Public libraries unwittingly offered ‘hate’ books through a private service

Major public libraries in Boston, Worcester and elsewhere unknowingly offered e-books that promote white supremacy and neo-Nazi philosophy, as well as e-books by Holocaust-deniers, through their subscriptions to a private company’s electronic collection.

Jason Homer, executive director of the Worcester Public Library, said the revelation came as a shock in late January when I have started looking at the collection from Hoopla, the electronic media vendor.

“We’re talking about deeply damaging information that’s not factual,” said Homer, who manages the second-largest library system in the state. “And with no kind of reference check, no authority … minimizing the voices of LGBTQIA+ and minority voices or underrepresented groups.”

While public librarians curate a library’s physical collections on site, most also rely on private vendors to supply e-books that patrons can borrow to read on their Kindles and iPads. Hoopla, an Ohio-based company that is used by more than 8,000 public libraries in the United States and Canada, had been offering titles including “Debating the Holocaust” and “The Hoax of the Twentieth Century,” referring to the Holocaust, as well as publications offered by far-right publishers Arktos Media and Antelope Hill Publishing, two outfits the Southern Poverty Law Center have identified as hate groups.

Alison Macrina, director of the nonprofit Library Freedom Project, said the scope of the misinformation offered by Hoopla stunned her and other librarians who found dozens of problematic titles or publishers among the 60,000 e-books the service offers.

“Basically, any search that you do, for any sort of, quote/unquote, controversial subject, you get all kinds of disinformation. It’s all like ‘COVID is a Chinese hoax.’ ‘COVID is a is a punishment from God,’” Macrina said. “Feminism retrieves all sorts of garbage on abortion. Homosexuality is just like, ‘pray away the gay’ stuff. The worst ones had primarily misinformed disinformation, but all of them had it within the first few results.”

Hoopla said in a late-February newsletter that when it became aware of a “limited number” of controversial titles on its platform, it removed them. But the scope of the problem remains unclear, as does how it will enforce its library customers’ standards going forward. In the newsletter, founder and CEO Jeffrey Jankowski also said the situation highlights “a complex issue that libraries have always faced curating their collections — avoiding a culture of censorship.”

The company reiterated that in a brief April 7 statement to GBH News: “This is a complex issue that Libraries have always faced. We are working to refine our policies and create more tools that empower Libraries to choose which titles they offer to their patrons.”

But it’s clear that this is a new twist for many librarians who thought that Hoopla was managing its content within the standards established by the industry and each library’s board of trustees.

Librarians also curate a library’s collection according to guidelines established by the American Library Association.

Just last year, the trade group amended its code of ethics to state: “We affirm the inherent dignity and rights of every person. We work to recognize and dismantle systemic and individual biases; to confront inequality and oppression; to enhance diversity and inclusion; and to advance racial and social justice in our libraries, communities, professions, and associations.”

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said she was surprised by the revelation about what Hoopla’s content included.

“At a very minimum, I believe vendors should be providing tools to libraries so that they can curate the online collections,” she said.

Caldwell-Stone added that she thinks the situation is “a little bit of shared responsibility” with local librarians.

“It’s up to the individual library, and the library workers to ensure that the resource is in compliance with the written policies and mission of the library,” she said. “You know, and every library is different, every library will have a different approach to different books.”

That sentiment is in contrast to the frustration some librarians expressed.

Andrea Fiorillo, who co-chairs the Intellectual Freedom/Social Responsibilities Committee at the Massachusetts Library Association, said Hoopla has undermined librarians’ work and industry ethics.

“It’s kind of painful,” Fiorillo said. “It’s hard when we have to spin our wheels, saying, yeah, the Holocaust happened and [this book] doesn’t belong on our shelves. And it doesn’t increase your intellectual freedom to have access to content that is so wrong. And not only wrong, but dangerous.”

And Macrina, of the Library Freedom Project, said promises to do better aren’t enough.

“Libraries should be trusted hubs for quality information,” she wrote in a Feb. 22 letter to Hoopla. “These companies are undermining the library’s traditional role in the information landscape. Bad actors are loading library platforms with a slurry of misinformation that undermines the intentional, community-specific collection development efforts of librarians.”

Hoopla is a subsidiary of Midwest Tapes LLC, which supplies public libraries with physical DVDs, Blu-rays and audiobooks. Jankowski has said in interviews that the company is growing by leaps, offering services not only in major US cities, but also in other countries.

“Our content development and acquisition teams are constantly seeking fresh and unique offerings that are aimed at delighting both our libraries and their patrons,” Jankowski said in a 2018 interview with Cord Cutters News. “Our goal is to create an environment where patrons can engage with their library in a deeper way by experimenting and discovering new authors and genres that perhaps they’ve been reluctant to try before or had difficulty finding elsewhere.”

Nahant librarian Sharon Hawkes noted that the personal or financial interest of Hoopla relies on the public sector and taxpayers, who foot the bill for loans of their materials. Public libraries pay Hoopla as much as $4.99 per e-book whenever a patron checks one out.

“It would be important to know how these books made their way into the Hoopla collection,” she wrote in an email thread between librarians obtained by GBH News. “While I wouldn’t point to Hoopla as an authoritative resource, neither would I expect them to offer material that is the exact opposite of accuracy and authority.”

Homer said he realized the Worcester library system was offering not just books it would not carry in print, but also boutique publications, like a 56-page publication titled “Coronavirus” that conspiratorially lays blame for the pandemic on several people, including Hunter Biden, the president’s are.

Homer said he spoke with Jankowski by phone after threatening to end the city’s contract with Hoopla. When he told Jankowski about the book implicating Hunter Biden, he said Jankowski heard a sigh and promised he would make changes.

“We really don’t know their process,” Homer said of Hoopla’s e-book collection. “It wasn’t just a few [problematic] titles, and it was more pervasive than they ever thought possible.”

Homer said he and other librarians will meet with Hoopla officials in June at the American Library Association’s national conference in Washington, DC

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