We demand accountability from Hoopla Digital and OverDrive regarding the platforming of fascist propaganda in their digital library collections.
MARCH 3RD UPDATE: On February 22, Library Freedom Project and Library Futures released a joint statement demanding accountability from Hoopla Digital CEO Jeff Jankowski and OverDrive CEO Steve Potash about fascist content on their platforms. While we have yet to receive a response from Potash and OverDrive, Jeff Jankowski of Hoopla sent the following form letter to a number of library workers and supporters who reached out to him:
We were recently contacted about a series of complaints related to a limited number of hoopla digital eBooks found on the platform by a group of Librarians. These titles are holocaust denial books and/or promote an ideology of hate. The presence of these titles has raised questions from some of these Librarians about hoopla’s collection policies and I want to make sure, as a valued hoopla Library partner, you are well informed. To those who reached out regarding these titles — thank you. We appreciate you sharing your comments and opinions.
*We have removed these eBooks from hoopla*
These eBooks are inaccurate and sources of propaganda that have no place in the hoopla Instant collection. My team has removed the titles from our platform. I apologize for any difficulties their inclusion may have caused you, your staff, or cardholders. Please know we have already started evolving our collection development and content review policies, including a new email address for reporting any title of concern (email@example.com<mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>).
*How these titles made it onto hoopla*
The titles from these five independent publishers came to us from our network of more than 18,000 unique publishers. They were added within the most recent twelve months and, unfortunately, they made it through our protocols that include both human and system-driven reviews and screening. As a result, we have taken immediate steps to improve our process.
*This is a complex matter*
Due to the hateful nature of these specific titles, I have no regrets about having our team remove them from hoopla. Despite my personal objections to these eBooks, I must acknowledge that this situation highlights a complex issue that Libraries have always faced in curating their collections — avoiding a culture of censorship. Just as Libraries receive challenges on items in their physical collections, we receive challenges on individual titles. We review those concerns and make the best decisions we can for the overall hoopla community.
*We strive to empower every Library*
In the event a Library encounters a title they wish to block from their hoopla collection, they are able to easily do this within their hoopla dashboard. For any Library needing assistance, please reach out to your hoopla support specialist and they will be happy to either assist you or block the title for you.
*We believe access to large and varied collections is essential for Libraries*
Offering a robust digital collection of quality content with an intuitive patron experience is essential for each Library and their community. We believe that representative collections must include titles from publishers both large and small.
*Thank you and know we will continue to listen and evolve *
I am genuinely thankful for your partnership and for the ongoing collaboration with all of our Librarians that has been critical since the inception of hoopla digital. You have my commitment and that of our team that we will indeed continue to advance our product and services and always welcome your feedback.
President, Midwest Tape
Founder, hoopla digital
While we appreciate Mr. Jankowski’s quick response and the removal of the Holocaust denial materials librarians originally reported to the company, this response is insufficient. Our questions remain about how Hoopla selects and approves materials for their collections. There is still a great deal of disinformation to be found on Hoopla. For instance, when you search for ebooks about “homosexuality” and “abortion,” instead of factual informational content, the search results are largely self-published religious texts designed to misinform and scare library readers about sexual and reproductive topics. There is also an enormous amount of misinformation about vaccines, and even books peddling long-debunked links between vaccines and autism. (screenshots below). This means that in public libraries across the nation, people are often not seeing any non-fiction materials about critical topics because their search results are dominated by unverified, unvetted materials.
We need Hoopla (and all digital library content aggregators) to be fully open and transparent about their collection processes, and to be willing to work with librarians to reform those processes. Otherwise, we’ll continue to see disinformation flourish in our digital libraries.
Collection development is a core responsibility of librarians, and we take this duty seriously, carefully choosing materials for our community members that reflect their research, entertainment, and information needs. Our vendors must take this responsibility as seriously as professional librarians take it, and that begins with transparency about how materials are finding their way into the collections of services like Hoopla.
