ATG Original: Censorship & The Struggle Over Content in The Internet Age: Part 1 – An Increasingly Polarized America

by | Mar 25, 2019 | 0 comments


Nancy Herther

by Nancy K. Herther

(This is Part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 will be posted later in the week.)

Book content is confined between the covers of that book.  Today’s databases are bringing the world of information – word for word – to anyone who enters a keyword and presses “search.” Book publishers continue to deal with censorship daily.  Last year the Duluth (MN) Public Schools was forced to drop both To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn” from their curriculum due to complaints. Although ALA continues to find that the majority of challenges are for books, 67% in 2017; challenges to databases, magazines, files and games had risen to 18% in that same year.

The potentially contentious role of community standards in setting curricular standards and information materials in schools has existed for many years. Each year the National Center on Sexual Exploitation publishes their list of the “Dirty Dozen,” those selected as the “leading Facilitators of Sexual Exploitation.” The 2018 list includes EBSCO, as well as Amazon, Comcast, HBO, ROKU, iBooks, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube.  The American Library Association (ALA) itself was included in the 2017 list. Clearly none of these groups or companies works to actively support sexual exploitation of anyone.  With the internet, schools are able to provide radically enhanced access to the world of information and also, issues of censorship that make banned books seem rather simple.

Almost 70% of censorship demands are directed at material in school classrooms or libraries. Most of the remainder are aimed at public libraries. Parents lodge 60% of the challenges. ALA’s analysis includes these insights: “Any number of reasons are given for recommending that certain material be removed from the library. Complainants may believe that the materials will corrupt children and adolescents, offend the sensitive or unwary reader, or undermine basic values and beliefs. Sometimes, because of these reasons, they may argue that the materials are of no interest or value to the community.”

Most attacks are based on concerns over sexual content, religion, profanity or racial language. Even single complaints will trigger what might be a contentious review scenario. Thus was the situation with the Cherry Creek (Colorado) School District in Colorado, where the problem started in 2017 when parents first raised concerns about the apparent inclusion of pornographic information within or linked in databases that the school district licensed from EBSCO.  It soon became apparent that the grassroots efforts by parents to deal with these issues was supported by such national groups as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, (previously called Morality in Media), the Thomas More Society, and MassResistence. The controversy roiled the local community, the state-wide library consortium – with contracts with vendors for the libraries – and the broader database and library communities.

The issues have been well-covered in the media; however, the really important aspect of this case is that it isn’t an isolated incident.  According to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), in the past few years over 130 school districts – including Cherry Hill – have canceled their contracts with EBSCO; and the significant increase in attacks point to our increasingly fractured political environment in which deep divisions are being formed and the search for truth is trumped by innuendo and a growing lack of civility in public discourse.  As the OIF notes, “since 2010, America has lost over 20% of its school librarians. In many elementary, middle, and high schools, library budgets, never very robust, have been slashed to the bone. For those schools, shared databases like EBSCO (or ProQuest, or Gale products, which have also been targeted) represent pretty much the only bona fide tools for school research that remain.”  What we are seeing appears to be a crisis in information access and database provision.


“The idea of censoring books is something that should make any librarian cringe,” ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Blog noted recently. “Libraries are tasked with the responsibility of providing free access to resources and content to suffice the intellectual and social needs of a community.” The posting goes on to remind librarians and readers alike that “in selecting books, it’s not the popular opinion that librarians should seek. It is a myriad of opinions represented by books that reflect the social and intellectual diversity of the world.” However,  especially in school libraries, studies are finding that librarians censor materials themselves.

In a 2010 study of self-censorship by school library staff, Wendy Rickman, University of Central Arkansas Education Professor, studied over 1,000 school librarians finding that “sample population as a whole did not demonstrate a practice of self-censorship in the selection process, four characteristics of the sample population did indicate self-censoring behaviors: (1) being of the age 60–69, (2) holding no formal collegiate education degree (bachelor of science in education, master of science, or master of science in education) with library media certification or licensure, (3) being at a secondary school library media center, and (4) having fifteen or fewer years of education experience.” No one wants to be attacked, accused of collusion in the downfall of children or publicly shamed.  However, it is happening at what appear to be increasing levels across the U.S. and beyond.


