How The BookmarkED/OnShelf App, Created to Help Schools Ban Books, Fuels Them Instead

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

In December 2023, BookmarkED—an app designed to “help” educators, librarians, and parents navigate book bans in school libraries—rebranded. Now OnShelf, the app has been making its way into schools in Texas. Freedom of Information Requests obtained new information about how the app is getting into districts in Texas and how the app alerts users to so-called “banned books” in the district. The app is a student data privacy nightmare, and it undermines the professional capabilities of trained teacher librarians in educational institutions.

What Is BookmarkED/OnShelf? A Little About The App’s History

Founded by Steve Wandler, who works in the education technology space, BookmarkED aims to “empower parents to personalize school libraries.” It aims to ensure that parents get to decide the “individual literary journey for their children, based on their personal values and interests,” while teachers and librarians can keep “confidently recommending and providing more personalized books to their students, knowing precisely the learning outcomes they will achieve.” The technology helps libraries “simply and efficiently navigate the ever-changing challenged books landscape.”

BookmarkED soft launched their product during a Texas State Senate Committee on Education meeting on March 30, 2023, two and a half months before Texas passed the READER Act. Wandler noted that the app was developed while working with a superintendent in the state. That superintendent, Jason Cochran, is one of the owners of the app, and as of writing, works as the superintendent of Krum Independent School District. Prior to Krum, Cochran was superintendent at Eastland Independent School District. 

Wandler testified before the Texas Senate early in 2023 in support of SB 13. SB 13 aimed to create local advisory committees, primarily composed of local parents, who would be given the power to determine which books could and could not be in the district libraries. SB 13 would legislate the “parental rights” movement. Although that bill is still listed with the State Affairs committee, its future status is unclear, if outright irrelevant. Much of what SB 13 hoped to accomplish is or will be achievable through the READER Act.

At the 4:27:00 mark, you can listen to Wandler talk about why he supports SB 13. He reads through the same talking points as the company’s, noting that his app will make it easier on districts since they will no longer need to go through the “arduous” work of reviewing titles. 

BookmarkED spent $80,000 on lobbyists in favor of SB 13. Convenient, since such a bill would make their product a “necessary” purchase for districts statewide. 

BookmarkED Debuts with Texas School Officials, Markets Themselves as a Book Ban Solution

BookmarkED made an appearance at the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) the first week of October 2023. The app’s website has kept a blog updating followers on state legislation, and they have used it as an opportunity to position themselves as a solution to being in compliance with the READER Act. They list six primary benefits of BookmarkED/OnShelf, with several bullet points beneath each. Those benefits are: Parental Empowerment Through OnShelf, Streamlining Library Management, A Nuanced and Inclusive Strategy, Enhancing Communication with Parents, Safe and Inclusive Libraries, and Seamless Compliance and Continuous Improvement. The full blog post is here, but in the event they remove it from the site, you can access the .pdf of the post here

The company’s efforts to market themselves as a solution to book bans ramped up in 2024. A new blog post published in January highlighted all of the benefits of the OnShelf app. Again, the full blog post is here, with the .pdf available here. Among the highlights of districts investing in OnShelf listed this time are: 

In the face of this multifaceted matter, Bookmarked emerges as a comprehensive solution, championing the right to read and encouraging education without endorsing any specific ideology. By creating  a systematic and process-driven approach, OnShelf by Bookmarked helps address content concerns in a fair and standardized manner:

  • Content Concerns: Challenges and data are meticulously collected through a standardized process, fostering transparency and consistency in addressing concerns raised about specific literary works.
  • Verified Data Districts: Districts gain access to Bookmarked Verify, a tool designed to provide insights into the context and history of book challenges. This empowers decision-makers with data to make informed decisions within school districts.
  • Trusted Library Districts: Bookmarked HealthCheck serves as a valuable resource to ensure the maintenance of book diversity and effective stewardship, upholding the integrity of library collections within trusted districts.
  • Parental Involvement: Bookmarked OnShelf empowers parents to actively curate their child’s library experience, ensuring personalized literary journeys while maintaining a protective framework against undue censorship.
  • Protective Measures: By implementing Bookmarked, books remain on shelves, parents are engaged, and districts are shielded from undue pressures, fostering a harmonious environment of diverse literary voices.

