Blogger Intellectual Freedom Committee

Censoring Databases

Children’s Librarians are Experts at… Protecting Children’s Access to Library Materials, Resources, and Services.

Have you experienced the particular thrill that accompanies the accusation that you, a children’s librarian, are a “purveyor of porn” to children?  If not, do not be complacent. Your turn will likely come. And when it does, your fellow librarians, the ALA, ALSC, and other library organizations will have your back.  Quite a bit has been written recently about one censorship effort that has gained traction around the country. This post is intended to offer support to beleaguered children’s librarians, along with strategies to help prepare for, and then meet, such challenges. 

In Colorado, parents affiliated with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (“NCOSE”) have been trying, with varying levels of success, to ban entire e-book collections and electronic databases, including EBSCO and OverDrive. They have brought direct materials challenges in libraries, and more recently, filed a lawsuit against EBSCO and the Colorado Library Consortium (CLiC) for providing/brokering sexually explicit and obscene materials to school children.  Ostensibly, their concern is that children might be able to access magazines with adult content, like GQ and Men’s Health.  They also object to some of the sexual language in, and images on the covers of, the romance novels available through OverDrive. (Whether this content even rises to the legal definition of pornography or obscenity is another question and the issue of over-filtering is a topic for another day and the note below.)  

Their solution, however, would be to remove all electronic content from schools and public libraries. As with all such challenges, the complainants really do believe that removal of materials is best for everyone, and in that sense, one could say they are trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, “doing the right thing” means imposing their personal moral standards on everyone else, in direct contravention of First Amendment values, and with unacceptable costs. As Jim Duncan, Executive Director of CLiC, notes, such removal would take nearly 97,000 additional titles and more than 175 million articles along for the ride. (See pp. 16-17, Guide). Unfortunately, at least one large school district in Colorado has already dropped EBSCO, abdicating its right to make decisions about its own students’ information resources. And more than 130 schools around the country have done the same. 

Image of burning books
CC by Prettysleepy2

Of course, public libraries and schools do not want children to access pornographic materials. Both can limit access to, or even block certain publications on children’s computers.  Many already comply with CIPA (the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires that K–12 schools and libraries in the United States use internet filters to protect children from harmful online content as a condition for federal funding). Recently, the Utah Education and Telehealth Network did shut down EBSCO for K-12 students after receiving complaints similar to those being fielded in Colorado.  However, after ensuring that the offending content was blocked, the UETN Board voted unanimously to restore EBSCO access. UEL Article. 

Similar challenges are proliferating throughout the country.  How should you prepare?  Tips gathered from the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, the CLIC Guide referenced above, and interviews with library administrators include: 

  • Be proactive: 
  1. Review your challenge and reconsideration policy.  Make sure that it specifically outlines the steps anyone must take in order to challenge materials and resources.  Confirm that it covers electronic resources. Again, the ALA OIF can suggest language. OIF 
  2. Investigate. It is possible that your database provider(s) has not activated all filters possible for age-specific databases.
  3. Confirm that your library conforms to applicable state and federal filtering laws.
  4. Make sure your governing board understands the intellectual freedom issues involved as well as the defensive value of good policy. Everyone needs to be on the same page.
  • Be transparent.  If you do receive a challenge, let your governing board know immediately.  Be prepared with talking points and press releases. Position your library as a defender of intellectual freedom and access to information.  Do not be intimidated by inflammatory language.
  • Form a coalition.  Reach out to other libraries that have been similarly targeted. Contact your State Library, the ALA OIF, your state library organization, other school principals or library directors.  Share information and think about the best way to promote your library’s adherence to the Library Bill of Rights. 

Whether a challenge is to a book or an online database, the intellectual freedom bottom line is the same.  One parent or group does not get to decide what everyone else’s children should read or access.  Fortunately, librarians are experts at defending the freedom to read and guarding against censorship. 

Betsy Boyce Brainerd, is the Co-Chair of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee.  A former attorney, she is happy to have found her niche as an Early Literacy Librarian and Family Place Coordinator for the Arapahoe Library District in Colorado.   

For more details about this topic, read: 

“Education is Not Pornography” by James LaRue, OIF Blog. October 12, 2018. 

Colorado Association of Libraries, Press Release, October 12, 2018.

“UETN Votes Unanimously to Reinstate EBSCO for K-12 Utah Schools” by Rebekah Cummings, October 19, 2018.   

“Demanding a Ban on All Digital Content! A Guide for Understanding Strident Claims About the Electronic Resources in Your Library or School”, by Jim Duncan, March 1, 2018. Guide 

Note: While the issue of filtering is beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that libraries are not required to filter content that is simply sexual in nature (sexual content isn’t necessarily obscene or harmful to children; it may have serious literary, educational, or artistic value, for example). See Reitman, Rainey, “The Cost of Censorship in Libraries: 10 Years Under the Children’s Internet Protection Act”, Electronic Frontier Foundation, September 4, 2013, Link. 


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: II. Reference and User Services and IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials.

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