ATG Original: Censorship & The Struggle Over Content in The Internet Age: Part 2: The Vendor Conundrum

by | Apr 1, 2019 | 2 comments

Nancy Herther

By Nancy Herther

(This post is Part 2 of a 2-part series. Click here to read Part 1.)

“You would need to ask the vendors themselves what impacts these challenges may be having on their decisions about what specific content to provide to libraries and schools, what scoping or duration measures they implement in their products (including search filters), and to what extent they work with libraries and schools to curate or weed collections.,” CliC’s Jim Duncan suggests.  However, in the current environment, most vendors are wary of publicly saying much because, as one source told me “all we need are more brush fires that might turn into a wider firestorm.”

As ALA’s OIF Director Jamie LaRue noted in a blog posting on the situation, “let’s settle the big stuff right out of the gate. EBSCO is mostly a curated collection of mainstream magazines, journals, and newspaper articles. It doesn’t have obscene content. It just doesn’t. Nor is there a shred of evidence that students are using it the way these parents are (to deliberately look for titillating content). In fact, there is considerable evidence (based on aggregated search analytics) that students use EBSCO just the way you’d hope: to do their homework, to study up on educational topics. And let’s be totally clear about this, too: If middle or high school students are looking for sex on the internet, they do not start with library databases.”

Gustavus Adolphus College Librarian Barbara Fister describes the company’s role this way “EBSCO aggregates stuff other people publish. They put it into different bundles for libraries to choose from. There’s a process for deciding what goes into these bundles and a process for complaining about what’s in them. There is no plot on the part of EBSCO to corrupt youth any more than librarians, defending people’s freedom to read, are forcing porn on anyone.” In a world in which the internet and Google promise the world, it is these vendors that curate collections to meet the needs and requirements of educators.

As Kathleen McEvoy, EBSCO’s Vice President for Communications described it in a press release,  “EBSCO employs school educators and librarians with advanced degrees to oversee and determine appropriate content for inclusion in our K-12 databases. First and foremost, the basic criteria governing content decisions is to ensure that the materials are educational, support school curriculum, applicable subjects taught in specific grade levels, and that content is age-appropriate (in reading level and in specific text).”

“To be clear,” McEvoy said in a less formal statement,  “EBSCO does not include pornographic titles in its databases, embed pornographic content in its databases, or receive revenue for advertising from any organization, With teams of educators, librarians and subject matter experts (many of whom are also parents of children), we bring together well-known, educational publications into curated collections to serve specific research needs. In addition to the measures we take to ensure only appropriate content is included, we have tools that allow customers to remove any publications from the databases if they so choose. We are appalled by the tenor of allegations related to our intent and the inaccuracies of statements clearly made in absence of factual information.”

“For CliC’s part, Duncan explains, “CliC has provided unlimited free education to librarians at schools and public libraries in the technical steps and techniques for curating electronic collections. This kind of professional education is distinct and separate from making those collection decisions FOR schools and public libraries. Again, CliC does not have the power to tell libraries and schools what to buy, license or deliver. Libraries and schools possess full local control over their database subscriptions, and can choose to suppress specific magazine/publication titles based on professional procedures and local collection management policies.”

Asked if this is a conflagration in the making, Duncan replies “I’ll leave it to you to comment on, or decide, if this is a “chilling effect” or not. During the past two years, 154 schools in Colorado have elected to drop their subscriptions to EBSCO databases through the CliC-negotiated contract. In many cases, those schools had licensed EBSCO databases for a decade or longer. Again, those are local decisions, and CliC respects that local control.” The company is said to have approximately 55,000 client schools in the U.S. How all this will eventually shake out is still in question.  In Cherry Creek School District, EBSCO is now gone.

Jamie LaRue

As Jamie LaRue concludes, the Colorado situation represents “a staggeringly successful censorship effort directed against the publicsector. Just a handful of parents, armed with the utterly spurious research and outrageous accusations by a national faith-based pressure group, accomplishes something that does present a threat to our children: It deprives them of a current tool for research that guides them to curated materials from authoritative sources evaluated by educators and subject matter experts. 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.”

“This is not a nuisance situation,” Duncan concludes, “and CliC takes very seriously its responsibility to educate Colorado libraries and schools – and the communities they serve. The outcome of this case could have a significant, landmark impact on the overall information industry – from libraries to vendors to publishers. Resolution of this case will be decided by the courts.”

