Filter This

In the Library with the Lead Pipe welcomes Audrey Barbakoff, a librarian at the Milwaukee Public Library, and Ahniwa Ferrari, Virtual Experience Manager at the Pierce County Library System in Washington, for a point-counterpoint piece on filtering in libraries. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and are not endorsed by their employers.  We thank them for their time and energy in writing this piece!

Children at a computer

“Untitled” by Flickr user paul goyette (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By and

Audrey Barbakoff

Banned books week sucked last year.

I felt pretty hypocritical about last year’s Banned Books Week. Don’t get me wrong; I love Banned Books Week. I adore it. Without the reminder provided by events like this, it’s too easy to get drawn into the day-to-day concerns of library work and forget about the essential issues of intellectual freedom, battling censorship, and embracing the sharing of ideas even when they are unpopular or unpleasant. It’s because I find it so critically important, so essential to who we are as librarians, that I’m upset.

Because libraries are complicit in one of the most extensive censorship campaigns in history.

Even right under the nose of Banned Books Week, we are censors. Every single day, we prevent people from accessing content that makes us uncomfortable – online. We take the single greatest advance in the open dissemination of ideas since the printing press and slap filters on it. I just don’t understand how librarians can allow and encourage patrons to read books full of graphic sex and violence while simultaneously denying them the opportunity to access the same content online. Think of a popular urban fiction author, like Keith Lee Johnson. We’ll buy a kajillion copies of Little Black Girl Lost, we’ll display them in a place of prominence, we’ll replace them when they’re stolen, we’ll recommend them to patrons, including minors, who like Wahida Clark. But would our own computer filters let you see that exact same text on the screen? No way.

So why do we let this happen? I think it’s because public librarians fail to talk about filtering in an ethically important way. Even articles that address the controversy around filtering and intellectual freedom fall into the trap of dickering about smaller issues, such as how restrictive filters should be, how well they work, or which product is best ((For an example, see Carr, 2010. Despite the title’s implication, nearly half the article focuses on how well particular filtering technologies work. Even Judith Krug, past director of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, spent much of the interview re-posted in Goldberg, 2009 framing her discussion with the problems of a particular technology, SurfWatch, rather than the issue of filtering as a whole. Library Journal is particularly guilty of focusing heavily on logistics with little to no real discussion of the underlying ethical issues. The San Jose Council’s decision to remove filters was reported as one almost purely of cost (Oder, 2009). Some articles (Oder, 2007) highlight librarians’ resistance to filtering mandates or concerns, but fail to open discussion on why such struggle is warranted. Others (Oder, 2010) talk specifically about over or underblocked content, but never mention, much less debate, the impact on intellectual freedom as a whole. A search of LJ’s site yields many similar examples)). It’s easy to do, and part of me wonders if we haven’t intentionally let the ethical issues slip into the shadows out of a little bit of shame over our print/digital double standard. Perhaps we just find it easy to write off digital content because we’re format-ists. Perhaps it’s because CIPA or COPA or whatever vowel they’re using these days has leveraged our funding to quash our resistance. Perhaps we’ve just had filters for so long we’ve accepted them as necessary, or at least “grudgingly come to terms.” ((Janes, 2009))

Whatever the reason, we have to take our heads out of the e-sand if we’re going to offer our patrons the service and access that is their right. There are certainly serious concerns about the efficacy and cost of filtering which need to be addressed. However, these smaller decisions on how to filter must come out of a broader understanding of why we filter at all – and of what the higher-level effects and implications of that choice may be. Basically, we need to have a frank, moral conversation to remind us what exactly we’re doing. Only once we have a clear understanding of what it means to filter can we legitimately ask ourselves how we’re going to deal with them in the real world.

In case you haven’t picked up on my rather overbearing personal opinion on this topic, I’ll lay it out – mandatory filters are censorship, big time. I’m too passionate about this to feel comfortable making a logical argument without letting you know about my bias up front. This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t understand why many libraries can’t go without filters. Some libraries need the funding; others have communities that demand them; some have bandwidth limitations; and some librarians believe filters protect children – and even adults ((Goldberg, 2010)) – just as surely as I believe they don’t. So I’ll do my best to set my fervor aside and, rather than trying to justify the total eradication of all filters, I will challenge you to take a good, long look at the moral ramifications of filtering before making any decisions about how to do it at your library.  I will argue that mandatory filters (and by extension, filters that silently default to “on” and/or are difficult to turn off) are morally impermissible; however, there are ethically significant ways to avoid forcible filtering without violating the needs of your library and its patrons.

First, a little background.

For all of you who are not public librarians, or who are public librarians but are way too busy struggling to keep your library running with not enough budget, staff, or technology to waste time nitpicking over a bunch of obscure legal documents, here’s the quick and dirty background.

The current federal legislation affecting filtering in public libraries is the Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA. Implemented in early 2001, CIPA does not actually require all public and school libraries to install filters. However, only libraries with mandatory filters are eligible for certain federal discounts on communications technology, including Internet access. ((FCC, 2009)) Since few libraries can simply turn their collective noses up at funding, especially in the high-demand, high-expense area of technology, many smaller libraries have only the illusion of choice.

The ALA filed a lawsuit to overturn CIPA in 2002, alleging that it violated users’ first amendment rights. A series of similar laws meant to control the dissemination of pornography online had already been repeatedly declared unconstitutional on these grounds. ((For more information on the legality of CIPA and its predecessors, see ALA, 2010; Sobel, 2003; and Plumer, 2001)) The Eastern District of Pennsylvania unanimously agreed with the ALA, but the U.S. Supreme Court did not. On June 23, 2003, the court ruled 6-3 that CIPA was constitutional. ((ALA, 2010))

CIPA was meant to apply only to children, ((ibid)) but recently state legislation allowing constitutionally protected speech to be denied to adults has been gaining hold. In Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library, the Washington Supreme Court allowed the library to refuse to disable a filter for an adult patron. ((Goldberg, 2010)) (That’s pretty scary to me. I became a librarian to be a guide to an overwhelming world of information, not a stony-faced gatekeeper, judge and jury of what is acceptable.) The state argued that filtering is not censorship but a form of collection development; just as a library can choose not to buy a book, it can choose not to offer access to a website.

