By: Frederic Murray
EBSCO is an online database company whose products are in thousands of schools, colleges and universities’ around the world. In September of 2016, the products they developed for the K-12 market came under attack in Colorado and Alabama. The challenges were made concerning the inclusion of sexual content deemed inappropriate for school-age children. Overdrive, Gale, ProQuest and Cengage were also held to account. Accusations of providing pornography and enabling sexual exploitation were laid against against school districts and libraries.
It is federal law that schools cannot receive federal discounts for internet access unless filters are in place to screen out pornography, see 539 US 194 (2003). The schools under question had such filters, but, as many of us know, databases are connected to the internet and therefore have the potential to connect to websites outside the network.
The response of the stakeholders, to parent’s legitimate concerns, in both states were met alacrity and diligence. In the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado, the chief academic officer shut the system down and began working with EBSCO to exclude certain periodicals. In both Colorado and Alabama, EBSCO released fact sheets and guides detailing its response and plan of action to remove objectionable publications and conduct ongoing evaluations of content.
EBSCO took a clear stance in providing opportunities for libraries and school districts to work with support and training staff to keep collections relevant. It is important to note that schools are able to control the level of content made available in searches, and the districts under questions are taking steps to strengthen this level of protection by removing links to third-party, out-of-network, sites. Deselecting material, as any librarian knows, is part and parcel of making sure collections remain relevant and useful to patrons.
Often databases and electronic resources are overlooked when updating or creating selection policies. Selection policies should address all the resources the library provides regardless of format, whether it’s published articles, e-books, streaming content, apps or electronic tools. And when concerns like these arise, even though it is not a traditional book, those involved should follow the same reconsideration procedures and policies they have adopted for a print material. Professionally, as traditional book challenges are reported, it is the responsibility of those involved to report the challenge of a database to ALA. In the last year, six libraries have received email or social media complaints that originated from the National Center of Sexual Exploitation. As the Office for Intellectual Freedom is aware of these trends, we can provide more resources and support and information to prepare libraries should it happen to them.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) is a Washington D.C. based, non-profit, anti-pornography organization. It is the group that leveled, and continues to level, serious allegations of sexual exploitation and pornography peddling on the part of school districts, libraries and database vendors. Its approach to the issue of sexual exploitation is quixotic to say the least. It proudly touts its media campaign against companies it has deemed “The Dirty Dozen.” These are companies or organizations that the NCOSE considers to be “leading facilitators of sexual exploitation.” These companies include Roku, Amnesty International, Amazon and the American Library Association.
The NCOSE seem more concerned with imposing its standards and values concerning sexual activity, and what it considers to be obscene, then the very real problems of trafficking and violence at the center of sexual exploitation in the modern world. Its own financial data bears this out for the 2016 fiscal year. Only 3 percent of its monies were spent towards trafficking and prostitution initiatives while 13 percent was spent on its “Dirty Dozen” media campaign. $156,000 seems like an awful lot of money to spend on a list.
In contrast, the International Justice Mission, an international, non-governmental 501(c) (3), exists to combat sex trafficking, child sexual assault, cybersex trafficking and forced labor slavery — real issues concerned with sexual exploitation. The IJM spent close to $44 million in efforts to protect those in physical, legal, economic and psychological need.
Who is doing the real work here?
In the field of education, we are better served teaching our students to be responsible critics of information, than relying on filters, or other technological solutions, which will always be imperfect at best. We are better served looking for solutions among the responsible parties, than favoring the intercession of third-party advocacy groups looking to make scandal where little exists.
Frederic Murray is the head of Instructional Services at the Al Harris Library, Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He is a tenured faculty member and as an academic librarian has initiated the growth and expansion of information literacy classes across the campus curriculum. He has presented at state, national and international conferences in the areas of library pedagogy, digital textbooks, and the development of curriculum for Native American Studies. He serves as the managing editor for Administrative Issues Journal, a peer-reviewed, open access journal in its sixth year of publication. He believes deeply in the value of books and the inherent strength found in the human voice. Among his favorite authors are Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carson McCullers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org