THE SPECIAL CASE OF CHILDREN

In 1998, Judith Saltman wrote about the special issues relating to controlling children’s literature, which she traces back to the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, later, the children’s literature magazine, The Guardian of Education, which “helped to define the emerging genre by seriously reviewing children’s literature for the first time.”  According to Saltman, these early efforts sought to filter out objectionable materials in favor “in terms of the precepts of behavior and lessons in social and religious morality contained within them.” As Saltman noted, these ideals arose again from “various adult groups since the 1960s have viewed children’s literature, once again, as a socializing rather than a literary force.” During Banned Books Week, each September, lists of challenged or banned materials are listed as a way to measure the types and extent of censorship present.

As Saltman asks in her analysis, “if children’s books are evaluated only by the criteria of moral values, ‘correct’ ideas and ultimate influence on children’s moral, political and social perceptions, then whose moral and cultural values, whose ideas, should be applied?”  As Christine Jenkins notes in a 2008 book chapter, the consistently sensitive areas include religion, politics and sex. However, differences exist between conservatives (profanity, nude pictures, challenges to traditional values and authority structures), liberals (images that appear to be racist, sexist or otherwise relate to negative stereotypes), fundamentalists (religious/profane or moral representations that challenge current social norms), and from individuals, especially parents or parent groups who commonly focus their attention on specific challenges to their beliefs, parenting ideals, potential negative impacts on their children or social mores. Overall, violence, “scary”or improper situations, cruelty, profanity and non-age-appropriate topics have been continuing issues.

Writing in a recent article focusing on young adult (YA) literature, Alexandria Mintah suggests that “YA is often censored, restricted from the very minds it was create to enrich.” She suggests that “the only way to begin to deal with the problem is to dissipate the defensive, aggressive attitude that overshadows it and to foster understanding, such that parents see the value in YA books and librarians and teachers actively respect the right of parents, working to alleviate their concerns instead of seeing them only as censors.”  She proposes the development of some type of ratings system as we now have for movies or, perhaps more importantly, that “schools and libraries could sponsor workshops that present a few representative YA books to help parents understand not only the negative content but also the lessons and values teenagers are gaining from YA.” This is a potential role for publishers and vendors as well.

LIBRARIES & VENDORS AS GATEKEEPERS

In her article in Collection Management, Jennifer Elaine Steele notes that “the library material selection process is complicated, with many different gatekeepers and other forces at play.” Because of this a variety of external ‘gatekeepers’ have arisen who work to influence or control the process of what is produced, indexed and made available; as well as the role of librarians and teachers themselves who play important roles in this process.

In the 2016 School Library Journal Controversial Books Survey, it was found that “librarians rely heavily on reviews in determining what to purchase. In contrast, 67 percent of teachers consider “the diversity of the student population and community” as the most important factor in the selection of instructional materials. Teachers also report that they rely more heavily on the opinions of other teachers than on reviews, although they also figure in their calculus.”  The survey also found clear evidence that fear has injected into the process. “In the library setting, there may well be greater latitude for the exercise of professional judgment and the presence of controversial materials. This makes sense, since library patrons are free to decide what books to read. Teachers, on the other hand, focus on the students in a particular class, using their professional judgment to pick a single text, or perhaps a few, to help the whole class to meet the demands of the curriculum. Legal issues may also affect how teachers and librarians exercise their decisions.”

The study indicates that “there are fewer grounds to challenge a book in the library, since reading it is optional, while curricular materials may be subject to more objections based on educational suitability and similar factors. In both cases, however, the First Amendment does not allow material to be removed because someone dislikes or disagrees with it. In contrast, it offers significant protection to assessments that are based on valid educational grounds.”

As pointed out in another study, “the fear or reprisal from parents and school administrators can cause school librarians to avoid purchasing books that may be considered offensive. At the end of the day,” they continue, “librarians are not responsible for telling children what they can and cannot read. They are, however, responsible for ensuring the books are available to any student who want to read or learn about a particular topic.”