However, that argument doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. It’s a spurious debate that gets us bickering over semantics rather than closely examining the impact of the action we are taking when we force filters on our patrons. After all, we’re doing the same thing no matter what we call it. A rose by any other name, and all that jazz. On that note, and with a sense of the increasing pressure on libraries to use filters to deny people of all ages access to constitutionally protected content, let’s drop the semantics and the politicking and take a look at just what exactly it means to our communities when we mandate filters.

Let’s get Logical: What are we really debating?

Filtering is generally cast as the uneasy equilibrium between Freedom and Protection. We want to give our patrons maximum freedom while still protecting children. It sounds logical, right? However, it’s quite frankly ridiculous. Consider what it really means, in practical terms, to “protect” somebody from information. It means systematic denial of access. It means that people from group X are barred from accessing information on topic Y. We would never, ever consider systematically denying printed material – even “dangerous” material – to entire groups of people. Would you designate whole categories of books on certain subjects unequivocally off-limits to Muslims? To a particular political group? To women? Of course not, and there’s no reason to start just because we’re dealing with e-content.

Now, you might argue that children are not like these other groups. After all, when it comes to children and even teens, most people will recognize that not everything is appropriate for every child of every age. That does not – I repeat, does not – make it ethically permissible for the library or the librarian to categorically deny all children access to any single subject, even a taboo one. Just as with books, the librarian’s job is to offer access and guidance; the decision of what to actually utilize belongs solely to the individual child and his or her family. That choice must always be individual, never imposed by systematic discrimination based on age or any other external characteristic.

This isn’t a radical position. In fact, it’s completely consistent with how we manage children’s intellectual freedom for printed materials. Many libraries have formalized in their policies that it is the prerogative of the child and his or her guardians to make the individual choices appropriate for that particular child.  Although a librarian might try to guide a child away from a resource that doesn’t seem developmentally appropriate, it’s still the choice of the child and his or her family whether or not to heed that advice.  In the absence of parental instructions, we won’t prevent children and teens from checking out pretty much any book in the library, regardless of where it’s shelved or what it’s about.  We recognize that this value is at the very core of our work, and I cannot believe that we would intentionally sacrifice this primary ethical mandate just because the information is on a screen.

If not Freedom v Protection, what is the debate really about? It’s Intellectual Freedom as opposed to Not Offending Anybody. Offending people is a hassle. Offended people stomp up to the desk and holler at some hapless librarian or clerk in the hearing range of every other patron in the room. They point brazenly at the poor sap who had the misfortune to be minding his own business (offensively!) in other people’s line of sight. They hang around for ten minutes filling out complaint forms and demanding to speak to whoever’s in charge. They leave a trail of paperwork and hastily-scheduled departmental meetings in their wake. Letting patrons look at whatever information they choose results in loudly offended other people.

Infringing on people’s intellectual freedom, on the other hand, is easy. It’s silent. Most things that get filtered are at least potentially embarrassing, so people will slink away rather than ask for the filter to be disabled. Think the rape victim who can’t access the rape and incest hotline number (true story) will ask the librarian to come turn off the filter? Will she file a formal complaint? Probably not, and neither will a hundred other people looking for information on sexuality, health, gun rights, domestic violence …. No, taking away someone’s most basic right at the library is simple and quiet.

Making tradeoffs.

Ok, we’ve traded the rights of just a few people in a few select circumstances for a whole lot of peace and quiet. I have to ask, although I don’t want to: is that really such a bad thing? We have limited resources, especially now, and they could be used much more effectively than having librarians deal with angry people’s paperwork all day. And it is an important aspect of intellectual freedom that all patrons feel comfortable and safe in the library; if they are so offended they feel they can’t walk in the doors, their access is surely hampered.  In all seriousness and objectivity, I have to ask myself: Is it so bad to
trade a little freedom for a lot of calm?

Yes. Yes, it is. Because intellectual freedom is a moral imperative for libraries; avoiding offense is decidedly not. In fact, our moral code often intentionally offends. Demonstrating to people that there is a worldview other than their own – and that it’s just as valid – is frequently offensive. And it’s darn important. Most libraries acknowledge the importance of representing all viewpoints, regardless of personal preference, by having a balanced collection development policy; we collect materials on all sides of controversial issues and all along the political spectrum, even if our communities have a strong proclivity one way or the other. We’ve got something to offend everybody. In fact, we recognize that some things are valuable precisely because they offend people. (Banned books week comes to mind again.) Of course, it’s extremely important that we don’t offend selectively – that we aren’t actually biasing our collection toward or against any particular group or viewpoint. No, libraries are and should be equal opportunity offenders.

So offending people now and then is OK, and probably proof that we’re doing our job right. But it’s still a hassle. Let’s look at the other affected party – the person who doesn’t get information we consider “legitimate” because of over-blocking. Let’s even assume the filter works pretty well (although many studies would disagree ((ALA, 2003; Houghton-Jan, 2010; Houghton-Jan, 2008))), and that “most young patrons probably don’t care as much [about filtering] as we intellectual freedom advocates do; they are not there to access forbidden websites…mostly… they want to play games” ((Walter, 2009)). In short, let’s even assume the relative rarity of a “legitimate” site being blocked. If just one person is denied the access promised to him the by Library Bill of Rights, but a hundred complaints are obviated, is it worth the tradeoff?

No. Librarians serve the community by serving individuals. By giving each and every patron my full attention and care, regardless of his or her background or views, I am also doing my best to help the community as a whole. I am creating a safe space where any and all members of the community can come to access any kind of information. I am creating community gatekeepers ((Metoyer, 1993)) who will go out into their social circles and teach others.