The scenario Rickman describes fits well with the Colorado situation. Concerned parents, led by lawyers from the Thomas More Society, filed a successful lawsuit in court charging that:

“At all times material, EBSCO has known its research databases specifically targeting school children have contained, and continue to contain, substantial amounts of easily accessible, sexually explicit material, which is obscene with respect to minors and/or is harmful to minors, as these terms are legally defined. In addition to sexually explicit materials on the EBSCO database itself, the database also contains links outside the database to sex toy shops, to porn sites, to misogynistic materials espousing violence towards women and to “torture-porn” sites, among other sites. EBSCO knowingly provides this obscene and harmful content on a database system that bypasses school internet filters and private, parent-supplied internet filters. Unsuspecting school children, believing themselves to be using a safe school research database, easily can stumble into these sexually explicit and obscene materials while searching otherwise benign topics on EBSCO databases.”

Jim Duncan

This type of attack is clearly difficult to parse into specific issues. Included in the suit was the Colorado Library Consortium (CliC), the state agency which acts as the purchasing agent for libraries in the state. Jim Duncan, the CliC Executive Director, believes that “vendors routinely make improvements to their products and services in an effort to better serve their customers, as well as to compete with one another. My observation is that vendors strategically seek to improve everything – from the user experience to the content they license from publishers. Most vendors typically create development roadmaps or other forms of planning documents that outline their future system features and functions and interface enhancements. Those product revision plans are internal to those respective vendors, and CliC is not privy to such documents. What I observe is that public libraries, schools and academic libraries continue to license valuable products and services, delivered by vendors, and licensed through CliC.”

In response to the EBSCO case, CliC has published an online guide for libraries, called Demanding a Ban on all Digital Content,  in which they note that “a modern-day book-burning crusade is underway. Two or more individuals claiming that databases are full of pornographic content are demanding a statewide ban of ALL such products, including electronic resources from EBSCO, Gale/Cengage, ProQuest and digital content from OverDrive.”  Duncan introduces the guide noting that “as a librarian or school media specialist or library leader, or administrator – whatever role you play in your library or school – you hold a solemn responsibility to prepare for an inevitable attack upon YOUR library’s collection.”

Duncan explains that “the situation in Colorado is one where a small group of individuals oppose the delivery of electronic resources in schools and public libraries across the entire state. Specifically, these individuals have named vendors such as EBSCO, Gale/Cengage, Proquest and OverDrive. Colorado is not unique. The challenge to electronic resources has occurred in many other states, most significantly in Utah (where access to EBSCO databases in schools via the Utah Education and Telehealth Network was shut off for more than a month, then restored). More recently, challenges have occurred in Indiana, where EBSCO databases and other forms of e-content are delivered through INSPIRE.

The methods used by these groups has been carefully noted by CliC. “The online guide on our web site provides several detailed examples of the challenges Colorado has faced,” Duncan explains. “As a summary, the individuals who oppose delivery of electronic resources utilize social media tools and other forms of direct communication to stir up attention for their cause and their beliefs. CliC holds true to the principle that these individuals have the right to express themselves. Here are ways they have communicated their challenges and beliefs:

  • Facebook reviews directed at schools, public libraries, federal agencies, state legislatures – posted through several “anonymous” accounts
  • Twitter tweets
  • Blog posts – various sites
  • Blast emails to all school superintendents across Colorado
  • Targeted emails to Colorado school-related groups like the Colorado Education Association, Colorado Association of School Executives, Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado State Board of Education
  • Letters and emails to the Commissioner of the Department of Education and the State Librarian
  • Emails and calls to state legislators
  • Repeatedly contacting mainstream Denver news channels so that they can air their accusations on TV. Two of those media outlets decided to air stories. CBS 4 in Denver in 2017. In September 2018, Denver 9News aired this piece: You will need to consider for yourself whether or not this kind of mainstream coverage is balanced, fair or accurate.
  • Linking up with other individuals with similar views and beliefs, either in the region or in other states – and advising those other individuals.”

The efforts by these groups to vilify libraries, librarians, publishers and vendors rely on a poorly defined “other” or “straw men” trying to subvert children, The reality can be a harder sell for these groups.  As Duncan notes, “in Colorado, local control is celebrated and inextricably linked to the culture of our communities. Schools, public libraries and academic institutions all make their own purchasing, licensing and collection management decisions – regardless of whether those resources are in print or electronic. The Colorado Library Consortium holds no regulatory power or enforcement rights over libraries and schools. CliC cannot tell a library what book to buy, nor what database to license. However, these organizations routinely ask CliC to negotiate cost-saving discounts on their behalf, through the power of cooperative purchasing.”

CliC continues to do business with EBSCO, Gale/Engage, ProQuest, and OverDrive – plus more than 20+ other vendors/aggregators of content and services – all on behalf of Colorado libraries, schools and academic institutions.” So what is the best way for vendors, librarians and others to deal with these challenges?

In Part 2 of this series, we will look at what librarians, their associations, vendors and content creators need to do in the face of this polarized environment. 


Nancy K. Herther is librarian for Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.


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