One recent Illinois State University study reported on a pre-service teachers program designed to study the value of “banned and censored texts related to citizenship” to develop a deep understanding of the “notion of exploring controversial citizenship issues with children.” Clearly neither librarians and teachers – nor publishers or database vendors – control the language or topics of discourse in today’s political environment. With the higher – and seemingly getting ever worse – level of negative discourse in our country, weeding out ‘bad language,’ or inappropriate content from the lives and ears of children becomes more and more difficult.

“Since 2010, America has lost over 20% of its school librarians,” OIF director James LaRue explained in a blog posting. “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.”

MOVING FROM THE STATIC PAGE TO  EVER-CHANGING ONLINE CONTENT

Patrolling web content is done in schools, public libraries and homes through the use of internet filters “used to block content considered inappropriate for specific users,” as explained on the National Coalition Against Censorship website. “Filters are widely used on public library and school computers. The problem with filters is that many block access to content of legitimate interest to users, but which touches upon disfavored or controversial viewpoints on issues ranging from sexuality to marijuana to paganism. This means that users are often only able to access one side of important policy and ethical debates.”

Periodical materials are another story.  The content varies with each issue and selection for subscriptions as well as for database aggregation is done on the basis of reputation, track record, popularity and focus.  “One of the founding principles of Highlights,” that magazine touts, “is that we believe in helping kids become their best selves: curious, creative, caring and confident. That’s why we keep up with the interests of kids today, while upholding time-honored values like respect, manners, fair play, kindness, honesty and more.”

The magazines targeted in the Colorado case include The Nation, Redbook, Horizons, Newsweek, Women’s Health and Ebony. TIME magazine “translates the latest headlines and breaks down current events so you can understand how they impact you and your family. You’ll get firsthand reports with expert analysis, in-depth features, and much more in every issue……The articles ask and answer tough questions, enhancing your understanding of why policy is being made or changed and what’s really going on in war-torn nations.” Covering something like the killing of Jamal Khashoggi would certainly require different treatment for children…and even within the general K-12 range, many current events and issues require a different strategy than for the general public – something no algorithm can provide, particularly with the constant content changes with each issue of periodical literature. However, that in no case infers that these publications are pornographic.

Most public and school libraries have developed clear policies which guide the selection and review of all materials for their collections.  The Wellesley (MA) Public School System’s policies, as an example, is based on accepted guidelines from the American Library Association’s, Library Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read Statement. Their selection objectives are clear, yet broadly based:

  • Support and enrich all segments of the curriculum;
  • Present in balanced perspective the culture, history, activities and contributions of the persons and groups comprising the diverse fabric of our society;
  • Be accessible to its users at all reading levels and to encourage recreational reading across literary genres;
  • Promote analytical and critical thinking skills;
  • Reflect varied interest, abilities, learning needs, and maturity levels;
  • Supplement classroom learning and activities;
  • Provide students with access to current and emerging technologies.

Challenges or questions about the policies or content of collections are handled in clearly defined processes. And challenges do come, some as not much more than a request for clarification and others full-fledged efforts to censor materials. As Mintah reported in her study, “in the year 2017 alone, four hundred and sixteen books were either challenged or banned in the United States; of the top ten most commonly challenged, more than half were either specifically from the young adult genre or generally considered to be teen reading.”

Gale, EBSCO and ProQuest are all active in the K12 marketplace.  As ProQuest describes their service, which is sold in educationalmarkets in 80 countries, as “access to essential primary source materials, ebooks, global leading issues, periodicals, newspapers, and multimedia and image collections. ProQuest’s dedicated K-12 online resources enable educators to align resources with standards, define reading levels and test complexity, and improve critical thinking and information literacy skills.” Gale’s Kids InfoBits for elementary students and In Context service for middle and upper grades “brings together the best and most relevant content on a modern, student-friendly, and mobile-responsive interface, covering the most-studied topics in literature, science, social studies, and U.S. and world history.”

EBSCO, and others, use the Lexile Measure to a search result providing educators with an estimate of the reading difficulty of the result, and the approximate grade level reading ability required for comprehension.” This standard measure provides a valuable tool for teachers, parents, and students, providing both the measure of how difficult a text is and a measure of a student’s reading ability level. Content issues; however, represent a new type of challenge.