Although I don’t often hear library service discussed in exactly this way – serving the whole by serving the individual – I do think that the library profession generally agrees that this is effective. Look at the way we structure our everyday service. The meat and potatoes of our work is helping patrons at the reference desk one at a time or in small groups, essentially as individuals. We don’t make them wait while we weigh the merits of their individual needs against what might be best for the community – we just do our best to help. Furthermore, we embrace a Library Bill of Rights, and human rights by definition are meant to apply to each and every individual.

All of this means that when we allow a single individual to lose access, we are causing much, much greater harm than we realize. We negatively influence the entire community. Not only have we made that person uncomfortable in the library, we have also adversely affected anybody he or she  tells about the experience. We have contributed to creating a restrictive, oppressive space for the whole neighborhood. If we serve the community best by serving the individual best, we’re just plain lowering the quality of our service. Worst of all, we are violating somebody’s right. Yikes. The library is frequently upheld as a shining symbol of democracy, a “cornerstone of the American Dream,” ((ALA Office for Literacy & Outreach Services, 2010)) and we are seriously compromising our symbolic purpose if we can’t even uphold the most basic rights we promise to all people. And that means all people – even kids, even teens, even people who smell bad and carry their stuff around in garbage bags, even people who want to look at something controversial. Perhaps especially them, since the barriers they face to access are so high.

Is damaging the community, creating an unsafe space, and violating the public trust in our purpose worth a little (or even a lot) less hassle? No. No, it definitely is not.

Community values don’t exist.

I’ve demonstrated that it’s immoral to impose filters on our communities. But some might argue that this leaves one possible loophole: a community with strong traditional values might decide as a whole to embrace filters for itself. Could it be ethically permissible for the community to choose mandatory filters, for children or even for adults?  Dean Marney, director of the North Central Regional Library (the library which blocks online constitutionally-protected speech from adults; see “First, A Little Background” for a refresher), thinks so. He argues that “we must be responsible to the communities we serve.” ((Marney, 2010)) “Community values” often seem to be the rallying cry for censorship, especially for children, and especially online.

However, what we call “community values” are really only “majority values,” or sometimes even “loudest minority values.” Making sweeping generalizations based on “community” values assumes that your community is perfectly homogenous. It’s not. No matter what the most vocal members of your community assert, no matter how small, how insular, or how traditional your area may be, it is full of sub-groups, dissenting opinions, and individual diversity. There will always be people who want to view the legal content you have blocked, even if they remain silent about it.  If a library believes in serving individuals, if it purports to value human rights, it cannot morally allow the preferences of the majority to trample on the rights of the minorities.

That’s not to say we can’t take into consideration the majority opinion, and craft policies that will best serve its members. In fact, I believe strongly that libraries should be responsive to their patrons’ needs, and that’s why I don’t offer a one-size-fits-all filtering solution. Within certain ethical boundaries, there are many ways to tailor your policies and services to your majority community. However, there is a moral line that must be drawn when majority-serving policies begin to infringe on the rights of other individuals. As we’ve long believed for print materials, which we collect even when they offend the political or social sensibilities of the majority, the tastes of 99% of your population do not override the rights of those remaining few.

Whether analog or digital, libraries have a moral obligation to represent the minority opinion as fairly as the majority one; we have a responsibility to serve the individual who disagrees as fervently as the one who conforms. If we make intellectual freedom a privilege for those who hold the predominant local viewpoints and values, we don’t really uphold intellectual freedom at all. As the great revolutionary and social philosopher Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” ((Luxemborg, 1961))

Oops, there’s real life again.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that mandatory filtering in libraries is incompatible with our core values. Now what are we supposed to do about parents who want their kids on filtered computers? How are we supposed to deal with a community that by and large clamors loudly in favor of filtering? How will we afford to provide sufficient computer and Internet service when CIPA will cut our already-meager funding if we don’t filter?

In real life, some form of filtering is probably necessary in most cases. While I don’t personally agree with policies that restrict legal content, even pornography, I understand that in most communities patrons expect and want such restrictions. A filter may be a more practical solution than having librarians spend their entire day running around playing computer police. ((Or it may not be. See Houghton-Jan, 2010.)) The option for a parent to enable a filter for his own child may make him feel that his child is safer on library computers. And most of us can’t afford to spit in the eye of federal funding. So how can we balance a practical need for some form of filtering with our moral responsibility to provide access?

In Filters and the Public Library: A Legal and Policy Analysis ((Minow, 1997)), Mary Minow details the many options for mandatory, optional, or lack of filtering and their implications for patrons’ rights. Since I really can’t do a better or more succinct job, I’ll direct you to her for the nitty gritty details involved in selecting the right option for your library. Her overarching conclusions are similar to mine: mandatory filtering is morally impermissible, but there are a variety of acceptable ways to make filters optional or remove them altogether. (She calls possibilities in which individuals can choose for themselves to enable a filter or work at a filtered machine “pro-choice”, which I love.) I’d like to use my little soapbox here to offer what she does not – some suggestions to help you respect the more conservative values of your community while implementing one of these less stringent filtering policies.

There are some practical ways to make all patrons feel safe in the library, even with optional or no filters. These can be as simple as “turning computer screens away from foot traffic and installing privacy screens” ((Minow, 1997)) so that no patron of any age will accidentally stumble upon what another is viewing. Children’s computers can feature prominent links to preselected sites “such as the ALA’s Great Web Sites for Kids … and search engines specially designed for children.” ((ALA, 2003)) More important, however, is creating a use policy consistent with the library’s mission and its treatment of print materials. However liberal or restrictive your computer use policy (and the ethics of that is well beyond the scope of this piece), “viewing of inappropriate images [is] a behavioral issue… the best approach is to address the matter with the end user, rather than trying to make the material inaccessible.” ((Sonoma County Library Commission, 2010)) Clear rules and consistent, enforceable punishments for breaking those rules are already our primary tools for governing acceptable behavior in the library’s meatspace. Done right, they should be just as effective (read: not perfect, but pretty good) in governing computer use.

