Librarians Are Continuing To Defend Open Access To The Web As A Public Service
from the not-all-porn-is-porn dept
Librarians have built up quite a reputation for activism in all the right ways. Whether taking a stand against DRM, expanding libraries’ catalogs to include new digital media and art, or embracing indie authors, librarians come off as much more of a hip crowd than you might expect. These stances occasionally put them at odds with some in the community that they serve, perhaps most notably with parents who have pushed for restrictions on internet access within libraries. It gets all the more unfortunate when a subsection of the citizenry sees fit to ramp up the rhetoric against an institution simply attempting to serve the greatest public good. This typically, unfortunately, devolves into the supposed accusation of librarians “defending” the right for visitors to view “pornography.”
Take the Orland Park Public Library, a community library in a suburb southwest of Chicago. Last year, self-identified conservative homeschooling mom Megan Fox launched a campaign to get the library to install filters on its computers after she claims to have seen a man looking at pornography in the library’s adult-only computer lab (the library has a separate, filtered computer lab for children). The library board voted on the issue and decided not to install filters, but to require identification for anyone logging on.
Not satisfied, Fox and her supporters continued to hound the board, often resulting in police being called to heated meetings. She filed so many FOIA requests that the library has had to dedicate two full-time employees to respond to them. She accused the library of covering up an incident of someone looking at child pornography, and she forced a re-vote on the issue by having the Public Access Bureau declare a board meeting illegal because it was held on Lincoln’s birthday.
If all of that sounds to you like a big bucket of crazy, you’re not alone. Fortunately, the librarians in this case are steadfastly refusing to back down. That isn’t always what happens. And, look, there’s nothing wrong with being conservative, having a specific set of values, and all the rest. What you can’t do, however, is insist that public institutions follow your personal views just because. That isn’t how secular government works.
And, of course, the entire point of the stance by librarians in cases like this is that all of this comes down to definitions and scope. Define, they challenge, “pornography,” and “I know it when I see it” doesn’t work as an answer. Define what should be filtered. Outline a scope of internet filtering on adult only computers that will filter out what we all universally accept to be pornography, but won’t block any educational information, keeping in mind that free and open access to information and literature is the entire point of libraries. When you think of it like that, all this porn-blocking doesn’t sound so simple. What’s porn to a nun may not be to a commercial banker. Whose definition do you use? And why? And what do you tell the person who isn’t getting their way? Too bad, but some lady named Megan Fox agrees with us?
We have to be more grown up than that, something librarians have been pushing for a long, long time.
Libraries have been advocates for a right to access information long before the digital age. Book banning and burning has been a national pastime for various sections of the population for decades, and libraries have always stood in the face of that, advocating in the belief that people have a right to read, learn, and access everything the world has to offer.
“There have always been disputes over whether we should have sex manuals or books about creating bombs. There have always been those kinds of conflicts and librarians have tried to put out guidelines to have the most open access possible,” said Michael Zimmer, a privacy and internet ethics expert who runs the Center for Information Policy Rese?arch at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Add to that the burden that a more restrictive blocking policy puts on the less-well-off in this country and we’re beginning, again, to lose sight of the entire point of libraries. Let’s give an example. Let’s say that we have a very poor young woman who has recently found out she’s pregnant. Perhaps due to a lack of education, she is unsure of what to expect during her pregnancy and what giving birth will be like, what she should and should not be eating, etc. So she goes to the library computer section, but finds that the pages she’s trying to look up have been blocked because they contain medical pictures of naughty-bits or keywords that trigger the filter. So what does she do? I’m not sure, but she may not be able to do what a suburbanite housewife can do and look this stuff up on her own high-speed internet service at home. See the problem?
And it isn’t just medically relevant information that can be unfairly blocked.
The ALA published a rep?ort investigating the use of filters and found they were disproportionately blocking out left-leaning views on issues such as gay marriage and abortion. LGBT community websites were often blocked and identified as “sexual” sites.
And whatever your feelings on LGBT issues and communities, you simply can’t endorse a system in which a public commodity locks out access to sites of interest to sections of the public based on the sensibilities of other members of that public. That just isn’t how this works. So, when somebody cries about seeing someone viewing pornography at a local library, a different image pops up into each one of our minds, and none of them may be remotely close to what she saw.
That’s why librarians stand against filtering internet access in this manner. It’s for all of us and we really should be standing with them.