Hoopla Has a Content Problem: Here’s How To Fix It | Backtalk

In February, after being alerted to the issue by a group of Massachusetts librarians, Library Freedom Project and Library Futures released a joint statement demanding accountability from Midwest Tape President and Hoopla founder Jeff Jankowski about hateful content and disinformation regarding COVID-19, the Holocaust, LGBTQIA+ people, and other topics on his company’s massively popular electronic content platform for public libraries. Six months later, there is still a great deal of disinformation to be found in Hoopla’s collection on topics ranging from LGBTQIA+ experiences to reproductive health to vaccines.

Hoopla presentation at the Massachusetts Library Association conference
Hoopla presentation at the Massachusetts Library Association conference in May, 2022.

In February, after being alerted to the issue by a group of Massachusetts librarians, Library Freedom Project and Library Futures released a joint statement demanding accountability from Midwest Tape (MWT) President and Hoopla founder Jeff Jankowski about hateful content and disinformation regarding COVID-19, the Holocaust, LGBTQIA+ people, and other topics on his company’s massively popular electronic content platform for public libraries. Jankowski replied to concerned library workers and advocates with a letter informing them of some of the titles’ removal, stating that this material was added “within the most recent twelve months and…made it through our protocols that include both human and system-driven reviews and screening.” He went on to say that the company has “taken immediate steps to improve our process.”

Six months later, there is still a great deal of disinformation to be found in Hoopla’s collection on topics ranging from LGBTQIA+ experiences to reproductive health to vaccines. These books include COVID denialism (Fight COVID with Melatonin), anti-gay conversion therapy (Attack on the Family), and defenses of the alt-right “in their own words” (A Fair Hearing). Librarians are not able to see or understand how Hoopla selects and approves materials for its collections, and even after recent calls for transparency, have no insight into the “human and system-driven reviews and screening” or improved process Jankowski mentioned in his response. They need Hoopla, and all similar platforms, to be fully open and transparent about their processes because Hoopla is doing collection curation on their behalf. If library content selectors don’t know exactly how the review and screening systems for platforms like Hoopla work, we will continue to see disinformation flourish in digital libraries.

When speaking with MWT’s representatives and expressing concern over the collection, all of the public librarians who contributed to this letter have been met with dismissive attitudes and a clear unwillingness to listen to some very troubling issues. Jennifer Wertkin, director of the Wellfleet Public Library, told her MWT representatives that their patrons were following the Hoopla controversy and said they did not want their tax dollars spent on content where there were no controls in place. Friends’ groups and Trustees have been similarly distressed. In response, the representatives referred to the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights and cited “censorship” as the main reason they had for not removing disinformation, propaganda, and outdated material. It is offensive to imply that librarianspeople who work hard to fight censorship, and strive daily to curate library materials that are accurate, up-to-date, and in line with ALA and other ethical guidelineswere asking Hoopla to engage in “censorship” rather than “responsible collection development.”

Furthermore, librarians attending a talk led by MWT at the Massachusetts Library Association (MLA) Annual Conference in May were told that Hoopla would be continually adding tens of thousands of new titles to its catalog each month. Even by the company’s own admission at this conference session, there is no way to keep up with quality controlnot at the company and certainly not at the individual library level. Staff at subscribing libraries were told repeatedly that Hoopla allows us to suppress records for our patrons, but the titles that have been targeted for removal are xenophobic and dangerous propagandameaning they never should have entered Hoopla’s collection in the first place. This is not a case of each library conforming its public-facing Hoopla catalog to its collection development policy; rather, no public library should be circulating the titles in question. When pressed on this issue, MWT representatives have stated that they are trying to reconfigure their algorithm so objectionable titles appear much lower in search results. This is not an acceptable answer, as these titles should not appear anywhere in a public library collection.

As it stands, the process of removing this disinformation and dehumanizing content from Hoopla is very time-consuming. This work is put on the library staff and directors because Hoopla does not have appropriate content curation tools, and has instead prioritized quantity over quality. Searching for this content, reviewing the material, and then reporting or blocking titles from a library's Hoopla collection takes uncountable hours of staff time. At one library, because Hoopla added content from Antelope Hill Press, a publisher of extreme-right materials, over 40 of their titles had to be manually reported and removed from the Hoopla catalog. Hoopla featured another publisher that had over 30 titles of blatant medical misinformation. Each of these had to be reviewed and blocked individually rather than at the publisher level, since the publisher also had titles that did not require removal from the catalog. Another library asked for a report of nonfiction titles over ten years old in the collection. They were informed that there was no process for such a report, as it was the first time the request had been made. Eventually, Hoopla generated a title list of science and technology titles meeting this criteria that was over 3,500 titles long. Requesting the list and suppressing the titles took hours of staff time and effort - time and effort that Hoopla is allegedly supposed to be helping librarians save.