However, these small, practical measures are clearly not sufficient on their own. The best way to make public computers more useful and safe for all patrons, including but not limited to children, is education. As the National Research Council so eloquently states in Youth, Pornography, and the Internet, “Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one’s children is to teach them to swim.” ((ALA, 2003)) By relying on an automated system to block content, we are missing a critical and valuable opportunity to teach children (and adults) to “swim” in an online world. When we deprive them of this opportunity to learn, we do them a disservice both in the library and when they are outside the reach of our computerized safety net.

I recognize that trading an electronic band-aid for deep education is not easy. Education is expensive and difficult to implement. As far as I know, there are no studies that document how effective various forms of education may be in improving appropriate behavior and safety on public computers, which means we have no roadmap. And all pro-education, anti-mandatory-filter options mean no e-Rate funding. And yes, that stinks. I tried to think of an option that would be morally acceptable and let you keep the money. I really did. But, as happens so often, it’s your money or your soul. A good bargain is just not a morally weighty counterbalance to a violation of children’s rights and the core values of our profession. Sorry. If your library absolutely cannot maintain public Internet access at all without the discount … weeeelll, ok. While it’s difficult to embrace solutions with a high price tag, especially in a time of severe and widespread budget cuts, it is possible to take steps in the right direction. On the bright side, if we can free ourselves of dependence on strings-attached government funding, we can be a more objective and free institution in the long run.

Eliminating filters is possible, and some intrepid libraries are paving the way for the rest of us each day. The Sonoma County Library is an especially good example of a system that overcame the concerns of its community and even the objection of its own grand jury to implement a no-filter strategy that benefits all users. Their fantastic response to the jury is one of the best pragmatic defenses of the power of a filter-free library out there. ((ibid)) The San Jose Public Library took an equally staunch, if somewhat less inspiringly documented, stance. ((Oder, 2009; Houghton-Jan, 2008.))

Of course, what works for them may not work for you. The best real-life solution for your library will be individual. Your community’s majority values, its size, the physical constraints of your space, the condition of your budget, and many other factors will influence what the elimination of mandatory filters would look like in your library. I hope the few suggestions and examples I’ve offered have at least convinced you that this is both worthwhile and possible in your community. We all deal daily with practical concerns that make honoring the big-picture issue difficult and that require compromise. What matters is that we address these realities through an ethical lens; that rather than blithely accepting the status quo, we recognize that our decisions have serious moral implications for library service.

And in Conclusion (i.e., you probably could have just skipped to this part)

The debate about filters is not really about two ethical issues, freedom and safety. It’s about the ethical issue of freedom pitted against the more practical issue of offending patrons. Mandatory filters create a double-standard for intellectual freedom by denying users digital materials we would happily give them in print; they unfairly bias against open access for children and those looking up sensitive or controversial information; and they reduce the quality and value of the service we provide to all. In the real world, sometimes we have to bend a bit on principles in favor of practicality; but we must always recognize that this is what we are doing, and consider the damage we may cause.

Ahniwa Ferrari

Audrey provides some excellent arguments against filtering, but if you ask me she’s a little gaga ((“Librarians Do Gaga”, 2010. Audrey has an acting role in the video.)).

Also, she’s wrong.

Okay, so not wrong in the sense that she isn’t right. But she is wrong in the sense that there’s no simple solution for filtering and, more importantly, we can’t say that filtering is bad. We can’t say it’s good, either, because filtering isn’t bad or good on a broad scale, but it’s something that needs to be looked at in every individual case to determine if it is, or is not, the appropriate tool for the job.

And the job is a tough one.

My job is tough, too. I’m supposed to provide the PRO-filter argument in this little pro/con piece. I was asked to fill this role because I was vocally supportive of the decision to uphold filtering in the controversial superior court case here in Washington involving the North Central Regional Library. The problem is, though, I’m not pro-filter, and in that particular case, my argument was much less pro-filter and very much more pro-library.

You see, library filtering is a lot like abortion.

Okay, not really, but a similar approach to the two issues is useful. For instance, nobody is actually pro-abortion. Those people picketing outside the clinics are against abortion, and their opponents don’t fall on the opposite end of the spectrum – they hang out in the middle. Similarly, those who choose to picket outside the library (usually on the interwebs) are not pro-filtering, they’re against it, and again their opposition isn’t on the other side of the spectrum, but in the middle.

We’re not pro-abortion, and we’re not pro-filtering. We’re pro-choice.

Why are we pro-choice? Because libraries operate in vastly different communities and each one, dealing with its own particular set of circumstances, must make the choice that it feels is appropriate. That there are two libraries in California who decided to take a stand against filtering and, by extension (if you take their and Audrey’s word for it), censorship, is great. I’m glad that worked out for them, and I’m sure they did it because they felt it was in the best service to their communities. But every community is different, and what is right for one is not right for all.

Let’s take the North Central Regional Library case as an example.

Demographically, there are 28 libraries in the NCRL system; 14 of them serve as the de facto school libraries for their school districts. 16 of them only have one computer in the building. Most of them are very small libraries (the largest about 2000 sq ft), in very small communities. These libraries are essential to these small communities where people can’t afford broadband and where kids need a quiet place to study.

I’ll repeat part of that, since it seems fairly important. Half of the libraries in NCRL are also the de facto school library for their school district. Yeah, they’re public libraries, but they aren’t public libraries like they have in Sonoma County or in San José. In terms of being a de facto school library, in being completely understaffed, in having only one single computer for public use – how can we judge filtering in a library like this unless we’ve been there? Shouldn’t we trust that the librarian in charge of a particular library has the best knowledge of what is the right course of action for that library? I’m willing to do so when it comes to libraries making anti-filtering choices in California. I’m even willing to applaud them. But I think that the North Central Regional Library system deserves applause, too, because it’s taking a very unpopular stance to do what it thinks is appropriate in terms of serving its community.