Just a couple of weeks later, two tales of BookmarkED’s plan, goals, and execution emerge. 

Let’s Head to Llano, Texas & Learn Who Helps Fund BookmarkED/OnShelf

Llano County’s public library has been the center of years’ of dispute related to book banning. You can read a rundown in this piece about the current lawsuit lodged against the library board and city leadership from a former head librarian in the district. That librarian was fired for refusing to remove LGBTQ+ books from the public library shelves.

But the BookmarkED/OnShelf story isn’t about the Llano County Public Library. It’s at the school district, where on February 26, 2024, the school board heard from the company about the power of the app for use in its district. It was listed under the Superintendent’s Administrative Reports on the evening’s agenda; because the March meeting has not yet occurred, full minutes from that board meeting are unavailable. You can access the entire recording of the BookmarkED/OnShelf portion of the meeting. Per the recording, the district was in the process of being onboarded with the software, with a full launch anticipated in the spring. 

BookmarkED/OnShelf met with district leadership on February 7 to demonstrate the software. Among the highlights of the presentation given by Teela Watson are that the software includes a space for content tags of books in the system, and that parents have the opportunity to browse or search the school library’s catalog and identify titles or categories of books that they do not want their child to access. Then, when the child might try to borrow the book from the library, the person checking out the title would scan the book into BookmarkED/OnShelf, and if the child can’t borrow it, then they would be told they cannot borrow it. Sounds simple enough, right? 

The example given is about a child trying to check out a book about horses. If the parents have decided “there’s some characters in the book that the parents have said ‘I don’t really want this type of book coming home’,” then the app would recommend other similar books on similar themes to the person trying to borrow the book.

What’s meant by “some kind of characters in the book that the parents don’t want coming home” is not described. But anyone who has paid attention even a lick since 2020 knows that means queer characters or characters of color. So, the software would ban the child from a book about brown people who raise ponies and offer them a book that’s only about white people who raise ponies. 

Is that censorship, or is it racism? Or is it racism via censorship? 

Watson explains that every book checked out by a child is then reported to the parent via notification and parents then get a synopsis of the book. Those synopsis are not the ones provided by a publisher. They’re synopses created by artificial intelligence which is “reading” the thousands and thousands of books being uploaded to the BookmarkED/OnShelf app. Parents also get questions sent to them—up to 9—that will encourage discussion about the book with their child. Again: these are created by artificial intelligence software, not actual humans with degrees or backgrounds in education or literacy. 

The same lines about how the software is up-to-the-minute on current book bans and challenges across the country shared in the initial discussion of the app back in summer 2023 comes out here, too. The speaker notes that the PEN banned books list is “only” updated once a year, so the information is not as current or accurate as theirs is (this is not true—PEN’s list is updated more than once a year, and more, Dr. Tasslyn Magnusson has been keeping as up-to-date a list as humanly possible since fall 2021). 

BookmarkED/OnShelf uses artificial intelligence to “scan the internet daily” to find out about challenges and bans in the country. The AI then sends a weekly email to librarians who are using BookmarkED/OnShelf to let them know the health of their collection. If their catalog has no banned or challenged books, they’re good. If their catalog does have any banned books, then they’re prompted to take action on it. 

In other words, the app is compiling the information put together by the likes of me via Literary Activism, Dr. Magnusson via PEN and EveryLibrary, the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, and others who do it all by hand. AI from this company undermines that work by stealing it and selling it back to parents and educational institutions as a solution to the manufactured crisis. 

BookmarkED/OnShelf doesn’t tell the library what to do if a book pops up that’s been challenged or banned. But “you might want to review it!” is what the email prompt suggests. So any book in any part of the country being challenged or banned in your collection is now at risk of being reviewed for that status. Not only does this undermine the entire process of formalizing book challenges and collection management in librarianship, but it also makes quiet/soft/silent censorship conditions thrive

The BookmarkED/OnShelf app allows librarians to pre-ban books by encouraging them to upload the list of books they’re thinking about purchasing to see if those titles have been challenged or banned elsewhere in the country. “We’re just going to give you as much data you can stand,” Watson laughs, attempting to explain the “book intelligence company’s” stance not as belittling trained, educated, and experienced library workers, but instead as support of them. Fitting that the presenter likens this to going in armed while making a decision. How quickly we want to support the banning of books but not the regulation of firearms which have actually caused bloodshed in schools. 