At the May MLA meeting, MWT told attendees that the company would convene a content review board for Hoopla. The board’s scope was unclear, but representatives Ann Ford, Director of Sales & Customer Support, Midwest Tape, and Kelly Hancock, Senior Marketing Manager, Midwest Tape, said that 40 percent of its membership would be library-adjacent peoplenot necessarily librarians, but people who have had some sort of experience in the field, whether it be taking one class at library school or working at another library vendor. The other 60 percent sounded like a random assortment of people throughout the ranks of MWT. When pressed for details, such as how to know who is on the board, the audience was told not much could be disclosed because of concerns for the board’s “safety.” This is quite the sidestep. If one assumes that means safety from fascists (and not from justifiable librarian pushback), they are putting librarians at the most risk, as they are public servants whose identity is necessarily and unavoidably known.

MWT has failed librarians, and its duty of care as a library vendor, with the Hoopla product and the solutions they’ve offered to date. That said, while a full audit of Hoopla’s selection protocols is necessary, the company still has the potential to be a gold standard for algorithmic accountability, transparency, and search quality in the electronic library resource market. Hoopla could use this moment of librarian pushback as inspiration to do better, to invest in systems and people that can not only improve the product but elevate the standards of all library content aggregators. The recently passed Digital Services Act in the European Union “will for the first time pull back the curtain on the algorithms that choose what we see,” and while this specific kind of law has not yet made it to the United States, now is the time for vendors that serve the public interest, such as Hoopla, to act as vanguards of transparency and accountability.

The librarian co-authors of this article consulted Frances Haugen, Facebook whistleblower and tech reform activist, about the current problems with Hoopla. Based on her years as a search quality engineer for the Google Books project, she explained to us that Hoopla presents a unique and remarkable opportunity to advance the field of information retrieval while modeling world-class standards for transparency and collaboration with researchers, the public, and their users. If Hoopla were to share information regarding how its search quality algorithms were designed, and provide an opportunity for users to opt in to contributing their search data and feedback on result quality to a research dataset, it would set the gold standard for algorithmic transparency for library content aggregators and positive consequences could reach far beyond the library profession. Inviting in community participation provides a way to supercharge the search quality team of Hoopla by harnessing countless hours of evaluative brainpower and feedback from both librarians and patrons.

Haugen also pointed out that opening up research to students and academics also presents a remarkable recruiting opportunity for Hoopla. Yelp provides one of the few other large academic datasets of real user data, and it provides a massive recruiting opportunity for the company. Professors model natural language processing techniques using Yelp’s data, and in the process many develop an interest in interning at Yelp. Hoopla could become a premier internship destination by giving students real opportunities to explore how to analyze search behavior. Library school students could have a pathway into search quality engineering if e-resource vendors such as Hoopla would partner with them in the same manner as Yelp is doing; this would have important benefits beyond the field of library and information science, creating a pathway for trained information evaluators to take their skills to Big Tech companies where oversight and transparency is critically absent.

Libraries should be trusted hubs for quality information, and aggregator companies without responsible collection policies like MWT are, intentionally or unintentionally, assuming the library’s traditional role in the information landscape. If libraries are to put increasing shares of their collections in the hands of vendors, those vendors need to adhere to the same standards of quality and review that trained librarians provide. Hoopla has breached the trust of library workers around the country by platforming substandard, inaccurate, and hate-fueled content. Jankowski and his company have the chance to not only repair broken relationships with the library communityHoopla could also have a profound positive impact on search engine quality that would resonate beyond librarianship, modeling a level of transparency and agency that is sorely lacking in the broader field of information technology. We call on our public library colleagues everywhere to push back on MWT because now is the time for Hoopla to commit to doing better. If the company chooses not to act, it will lose libraries’ business and a critical opportunity to lead in its field.

Maureen Amyot, Director, Westborough Public Library

Callan Bignoli, Library Director, Olin College of Engineering

Jenn Bruneau, Director, Northborough Free Library

Clayton Cheever, Director, Morrill Memorial Library

Andrea Fiorillo, Head of Research and Reader Services, Reading Public Library

Jason Homer, Director, Worcester Public Library

Alison Macrina, Director, Library Freedom Project

Caitlin Staples, Technical Services & Technology Librarian, Westborough Public Library

Jennifer Wertkin, Director, Wellfleet Public Library

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