Jan Walsh, Washington State Librarian at the time (now retired), stated her support of the decision ((Her statement can be found in Oder, 2010.))in terms I couldn’t agree with more. She said:

I am pleased that our state Supreme Court  has handed down a strong, sensible ruling that gives our public libraries flexibility to reflect their community values as they adopt Internet policies and use of filters on certain content.

I know that the library community is divided over this issue and certainly as a veteran librarian I understand the points of view about unfettered access versus policies that protect our school children and others from pornography and other objectionable and potentially harmful material.  I believe this 6-3 Supreme Court ruling, and the federal ruling that we expect will follow, provides public libraries with permission to adopt a reasonable filter system if that fits the needs of their community. We support libraries listening to their patrons. If that value is to have no filter, then that’s fine.

This is not a free speech issue, in my mind. It is about what your community needs. It is about the use of our taxpayers’ limited resources and our libraries’ limited resources.

Dean Marney, Director of the North Central Regional Library, also provided a response ((Marney, 2010.)) that I feel is worth repeating here in full:

NCRL is pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision validating our approach to Internet filtering. We embrace the Internet as a resource and encourage its use by all patrons. NCRL will continue to provide broad access to a wealth of rich and diverse online content consistent with our Collection Development policy and our mission to promote reading and lifelong learning.

More generally, we are heartened by the Court’s acknowledgement of the multi-faceted role many public libraries must perform today. In fulfilling its role, NCRL must balance many important interests, some borne of tradition and some arising as a consequence of an increasingly complex world. First and foremost, NCRL is a traditional, full service library serving Chelan, Douglas, Grant, Ferry, and Okanogan Counties. We must consider the diverse needs of all our patrons, adults and children alike, in shaping our print and online collections. We strive to offer resources of depth, breadth, and quality yet we must do so within ever-tightening budget constraints. We also provide vital support to public schools throughout the region, including services that in some instances children might go without were it not for NCRL. We also have important workplace and safety responsibilities to our staff and our patrons. We are gratified to know that the highest Court in our State understands the context in which NCRL operates and the discretion we must exercise to perform our essential functions.

It’s about choice. Libraries make choices every day about how to best serve their communities. The libraries who do this best are the ones who don’t take a standard approach, but think about their communities, in particular, and their particular needs, and creates a policy that responds to those needs. Sonoma County did this, and San José did this, and North Central did this too. All three libraries acted courageously and made tough decisions, but what is more courageous: acting in a way that draws accolade from your peers, or making the tough, unpopular decision because you feel it best serves your library’s community.

Filtering and Censorship and Collection Development

The Supreme Court decision was that filtering the internet is actually an application of collection development. This seems to me like a strange approach, one no doubt conceived by lawyers as well as (if not more so than) librarians, but let’s run with it.

Libraries have collection development policies that they use to determine which materials get added to their collections. These policies act as a filter, basically, through which our purchase of materials is made: Item one, book on the holocaust written in a fair manner showing both sides – Purchased; Item two, book on the holocaust written by a known anti-Semitic group which makes no attempt to be fair and distorts historical fact – Rejected. While libraries will do their best to represent both sides fairly in any controversial topic, they must use their discretion to determine what “fair” means and reject items that don’t meet that standard.

These decisions happen all the time, though they’re mostly invisible to the public, for whom items magically appear on the shelves. The fact is, librarians do their best at all times to provide the best information to their patrons while removing the information that they feel is of no value or harmful to the community. This is filtering, absolutely, but is it censorship? Is the argument really that different when we talk about filtering practices on the internet as opposed to the filtering practices we incorporate into our purchase of physical materials?

You may argue that buying books is opt-in while internet filtering is opt-out. In other words, in book purchasing we select items to buy, while with internet filtering we select items to keep out. There’s also a cost issue; we pay for each book we purchase, but we don’t pay for each website, they all come included as part of the great wide interwebs. These arguments have some merit, but they’re really just distractions when you remember the underlying purpose of collection development: to provide good content and filter out bad content. Whether you opt in, out, or sideways, the idea is to not only provide the best books, but also the better websites, so that people can find quality information and avoid being fooled by sophistry and scam.

Human Filtering Vs. Computer Filtering

More and more the filtering of physical materials is not a completely human process. Our lovely vendors offer to do a lot of the filtering for us ((The most common way this happens is through the use of approval plans.)), and it becomes very hard to tell what falls through the cracks. All the same, we’ll assume that there is much more human intervention in the selection of physical materials than there is in the filtering software that libraries use to select what internet sites are viewable. And we’ll even assume, as the Librarian in Black insists ((Houghton-Jan, 2010)), that all filtering software available to libraries is pretty much ineffective, both by block “good” websites and not blocking “bad” websites.

At this point I should make a confession. I have a ten-year old at home, and I filter his web access. I’m not ashamed of this decision, being that it was born of a situation where he had searched for and found porn and had, at the end of the day, been so overwhelmed and ashamed at what he had seen that he literally burst into racking sobs when he told us about it a couple days later. It had obviously been eating away at him, and this in a house where we had never been anything less than honest and open in talking about sex and where everyone saw each other naked from time to time without it being a big deal. We talked to him about it, of course, to help him make sense of what he saw, to get over his shame, and to set his mind at ease. Then we decided to create an environment where he wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.

The filter we use at home is a very simple Firefox add-on called ProCon Latte ((“ProCon Latte”, 2009)), and it just plain works. It has without exception blocked all objectionable sites, and while it has also blocked a handful of legitimate sites it was short work to make those sites accessible by adding them to a white list. Maybe the web searching patterns of a ten-year old are not indicative of those of the general public, but my experience with filtering has been positive and I find it hard to believe that my completely free add-on filter is so much better than every other commercial paid filter that libraries can utilize.