But call a spade a spade: this is a tool that doesn’t trust library workers to do their job. Library workers can Google a book title after they have read professional reviews of it. Library workers do not need an app that tells them what they should know before they buy it. Especially an app that is not made by library workers—it’s a “book intelligence company” whose founders are someone in educational technology and in being a school superintendent. Those positions are librarian roles. 

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the meeting is the funding sources for the project. At the 23:00 mark, Watson notes that they’re not only “huge on data privacy,” but that they are backed by the Charles Butt Foundation—an organization tied to the HEB grocery store chain in Texas—as well as Amazon Web Services. Apparently, both organizations thought the app was “great.” Amazon Web Services is apparently helping provide backend support, including the artificial intelligence being used to steal work being done by others determine what books are challenged and banned across the country. The third partner mentioned is Moak Casey, an educational consulting firm based in Austin. 

Now Onto Abilene Independent School District (AISD)

A new blog post on BookmarkED/OnShelf’s website landed February 16, 2024, just a week prior to the Llano meeting, titled “Empowering Educational Excellence: Abilene ISD’s Success with OnShelf.” That blog post is no longer on the website, but it is available in full via .pdf.

Also on BookmarkED/OnShelf’s website was an invitation to attend a webinar by Teela Watson and Abilene ISD’s Executive Director for Innovation and Program Development, Karen Munoz. 

Image advertising a webinar between Abilene ISD and BookmarkED.

The event has since been postponed. 

From the blog post:

Upon implementation, Abilene received a notification for 300+ books in one of their libraries that were previously challenged or banned, providing Abilene with a comprehensive understanding of potential content concerns. This allowed the school to make informed decisions, paving the way for thoughtful conversations within the administration and with parents.

What were the 300+ books the district had in their libraries that were of concern? On February 28, 2024, I sent the district a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) to find out. What unraveled was not a list of books that popped up as problematic per the AI data BookmarkED/OnShelf had but instead, a wealth of meetings held between and among employees in the district that helped guide them through implementing the system in their district. 

Conversations between AISD and BookmarkED/OnShelf began in the summer of 2023. When exactly is hard to ascertain, but per emails, Munoz requested that several members of the district’s leadership team attend an August 17, 2023, meeting “regarding a tool that would be beneficial for us to use. This tool is new and the wonderful thing about it is that we get to provide feedback to build the best possible tool to help in our libraries but also to bring literacy back to the home.” The meeting was set up on the 15th, and several members invited needed to reschedule library meetings to attend. One of the libraries needed to be closed during this time frame. 

The next day, Watson reconnected with Munoz, thankful that the library staff had bought into the program. Watson included in the email a notice about data confidentiality with BookmarkED/OnShelf, which you can read here. Though the contract states it would protect the privacy and confidential nature of the information, several lines stand out as concerning: “Vendor agrees that it will maintain the confidentiality of personally identifiable student information contained in the District data at all times and will keep the data in a secure location. Vendor shall restrict access to personally identifiable student information to only its employees and representatives with a need to access the data for the purpose of providing the services specified in the Contract.” So anyone who works for the company and their representatives with a need for the data can access it fully. Someone like Wandler has access to student data, as does Cochran, who, as you might recall, is a superintendent at Krum ISD. 

That email also contained the contract between BookmarkED/OnShelf and Abilene ISD. The district would get the software for free in exchange for being a test facility. The contract is here.

On Tuesday, August 22, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for AISD sent Munoz a copy of a contract needing to be signed by BookmarkED/OnShelf that addressed data privacy and confidentiality for students. In that email, the CTO noted the following:

Normally, we are able to find a school district in Texas with an agreement already in place with a vendor and then we use Exhibit E to piggyback on the agreement they already have in place. There is not one in place with BookmarkED with any school district in Texas or any other state, so we are the first. […] Their DCA covers some student data protection (and it needs to be signed as part of the district agreement), but not all that is needed to protect the student and the district. The attached needs to be signed to add to the Texas Student Data Privacy Alliance. It will have to be renewed every 3 years.

