need to fix that too, but we need to start where the major pain is right now, and that’s hardcover books, the analog world. I would hate to see books disappear, they’re beautiful, and we need to keep as many there as we possibly can. So that’s a big enough problem for us to solve right now. I think there’s a clear connection into the digital world here of what we’re doing, but right now we’re focused on the analog side.

Amanda Razani: So being that you are a fairly new company and you have these issues you’re looking to address, what’s next? What’s the first steps?

Steve Wandler: Well, we’re rolling out product right now in the testing phase. We have 10 school districts in the state of Texas that we are rolling out and testing with. We are currently focusing on our first beta launch at the end of January 2024, and we already have a waiting list of school districts wanting to be on. So we’re trying to build product as fast as possible. We’re also trying to be thoughtful as possible. We’re bringing librarians into the conversation and trying to understand the real problem. So we’re not just out thinking we’re building something because we know the answer, we know it’s very complex, and so we’re including them in the conversation, but we also need to move fast. So that seems to be the challenge of startup moving fast, education moving slow and wanting to slow down, but yet they have an immediate problem.
So launch at the end of January, rollout to our multiple districts that we know we have now and that are coming, and hang on. We are likely going to be raising venture money in the new year, and pretty excited about that because we’re a fast growth company and it’s easy to raise money when you’ve got revenue.

Amanda Razani: So when it comes to the fielding of these books, are there any government regulations when it comes to the types of books that are in the school libraries? I’m sure there are. So how are you planning to meet those government regulations?

Steve Wandler: I think we’ve got to remember that we are not there to create the rules or even follow the rules. We are simply a tool. So the regulations of the government I actually don’t know because we don’t focus on that. All we want to be able to do is identify certain books in your library so you can make your own decision on what you want to do with that book. We don’t actually do anything. Because it’s an analog book, it’s already there, so you have to decide what you want to do with it, and I think in your digital world, that’ll be the same.
So all we’re doing is giving them the tool to restrict books at a parent level, because that is a government regulation in a lot of states now. And so how are librarians going to manage that without a tool like this? I have no clue. It would be a nightmare. I heard one school district said they solved it already, they do it with email. Oh, my God, just people are going to come up with their own solutions, and I think we just want to create one that brings joy to people and also helps [inaudible 00:14:11]

Amanda Razani: I cannot imagine having to respond and field that many emails. I get enough emails and it probably wouldn’t even compare.

Steve Wandler: And we give our teachers and our librarians way too… We got to think of what they can stop doing, and responding to emails and all of that type of nonsense just needs to go away. We can make it easier for teachers and librarians and parents and families because we do have the technology, it’s just it’s such an underserved area, which I was really surprised at. When I got into the space, my last company was an education startup, it was venture funded, and I got into the library space thinking, oh, pretty small. Look, I got districts lining up at the door, so I’m okay if I’m just going to take this entire small opportunity and create a large opportunity, I think we’re okay with that, and doing what’s right, by the way, that’s what’s important. Our values is not the money side, that is a outcome of what we’re doing, but really we’re very, very passionate about keeping books on the shelf. That is our core of what we’re doing. We’re not trying to remove them.

Amanda Razani: Well, it’s great to see you bringing some digital innovation and solutions to libraries and the school system, and hopefully you’ll relieve some of the stress both with the parents, the students, and the teachers.

Steve Wandler: That’s the hope is to bring joy. If you’re going to use your phone, it might as well be fun. Nobody wants to use something… Which, again, where education is highly underserved is use something that is clunky and doesn’t work very well. So education deserves this.

Amanda Razani: Well, thank you for coming on our show and sharing what y’all are doing.

Steve Wandler: Thanks so much. Have a great day.