Filters In A Perfect World

Obviously, filters aren’t perfect, and most libraries’ filtering policies are probably not perfect either. In a perfect world, every library would have a filter that aligned perfectly with the needs of its community – for some that might mean only blocking the very worst of sites, for others it may mean blocking more. And in every case, should a user find their access blocked to a website that they feel should be accessible, there should be a way for them to access that site without the need for direct appeal to a librarian and without having to wait for the site to be reviewed by some committee. Access should be immediate, and review should come afterwards to determine ongoing accessibility, without impacting that user at that time, and without causing them embarrassment in having to ask to have the filters turned off.

Lacking a perfect world, we’ll continue to do the best we can. For some libraries that may mean removing filters entirely. For others, that may mean forging ahead with whatever filters they have because they don’t see a better alternative. Libraries serve their communities first, and one must assume that they’re doing so as effectively as they can. Whatever high-minded ideals are involved, and the ideals are important, we must allow libraries to choose how to interpret them. It is a balancing act, to be sure, between issues of free speech and appropriate service to a specific community. It’s a choice that we as spectators should not presume to make, but one that each library must grapple and come to terms with. Our job, as outsiders who claim to advocate for libraries, is to support those decisions, whatever they may be, within the communities in which they are made.

References for Audrey Barbaroff’s Post

ALA Office for Literacy & Outreach Services. (2010). The American Dream Starts @ Your Library. http://www.olos.ala.org/americandream/

American Library Association. (2010). CPPA, COPA, CIPA: Which Is Which? http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/ifissues/issuesrelatedlinks/cppacopacipa.cfm

American Library Association. (2003). Libraries, the Internet and Filtering. http://www.ala.org/Template.cfm?Section=litoolkit&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=164201

American Library Association. (1996.) Library Bill of Rights. http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/index.cfm

Federal Communications Commission. (2009). Children’s Internet Protection Act. http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cipa.html

Goldberg, Beverly. (2009). On the Line for the First Amendment. American Libraries. http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/features/05272009/line-first-amendment

Goldberg, Beverly. (2010) Ruling: Washington Libraries Can Deny Adults Unfiltered Internet. American Libraries. http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/news/05102010/ruling-washington-libraries-can-deny-adults-unfiltered-internet

Houghton-Jan, Sarah. (2008). Internet Filtering Software Tests: Barracuda, CyberPatrol, FilterGate, & WebSense. Report to the San Jose Public Library. http://www.sjlibrary.org/about/sjpl/commission/agen0208_report.pdf

Houghton-Jan, Sarah. (May 07, 2010). Why internet filters don’t work and why libraries who filter are wrong. Librarian in Black. http://librarianinblack.net/librarianinblack/2010/05/filtering.html

Janes, Joe. (October 6, 2009). Censorship Gets Smart. The Internet Librarian. http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/columns/internet-librarian/censorship-gets-smart

Luxemburg, R. (1961). The Russian Revolution, and Leninism or Marxism?. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Marney, Dean. (November 1, 2010). The Internet Is Not All or Nothing. Library Journal. http://www.libraryjournal.com/lj/communityopinion/887222-274/lj_backtalk_the_internet_is.html.csp

Metoyer-Duran, C. (January 01, 1993). Information Gatekeepers. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (arist), 28, 111-50.

Nichols, S. (January 22, 2009). COPA Child-Porn Law Killed. PC World. http://www.pcworld.com/article/158131/copa_childporn_law_killed.html


Oder, N. (2007.) Proposed state filter law would go beyond CIPA. Library Journal. http://www.libraryjournal.com/lj/community/legislation/851065-270/story.csp

Oder, N. (2009.) After 18 Months, San Jose Council Says No to Internet Filters. Library Journal. http://www.libraryjournal.com/lj/community/legislation/854791-270/after_18_months_san_jose.html.csp

Oder, N. (2010). ACLU still concerned about whether individual libraries overblock. http://www.libraryjournal.com/lj/community/intellectualfreedom/869102-269/rhode_island_pls_fix_filtering.html.csp

Plumer, D. (2001). Literature Review and Analysis: Internet Filters and Intellectual Freedom. University of Texas at Austin Graduate School of Library and Information Science. http://www.gslis.utexas.edu/~i380kdcp/SP04/Plumer-research.pdf

Sobel, D. (2003). Internet Filters and Public Libraries. First Amendment Center: Washington D.C. http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/PDF/Internetfilters.pdf

Sonoma County Library Commission. (2010). Sonoma County Library Commission Response to the 2009-2010 Grand Jury Report. http://www.sonomalibrary.org/agenda/Grand%20Jury%20Response/Grand%20Jury%20Response%202010_final.pdf

Walter, V.A. (September 23, 2009). The Children We Serve. American Libraries. http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/features/09232009/children-we-serve

References for Ahniwa Ferrari’s Post

“Librarians Do Gaga.” Youtube: Athenasbanquet. May 27, 2010. <http://bit.ly/gyYXd1>.

Oder, Norman. “Updated: Washington Supreme Court, 6-3, Backs Library System’s Full Filtering Policy.” Library Journal. May 6, 2010. <http://bit.ly/ef9GdJ>.

Marney, Dean. “Washington State Supreme Court Opinion.” North Central Regional Library. May 06, 2010. <http://bit.ly/i3QKxs>.

Houghton-Jan, Sarah. “Why Internet Filters Don’t Work and Why Libraries Who Filter Are Wrong.” Librarian in Black. May 07, 2010. <http://bit.ly/h4oDcN>.

“ProCon Latte.” Add-ons for Firefox: corvineum. July 17, 2009. <http://bit.ly/i0KFxC>.


Many thanks to Linda Johns, Ellie Collier and Eric Frierson for reading earlier drafts of this post and for all of their helpful comments and suggestions.