Abilene ISD was the first district in the state to enter into an official agreement with BookmarkED/OnShelf, and the district served as the basis for the presentation given just days later in Llano. Munoz sent the agreement over to BookmarkED immediately, but it would be another week before the district heard anything back from BookmarkED/OnShelf. Munoz emailed Watson on August 28 asking for a status update, to which Watson replied that they were having it looked over with their lawyer. 

Ten more days go by with silence. Munoz once again emails Watson asking for an update on the signing of the district-required contract. The contract that the CTO officer noted was the first in the state with BookmarkED/OnShelf. 

It was not until September 12, 2023, that the form came back into the hands of AISD. The next day, Watson emailed Munoz about the rollout happening soon and their enthusiasm to have the district be a part of their testing phase.

Munoz emailed stakeholders in the district about the rollout on September 22. That same day, the CTO emailed other systems administrative employees about the new program and mentioned that “This is real and the district has decided to move forward with working with this company…It will involve data integration with student and parent information and they will also be working with Follett for data integration and library books.”

In the time between the ink drying on the contracts and the first meeting to roll out the app with district officials, Watson was once again in touch with AISD. But this time, it was to invite the district to an event they were hosting with Moak Casey on Friday during the Texas Association of School Boards. They were invited alongside other districts piloting the program. Those districts included Winters ISD, North Lamar ISD, Godley ISD, Splendor ISD, and Mesquite ISD. At least two other districts were piloting the program who weren’t on this particular invite: Troy ISD—their district librarian noted in an email dated November 30 that they were going live with BookmarkED/OnShelf in January and she had not only not seen a demo but was not involved in the decision making at all—and a district that might sound familiar, Eastland Independent School District. That would be the district where Cochran was the former superintendent. (A FOIA has been sent to Eastland ISD, but it has not yet been fulfilled). 

There would be little more happening until October when the first onboarding call was scheduled. That meeting was set for November 1 for one hour. 

Then the data begins to pour over to BookmarkED. The district was sent a list of tasks in order to onboard into the app. First, on November 2, Munoz emailed the Systems team in the district requesting the following:

Data needing to be uploaded to bookmarked.

But on November 11, 2023, Munoz discovered a problem. She emailed Watson the following: 

We just noticed that we do not have the signed contracts from your end.   We do have the Data Privacy agreement signed by both BookmarkED and AISD but the other two contracts (Master Software & Vendor Confidentiality) are not signed by Steve. Can you get this taken care of for us?

Watson would not respond until the 14th when she noted that the contracts would be sent back signed as soon as possible. Those would arrive on Thursday, November 16. 

On November 7, the catalogs for each of the participating school libraries were uploaded to BookmarkED/OnShelf. This included a list of every book in the library by barcode and ISBN, formatted into an Excel file. A little confusion happened in the process, and the catalogs for three of the district’s schools—Abilene High School, Taylor Elementary School, and Bonham Elementary School—were uploaded by November 28. 

Following the catalog upload, the district needed to upload a list of previously challenged books in the district. That was to include formal and informal challenges, as well as information about the date of challenge; outcome of challenge (no action, library restriction, classroom restriction, classroom and library restriction, and so forth); date that a decision was made; the books authors and title; and a reason or explanation for the challenge. 

District leaders booked a training session to go over BookmarkED/OnShelf for December 11, 2024. 

It’s now mid-December, 2023, and AISD has fully been onboarded and uploaded to the BookmarkED/OnShelf app. Munoz let the library staff in the affected libraries know and invited them to provide feedback as they tried it out. The library staff and leadership took two opportunities to connect with the new liaison at BookmarkED/OnShelf: December 19 and January 19. 

Then, that new BookmarkED/OnShelf liaison reached out to Munoz about a blog post titled “Empowering Educational Excellence: Abilene ISD’s Success with OnShelf.” That document hit Munoz’s inbox on January 25—only days after the library staff had the opportunity to provide feedback on the program and less than a month with the team being able to try it out fully. The document was sent over to Munoz’s boss for approval. BookmarkED/OnShelf followed up about it on February 1, then again on February 8—much quicker than the team followed up on the contracts needing to be signed for the district. 