In his response, Mr. Jankowski mentions “human and system-driven reviews and screening” and indicates there is an enormous body of material to evaluate, but offers no detail on how this process works. We need to know exactly how the review and screening systems work. Which collection decisions are made by machines? Which are made by humans? Are the humans employed in these tasks performing high-paced, low-wage labor?
In addition to understanding the review and selection processes library vendors like Hoopla use, we also need to know what quality control mechanisms will be put into place to prevent low-quality materials from making their way back to the Hoopla platform. Given the additional disinformation that we found when further searching, we believe that a full audit of Hoopla’s selection protocols is necessary.
We demand that Hoopla provide the library community with answers about their content selection process, including both the automated and human elements involved. We also demand accountability from OverDrive — a vendor who has not responded to the many emails sent by our community — and similar transparency. We ask other content providers to consider the risk of platforming disinformation and undermining the trust of the library community. Library Freedom Project and Library Futures have contacted Hoopla CEO Jeff Jankowski once again to request a meeting with him and the Hoopla collection development team to discuss these critical topics and get a detailed outline of how their selection and takedown process works.
Declining library budgets and staff, media consolidation and underfunding, and austerity measures have led to a proliferation of disinformation, especially in digital information feeds and platforms. Poorly moderated platforms and products provide opportunities for conspiracy theorists and propagandists to spread inaccurate and hateful materials parading as truth.
Libraries should be trusted hubs for quality information, and 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. If libraries are to put their collections in the hands of vendors, those vendors need to adhere to the same standards of quality and review that trained librarians provide. That requires explaining their methods for obtaining and reviewing titles, and must go far beyond vague statements about the difficulty of vast amounts of material.
Libraries are not big box stores, warehouses for disinformation, nor are they big data companies. Decisions about our communities’ information needs should not be left in the hands of vendors that charge libraries, and therefore taxpayers, for disinformation and propaganda. These collections provide the illusion of depth while extorting and harming those that depend on their local libraries to find information about controversial topics.
Catalog records and trusted librarians have been replaced by algorithms in digital collections, and now we are seeing the results. Librarians concerned about their jobs one day being automated are right to ask if Hoopla, OverDrive, and other content providers are not only pushing us to that reality, but giving disinformation even more of a chance to take root and grow. We have the right to know how Hoopla and Overdrive select their materials, and what stopgaps they are putting in place to protect the public. Librarians must act now and either speak up or cut ties — our community information needs and ethics depend on it.
If you’re a librarian and find concerning or inaccurate results on Hoopla or Overdrive, please tweet the content with the hashtag #vendorslurry and tag @HooplaDigital and @Overdrive.
We’ve sent these follow up questions to Jeff Jankowski as well as a request for a meeting.
- You mentioned the automated and human review processes that are involved in your selection process. Can you describe these processes in detail?
- How has hoopla’s content aggregation/review system changed since the company’s founding?
- Have there been previous issues with Hoopla’s content before now? If so, what were they and how did you find out about them?
- What is the process by which you select publishers?
Our original statement from February 22 is below (some additional screenshots appended):
Hoopla Digital and OverDrive are among the most popular streaming, audiobook, and ebook platforms, with subscriptions in thousands of public libraries. Without appropriate quality-control and source-vetting, these vendors are platforming propaganda, including Holocaust denial materials and other false rhetoric, and making them available to patrons as nonfiction ebooks. We demand full accountability for how these materials were selected for inclusion on the platforms and more transparency in the companies’ material selection processes going forward. These materials do not belong in a popular public library collection. We call upon our fellow library workers to join us in this demand in holding our vendors accountable.
Libraries’ physical collections represent selection from local librarians based on transparent, intentional policies, rooted in library values of intellectual freedom and social responsibility. Due to the steady under-resourcing of libraries that directly impacts our ability to adequately staff our organizations, libraries’ digital collections usually require subscribing to content packages with content that most libraries would never buy physical copies of — inaccurate materials, materials of poor quality, and materials of low interest to our communities.