Creative Commons License
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States License. Copyright remains with the author/s.

22 Responses

  1. ahniwa

    I’m a bit flabbergasted that no-one has commented yet, considering the topic. Perhaps there’s some self-censorship going on here?

    Please share your thoughts. I think we can have an interesting conversation about this, here.

  2. Betty

    I have a comment as a library patron. I live in a small town with one public library. There are six computers used for public Internet access which are almost always in use, particularly by students after school.

    One afternoon I passed by one of the computers that was surrounded by a group of 11 or 12 year old boys who, as it turns out, were watching an animated whore spreading her legs and displaying her vagina. As a mother and an adult, I automatically spoke up. I reprimanded them in a loud voice, saying “I don’t THINK so”, and then telling them that they were better than that. They immediately turned it off, and in fact left the library a few minutes later.
    I mentioned the incident to the librarian, who said something soothing about different things being offensive to different people.

    I’m assuming that my library has a filter like the one Ahniwa uses at home, and that this slipped by. I think, actually, that it was part of a computer game. I don’t regret reprimanding those boys, and would do it again. Seeing and not commenting would have meant acceptance.

    Libraries are, I think, always mindful of their mission to provide access to information while filtering what is harmful or devoid of value. Perhaps we could say, filtering out what does not have integrity. Internet access has sharpened the debate, but not changed the need to maintain that balance. Balance is messy and dynamic, and requires thought. That’s one reason we need librarians.

  3. K

    As a mother and an adult, I automatically spoke up

    But not their mother. I would suggest that it was not your place to act in loco parentis.

    1. ahniwa

      Thanks for your reply, K, but you’re not off the hook that easily. Why should a community member avoid acting in loco parentis, exactly. I know that library staff are very careful about not being responsible for other people’s children – we don’t want to be baby-sitters and we want to make sure that everyone knows that if something goes wrong then it’s not our fault, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t step in when we notice these kinds of situations.

      What about the idea that it takes a village to raise a child?

      Another phrase comes to mind, though it may seem exaggerated, that all it takes for evil to conquer is for good people to do nothing.

      Why, exactly, should we do nothing?

      1. I like this debate! Thanks for all the insightful comments.

        Whether or not a community member should intervene with other people’s children seems like more of an issue for Miss Manners than for me. I’ll have to stick to what the librarian should do in this case – and it’s not necessarily “nothing.”

        If it’s against library policy for these boys to view that kind of material, then a librarian can certainly reprimand them. Breaking library rules is something that can and should be addressed, whether it’s on the computer or in the flesh.

        If policy does not prohibit this behavior, then the librarian has a responsibility to uphold the boys’ right to view this content. Gently reminding Betty to respect those rights is also not “nothing.”

        Either way, the librarian should uphold the policies the library has thoughtfully crafted. Either way, he or she is defending something important and meaningful. That’s why I couldn’t agree more with Betty’s statement: “Balance is messy and dynamic, and requires thought. That’s one reason we need librarians.” Absolutely! Complex, emotional, meaningful situations like these are the reason we need human beings, not automated filters, to make the call.

      2. K

        Why should a community member avoid acting in loco parentis, exactly.

        Because she is not the parent. The child is in no physical danger. The perceived “moral danger” is in the eye of the passerby. Injecting her moral perspective onto someone else’s children is neither her job nor her perogative.

        library staff…doesn’t mean that we can’t step in when we notice these kinds of situations.

        If it is a violation of the Library policy, certainly.
        If it just personally offends your morals, then no.

        1. Betty

          It’s true that I was not the parent of these boys. However, having seen what they were viewing, neutrality ceased to exist. Not commenting would have been the same as approving. I would also speak up if I saw a child or young person shoplifting, or bullying someone, or getting drunk. This is another “messy” balance point. It’s not as simple as “parent” or “not my business”.

          1. K

            Not commenting would have been the same as approving.

            No, it wouldn’t.

            I would also speak up if I saw a child or young person shoplifting illegal
            , or bullying someone, illegal or getting drunk. illegal

            Viewing animated material that offends you doesn’t fall into the same category.

      3. antsy

        I hope the boys just got the message: adults think we shouldn’t be interested in sex, instead of: we are perverts. “Better than that” indicates that having an interest in sex is *bad.*

        C’mon. I’m a girl, and even I was titillated by words and images about sex as a pre-teen.

        And what makes you call that the animated figure on the screen a “whore”?

        Then you respond “all it takes for evil to conquer is for good people to do nothing.” Evil? Yes, if you see someone being harmed, forced, coerced, someone who wishes to be rescued, then sure, it is right to try to help. But in this case, no one was asking for help, not the virtual exhibitionist on the screen and not the boys.

        Where is the evil? Who are you to decide what is evil?

        It’s a great idea to have a “village” available for every child (and adult!) to offer advice and assistance, to teach trades, to keep each other company … but not to butt in and judge and condemn their activities. I sure wouldn’t want to live in that kind of village, and I wouldn’t want my kids living in one like that either.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this piece. I’m an MLIS student, and our group is currently working on a project involving this topic. Though the ethics involved seem straight-forward, in practice it just seems like there’s so much gray area to deal with!

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  6. Cameron

    Sorry if this is a bit scattered, but a few things have come to mind as a result of reading these two pieces.

    FIrstly, I think Audrey doesn’t take her historical retrospective back quite far enough. It was only about 100 years ago that ALA presidents and librarians were all for providing access to ‘good’ content rather than all content. Not that there weren’t challenges, but it was relatively easy for the ALA to stake out an intellectual freedom position when everything in the library had been selected by a librarian (and lets not forget McCarthyism and the general post-WWII environment).

    But even in this ALA-in-support-of-intellectual-freedom era, as Ahniwa notes, access to infinite funds would not necessarily lead to the acquisition of all newly published materials. Collection development policies are designed to act as a break on certain acquisitions.