What About The Naughty Abilene Books?

In late December, AISD’s head cataloger for the library had been in communication with BookmarkED/OnShelf’s new liaison with the district, Arden Langford. It was primarily a series of questions about uploading items and navigating the platform. But in one email from Langford, she mentions that the app would allow for seeing if books being considered for purchase would trigger the challenged/banned flags. They decided to try it out. 

Langford’s message arrived on December 20, and the head cataloger responded with a spreadsheet of ISBNs, titles, and authors of books they were considering for purchase the same day. On the 22, Langford responded by telling the cataloger that they’d be testing out the “Library health checker” with that data and results should be back in January. 

Langford would not be back in touch with the cataloger until February 14.  

None of the books that were being considered were flagging banned or challenged titles, though two of the ISBNs did not pull up any data. Here’s a look at what that looks like on BookmarkED/OnShelf’s side.

Image of the library's "health score."

The next step in trying out the system, per Langford’s next email, would be to send out emails to the district’s parents, who could try out BookmarkED/OnShelf themselves. This is where the information acquired by FOIA ends. 

But it’s not where the story ends. 

What about those 300+ books that BookmarkED/OnShelf bragged about finding when Abilene’s schools uploaded their catalogs? Abilene states they maintain no such list of these “previously challenged or banned books,” per FOIA. 

A Data Privacy Nightmare

Why would a library worker want to add another step to the process of letting someone borrow a book? That’s what happens with BookmarkED/OnShelf. Instead of simply scanning the barcode of the book into the library’s integrated library system (ILS), now library workers have to scan the book twice. First, into BookmarkED/OnShelf to determine if the kid can borrow it, then into their own system to check it out. 

Where the ILS is created and developed with privacy and data safety in mind—recall that the Patriot Act was a significant piece of legislation that developers and library workers kept in mind when creating online systems for borrowing items—BookmarkED/OnShelf offers no such thing. Instead, student data is loaded into an app that, as far as can be told at this point, is not secure, is not private, and is possibly available to the people behind the software itself. Folks like Wandler, who have been advocates for “parental rights” and book bans, having access to the names of children who have books restricted is not only a breach of their privacy but sets up an opportunity for then turning that data over to legislators in the state (and a whole host of other people). 

The ILS a school uses already has options within it to note whether or not books on a certain topic or theme may be borrowed by students. 

So much for “parental rights.”

What You Can Do

Please continue to spread the word about this “educational software” company and what it truly is. This group advocated on behalf of book bans in the state, and now, they’re working themselves into districts across Texas as a solution to the problem. The problem they helped create and which is not a problem at all.

If you see anything in your district that looks suspicious when it comes to BookmarkED or OnShelf, it’s time to reach out to administrators and let them know the truth about this app. Its history proceeds it, even if it claims to have heavy hitters helping push it forward. At the end of the day, this app is not only stealing information via its use of AI, but it’s stealing the work of people who are committed to ending book bans and regressive legislation across the country. 

More, as much as this app is angling to “provide information,” what it does is set up not only a tool that completely discredits and disrespects the intelligence, experience, and knowledge of trained professionals, but it also sets forth the prime ingredients for further and further book banning. Parents who are invested in their child’s reading lives have the tools at their disposal already: they have always had the power to restrict books from their children in the library and in the classroom. Indeed, one of the things we know to be true is that Moms For Liberty has fueled misinformation about this by conveniently leaving out the pages of permission forms that allow parents to opt their own child out of lessons

It is crucial to get the word out there far and wide. This is the third in a series of stories about this company’s plans to dominate the book banning market, and they’re still finding ways to misinform their audience about what they’re doing. How can they be trusted with sensitive data about what parents do and do not want their kids to read? How can they be trusted not to use the information being uploaded to their servers via entire library catalogs in order to spur more book bans through their networks? 

They can’t be. 

Parental rights, if that’s the true goal here, include knowing the kind of resources being used in a district that immediately impacts students. In the case of BookmarkED, parents need to know the thousands of dollars being wasted left, right, and center in service of “just providing information!” Information that exists and can be professionally used and managed both by those working in the schools and the parents—the very people who claim to be the ones needing to assert the rights that were never actually taken from them.