In contrast to physical collections, libraries have little choice, and no input, about the offerings on platforms like Hoopla Digital and OverDrive. In the collections of these digital vendors, we uncovered actual Nazi propaganda. These are books that are of such low accuracy and quality that not even Amazon will sell them. This includes materials from white nationalist publishers Arktos Media, Antelope Hill Publishing, and Castle Hill Services. In Hoopla, for example, the third search result for the word “Holocaust” returned a Holocaust denial text not carried by most book distributors. Hoopla also included A New Nobility of Blood and Soil (which was written by a leader of the German SS in 1930, and Antelope Hill is “proud to present for the first time in English”). This title is available for purchase in the OverDrive Advantage Marketplace for content buyers as well. Because Hoopla circulates materials on a “pay per use” model, every time one of these titles is checked out, library budgets are allocated directly to white nationalist publishers. As of February 17, 2022, Hoopla removed many of these titles, but the company must answer for the content policies that led to the inclusion of these titles in the first place. As of the writing of this statement, OverDrive still offers these titles on their marketplace.
This is not a situation where librarians are calling for the removal of materials from our carefully-developed and curated collections. Rather, these materials are not ones that libraries opted to include in the first place. Like junk mail that floods people’s mailboxes, titles like these are not collected by public libraries because they do not meet the standards and needs of a public library collection. While collections vary based on the needs and interests of the community each library serves, libraries do not usually collect material that is abjectly false disinformation. Some academic or special libraries may collect such materials for research purposes, but Hoopla is a popular collection for public libraries, not a research database. Holocaust denial misinformation does not fit within public libraries’ collection standards. If public libraries choose to collect these materials for research purposes, they should be able to make that decision for themselves and their communities, with appropriate staff training and collection categorization — not have the decision made for them by a digital content vendor that offers Holocaust denial titles alongside legitimate history books.
When confronted over email, Hoopla apologized for what they call a “quality control oversight,” but has yet to address questions about why these materials were selected for inclusion, and took over 48 hours to remove the titles through a non-transparent process. Hoopla also responded to criticism on Twitter with a boilerplate statement, concluding with “We respect the complexities of this issue and appreciate the input we’ve received from Librarians and patrons on both sides of this important conversation.” As one of the main library ebook platforms, Hoopla Digital has a great responsibility to provide historically accurate nonfiction titles that are not white nationalist propaganda. Providing Holocaust denial propaganda as fact on the main library resource providers is more than a mere “quality control” issue — it is an error of judgment with potentially dangerous consequences, as Hoopla’s digital resources collection touches millions of library users of all ages across the nation, including children learning about the Holocaust for the first time.
We demand full transparency from Hoopla regarding their vetting process for publishers and what measures are used by their Content Control Team to ensure white supremacist content does not appear in public library digital collections again. We also demand that all digital content vendors take this issue seriously and audit their own collections for inaccurate, non-factual, white nationalist, eugenicist, Holocaust denialist, or other content that does not meet library standards. Further, in order to reestablish trust between libraries and content vendors, Hoopla should make available an option for libraries to review a list of publishers added to the platform before the works become available. Libraries deserve to know how the materials in their collections were selected.
We also ask our library patron communities to support this fight by writing to Hoopla’s CEO Jeff Jankowski at email@example.com and Overdrive CEO Steve Potash at firstname.lastname@example.org to demand that they provide full accountability and removal of this content.
We’ve included a sample letter for Jeff Jankowski and Steve Potash below. We’ve also included screenshots from both platforms below that text. If you have any questions, please email email@example.com.
Dear [Jeff Jankowski/Steve Potash],
I urge your company to remove Holocaust denial publications from the [Hoopla Digital/Overdrive] catalog, publicly account for how they came to be included in public library catalogs across the country, and explain the steps you are taking to ensure that such items will not appear in the [Hoopla Digital/Overdrive] catalog again.
Building library collections for the public is a responsibility that has historically been carried out by library workers in service to their communities. The inclusion of inaccurate and propagandistic materials in nonfiction collections is a disservice to the public and reflects your company’s carelessness at best, and is antisemitic at worst.
I demand that these materials be removed from your collections, and that your company publicly publish its collections workflow in order to protect our communities and account for your decision-making processes, which affect patrons around the country.