In 2018, 650,000 students in Utah lost access to the library database EBSCO for nearly a month, after a group of parents claimed the tool showed indecent content to children.
Access was reinstated after EBSCO adjusted its keywords and other content. But in the years since, efforts to scrutinize and ultimately limit kids’ access to library databases have only grown.
Now there are laws in three states, including Utah, aimed at preventing library databases in schools from showing pornography or other obscene content. Four other states have introduced similar bills that have not progressed.
But librarians and experts say that these laws are trying to solve a problem that is not real. And they’re worried that efforts to root out perceived offenses are having actual negative consequences for librarians and students.
EveryLibrary, a nonprofit organization, recently released a report examining these types of database laws. Databases are digital tools that school libraries commonly make available to students as a complement to their collections of physical books. These tools may provide online access to e-books, audiobooks, academic journals and digital versions of magazines and newspapers.
Some experts see the new focus on library databases as an outgrowth of a broader conservative movement to put all of public education under a microscope. They argue that the database issue is likely connected to efforts to change curricula and ban books, as well as the panic over critical race theory.
Citizens and parents pushing for greater scrutiny over school library databases often try to limit students’ access specifically to materials related to the LGBTQ community, says John Chrastka, founder and executive director of EveryLibrary.
“It’s a politicized attack largely on GLBT content. The attack is trying to say that anything about sex and sexuality, especially anything that may not heteronormative cisgendered, is somehow obscene,” Chrastka says. “It’s censorship in different forms. It’s under the guise of protecting minors from something that doesn’t exist.”
Fights over library databases often hinge on disagreements about what materials are appropriate and inappropriate for children.
Legislators and others who have pushed for these laws have sometimes claimed without evidence that databases contain pornography. But others have pointed to specific webpages or links. In the 2018 example from Utah, a parent had followed external links from the EBSCO database and discovered material she considered inappropriate, such as an image of two women kissing and other content, according to the Washington Post.
“Providing pornographic content to Utah children, while already against the law, is something that is still happening,” said Travis Seegmiller, a former representative in the Utah state legislature, while advocating in 2021 for the state’s database law, which he sponsored.
Chrastka says parents and activist groups may be more likely to find inappropriate material if they are using databases at home on the open web, instead of on a school network that is required to filter out certain keywords and content. And what a parent might consider inappropriate for their own child might not be inappropriate for a class as a whole.
Some librarians say that because obscene material is not actually being presented by the databases, these kinds of laws do not actually present a problem. Tim Miller, president of the Oklahoma Library Association, points out that his state’s database law only requires that vendors sign a compliance statement that they are not providing indecent material.
“I think many people have made it out to be something more than it is,” he says. “I don’t know of too many vendors in the U.S. that sell to libraries that do sell obscene materials.”
Miller says he welcomes the greater interest the public is taking in libraries and librarians.
“I never think there’s a bad time to talk about how libraries do what they do,” he says. “I for one welcome the attention.”
Other people involved with libraries aren’t so sure.
Efforts to scrutinize library databases can have the effect of blocking children from educational materials, like the 2018 situation in Utah, says Kathy Lester, president of the American Association of School Librarians.
“Here’s all these students that are losing access to these resources that they may need to do quality-level research,” she says.
Also in 2018, a group of parents in Colorado sued the Colorado Library Consortium and EBSCO, claiming that the two were providing pornography to children via the database. The district dropped EBSCO as its vendor, but the suit was dismissed and plaintiffs were not permitted to refile. Lawsuits like that one can take school districts’ money away from educating children, Lester says.
There is also some evidence that database vendors are removing even innocuous material because of the fear that some could find offense, she adds. In Tennessee, a law passed in 2022 changed the definition of “obscene” to include material that has an educational value.
Different databases are appropriate for different ages, Lester says, but notes that certified librarians will be introducing the most appropriate ones to students.
‘Libraries Are Being Attacked’
Chris Haught, a media and technology mentor at Utah’s Southwest Educational Development Center, trains librarians as part of her role. She shared her personal belief (not that of her employer) that Utah’s recent laws related to libraries consume significant time for librarians and the people who train them.
Because of a law related to library books, for example, some school districts are requiring librarians to read and review every book to make sure it is in compliance.
“We have thousands and thousands of books that are sitting in boxes and cannot be shelved and given to students because they have to be reviewed first,” Haught says. “I have spent more hours researching this, trying to train my librarians, that could have been used for much better things. We could be building our collections instead of tearing them down.”
Some librarians say that the politics of these issues have gotten ugly, with librarians being accused of personally pushing porngraphy to children. Groups that are scrutinizing the databases are often highly organized.
“Libraries are being attacked. Teachers are being attacked,” Haught says. “They’re being attacked on social media and being called porn peddlers.”
Maria, a parent and a librarian in a junior high school in Utah, says that she is fearful of receiving harassment if she speaks out against campaigns that claim there is obscene material on databases or in libraries. (Maria is her middle name; her full name is being withheld because of her concerns.)
“The climate is, ‘We have all these books in the library and they’re all porn and they’re all bad,’” she says. “There is harassment of all of our school districts as well as librarians in that sense.”
Maria acknowledges that parents have rights, and says that as a librarian, she can work with parents to be sure that their own children aren’t checking out certain books. But she argues that a parent doesn’t have the right to restrict what other children from other families can read.
Chrastka, of EveryLibrary, says the fear some parents have that their children could be exposed to certain material or certain life experiences before they are ready is a valid one. And in recent years, significant scandals have prompted families to grow wary of institutions that they once trusted, including scouting, religious and youth sports organizations.
But the focus on libraries, Chrastka says, is misplaced. The real dangerous place for children, he argues, is the open web, where, in the absence of parental controls, violent, racist, abusive, and pornographic content is only a Google search away.
“Folks are taking out their concerns and their anger on something as prosaic as a school library database instead of addressing where the real concerns are for the safety of their children,” Chrastka says. “They’re fighting the wrong fight.”