    Secondly, I wonder if libraries have an obligation to provide access to computers for patrons to do with them what they will (are ‘library’ and ‘computer lab’ in fact becoming nothing more than synonyms)? If the answer is ‘yes’ then maybe we will be led to one answer about filtering in libraries while if it is ‘no’ it might lead to a different answer about the role of filters in libraries. In any event, I think it will be hard to avoid an evaluation of the role of libraries in contemporary society as these issues (and others) are really pushing this issue to the fore, particularly in a context of budgetary restrictions.

    Thanks for the thought provoking statements.

  7. ahniwa

    There are other issues that haven’t been addressed, though some have been touched on. For one, I believe federal law has the legal age to view (purchase?) pornographic materials at 18. While this is ridiculously hard to enforce in an online environment, I still believe that (knowingly) allowing minors to view pornography may itself be a transgression of federal law.

    If we take the issue of minors out of the equation, we still have other things to consider. One is staff safety and the creation of a safe work environment. If a staff person literally feels unsafe in their work because of what / how a person is viewing porn in the library, what consideration should we take of their workplace rights?

    Another issue is inadvertent viewing: if a library doesn’t have privacy screens or some way to keep computer screens private (either because of cost issues or simply the way the computers are laid out), what responsibility do they have to ensure that a child walking by doesn’t see a graphic sex scene on the way to the drinking fountain?

    As Louise points out, this is a gray, gray, gray issue. Which is a big part of the reason I strongly suggest that we empower libraries to make these calls at the local level, and that we support their decisions with whatever power we can muster, rather than trying to strike them down in the name of a larger ideal.

    1. I’d like to address each of those points, but that would be an extraordinarily long comment! The one that I feel is truly worrisome, though, is your claim that exercising one’s constitutional right to participate in free and open speech creates a literally unsafe environment for the librarian. How could that possibly be?

      Looking at material of a sexual nature is not the same as preying on others. I’m sure you believe that for books – you would never just assume that a person reading Zane in the public library was a threat or a predator, despite the book’s graphic sexual content. I also doubt you believe this for other types of content. Would you say that patrons should be banned from viewing all images of guns, weapons, or violence online, because doing so is the same as bringing live gun violence into the library?

      If a patron really does create an unsafe environment by his or her actions – by actually approaching or touching somebody inappropriately, by literal or threatened violence – then that absolutely must be dealt with. But looking at content, no matter how much you dislike it, is a world away from harassing somebody directly. You’re uncomfortable because of your personal morals and biases, but you are not unsafe.

      If a person’s discomfort is so strong that he or she is unable to follow the core ethics of public librarianship for personal reasons, that’s understandable – but that person must choose another career.

      Let’s worry about the rights are stripping away from our users, rather than about pretended “rights” to never have to face the discomfort of a challenge to our personal biases.

        1. ahniwa

          I’m not saying that in this particular case the librarian is in the right or not, I’m just trying to point out that it’s not a pretend issue – also, working in a safe environment IS a right.

          1. A safe working environment is a right, yes. But other people viewing content you personally find objectionable isn’t an issue of safety. It might make you uncomfortable because of your own private values, but you are in no danger and nobody is intending to harm you.

            The librarian at the link you shared was in an unsafe worksplace because of physical behavioral issues, not because of online content. Patrons who are inappropriately exposing or touching themselves or others are causing the danger. Not everybody who looks at sexual content online will behave that way; conversely, people who want to behave that way will almost certainly do so even without online sexuality. Censorship is not now and has never been the best way to stop a behavior.

  8. ahniwa

    I’ll reiterate the last paragraph in my recent comment:

    As Louise points out, this is a gray, gray, gray issue. Which is a big part of the reason I strongly suggest that we empower libraries to make these calls at the local level, and that we support their decisions with whatever power we can muster, rather than trying to strike them down in the name of a larger ideal.

    Namely, that conditions vary from community to community and from library to library.

    I am not, in any way, against people exercising their constitutional rights. People have the right to yell, too, and speak loudly, but I still don’t want them to do that in a library, either. It’s not a matter of saying that they should not have the right, but that some consideration should be given to the environment in which they are seeking to express that right.

    It’s easy to hate censorship, but are you really not willing to admit that there are some situations where it’s a valid, and even the right, decision to make?

  9. kianelda

    I am currently a part-time library employee and MLS student researching this very subject. Speaking to those that don’t feel like pornography should be blocked, I invite you to take over the library janitorial service for a day at the section of our local academic library deemed “masterbation alley.”

    I also invite you to talk to a recently hired 20-year old library employee that was verbally and physically assualted by a young man after viewing questionable content on library computers.

    This same library had to call police to report an assault on a female patron by a male patron just this month. Guess what, he wasn’t checking out books or reading, he was on the computers.

    People over 18 have the right to legally view anything they want on the internet, I just don’t think the library is the place to necessarily provide that service.

    Also, incidents of assault in the library setting are real. The availability of porn and a large population of homeless (predominantly male) population does sometimes make for an uncomfortable and complicated work environment. Anyone that believes otherwise is naive. This also detracts from the goal of the library and is not why I am working to obtaim my MLS. I want to get back to the work of providing information access without providing peep show services.

    1. K

      I invite you to take over the library janitorial service for a day at the section of our local academic library deemed “masterbation [sic] alley.”

      This sounds to me to be an enforcement failure, not a Constitutional issue.

      I also invite you to talk to a recently hired 20-year old library employee that was verbally and physically assualted [sic] by a young man after viewing questionable content on library computers.

      post hoc ergo propter hoc argument

      This same library had to call police to report an assault on a female patron by a male patron just this month. Guess what, he wasn’t checking out books or reading, he was on the computers.

      post hoc ergo propter hoc argument

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  11. In relation to:
    “There’s also a cost issue; we pay for each book we purchase, but we don’t pay for each website, they all come included as part of the great wide interwebs”

    Do you not have costs in relation to volume of internet content accessed?