Research shows little direct correlation between “sexy media” and teen sex.  A recent “meta-analysis of 22 correlational and longitudinal studies of sexy media effects on teen sexual behavior (n=22,172)”, co-authored by Stetson University’s Christopher Ferguson found no significant “impact of media on teen sexuality.”  However, worried parents and morality groups reactions are based not on research, but fears and concerns about ethics and child development in this era of changing public morality and political divisions. Attacking the vendors in this era of aggregation may be the easy target; however, as long-time industry Buzzy Basch, former President of Basch Subscriptions, and Turner Subscriptions, and Vice President EBSCO, and F W Faxon, notes “my sense is that EBSCO as the database provider is not responsible for the content. Anyone with a complaint should go after the content creator.” However, since the internet and these vendors successfully aggregate content into an easy-to-use package, they are the targets.

CREATING A BETTER FUTURE

So, what can be done?  First we all need to become more aware of all of the issues that swirl around content creation and provision today.  “ALA, EBSCO and others have been named for several years now in an ongoing national “Dirty Dozen” campaign–basically, the attempt to define any and all sexual content as pornographic, and therefore obscene, and therefore a public health crisis. There are so many misstatements in the attacks that it’s hard to know where to start,” LaRue explains. “The problem is threefold. First, the facts, the research, show that if anything the increased access to sexual content correlates with a REDUCTION in teen pregnancy, abortions, and sexual crimes. So the alarms sounds for nothing. But the first problem is simply that nobody’s minds are changed by the facts. Second, the charge itself plays into the continuing parental over-protectiveness in our society today, which aims to preserve an innocence that starts to look like willful ignorance. Given that schools still act in loco parentis (and the “religious liberties” folks have a sympathetic ear in our presidential administration), parents feel emboldened to press for religious values even in a secular setting. Third, today’s public school educators tend to shun their own policies and procedures (request for reconsideration, in particular) in a frantic attempt to avoid public controversy. So the  National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) attacks leverage parental fear and administrative cowardice.”

When I was in grad school I had the honor of taking classes from Dave Berninghausen, Nancy Rohde and Harris McClaskey, staunch believers in the First Amendment.  I had the honor of meeting and being mentored in my early career by OIF’s Judy Krug – a giant by any standard. What role does the First Amendment have in today’s education of writers, readers, librarians, teachers and publishers?  Have we become a part of the problem?

There are so many things that can be done today:

  • Move First Amendment/Intellectual Freedom back into the core programs in library and information science
  • Strengthen the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and similar departments in other professional associations. Bring the First Amendment back into central focus in all aspects of professional work.
  • Take more assertive positions within local, state and federal discussions and court filings concerning First Amendment issues.
  • Develop and implement mentorship programs across the profession. Even those who do not see direct involvement with these issues need to be involved.
  • Work with our partners – publishers, authors, vendors and others – to develop strong connections and mutual support systems, sharing information, strategies and other assets as needed to address issues as they arise.
  • Work within our communities to actively engage in discussions and programs to enlighten everyone to the importance of our freedoms and to critically think about how to better handle these contentious issues as they arise.

“The attacks are dishonest (EBSCO doesn’t push obscene content, and nobody other than these sex-obsessed activists is going to library databases to find even the hint of pornography),” LaRue asserts. “While there really aren’t many people in this push, they’re loud and monomaniacally persistent. Again, I am confident that if these cases get to the courts, they will be dismissed, or, if taken seriously, would embarrass the former Morality in Media so much that they’ll have to change their name again. But until and unless that happens, I greatly fear that our students will find their information environment in schools even more politicized and impoverished.”

“Librarians need to realize that this attack is part of a larger anti-education, anti-public sector campaign. An appropriate response is not just to cite our intellectual freedom documents,” LaRue advises. “We should also point out that given the ongoing strangling of funds for school libraries, EBSCO is in fact a solid, reputable, vetted source of current information. Librarians are not in the business of the suppression of sexual content. We’re in the business of providing access to the content of our culture, in generally appropriate contexts. WHICH THEY DO. The NCOSE folks don’t say what their end game is. They’ve made it clear that ANY sexual content, in any magazine, is unacceptable. (Many of the challenges point back to such hot, sexually oriented magazines as Time or Newsweek.) It’s hard for me to take their position as some kind of moral high ground. This isn’t about pornography in libraries. It’s about people who demand that their prudery become public policy.”

How are you being impacted by the rising discomfort with information content and distribution today?  Feel free to share your ideas, reactions and comments with ATG.

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

 

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