The Relationship of Librarians and Intellectual Freedom

its-complicated

Intellectual freedom is lauded as one of the core principles of the librarian profession. It is a noble ideal, a solid foundation for an information based field and partner to the underlying altruism that seeks to provide for any who ask. Yet, over time when I’ve read about it or see peers invoke it in print or online disagreements (especially when it comes to opinion pieces), I am perplexed by the conceit that intellectual freedom is a simple, binary supposition. I find intellectual freedom to be anything but simple; it is a nuanced, contextual, and complex ideal that could be (and should be) a constant inner struggle for every librarian. In grappling with it myself, I began reflecting how the ideal and the practice actually work.

From the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q&A, this is the definition offered of intellectual freedom:

Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.

On paper, I certainly have no qualms with this definition. It is a wonderful articulation of the ideal principle. But when it comes to implementation, the perfection portrayed above is harder than it appears.

By our very own biological makeup, human beings both censor and filter information. Consider our nervous systems, a series of neural pathways designed to conduct the signals of our senses (including the largest one, touch) to the brain. Our brains are hardwired to ignore a vast majority of input signals that are being reported all over our body. It’s why we aren’t constantly distracted by the way our clothing feels on our body, the sound or pace of our own breathing, or any number of mundane body sensations. We can bring to our conscious thoughts (if my writing about those kinds of operations didn’t do that already), but otherwise it doesn’t get past the brain stem unless it brings something urgent or new to the situation (such as a pinched finger or a cold breeze).

There’s some very good (and biologically necessary) reasoning for stopping the majority of signals and it is one that librarians should be able understand: information overload. Our brains simply can’t handle all of that information and run a body with any degree of success. We would be bombarded by a cacophony of sensations that could prove distracting to the point of being fatal; how my jeans feel on my knees is not information I need to know when changing lanes on the expressway.

Even within our conscious mind, there are censoring or filtering factors in our thoughts that manifest in ideological irrationality (the ability to rationalize or set aside facts in favor of beliefs). Under this concept, humans edit the information they receive from the world around them to match their perspective. There have been multiple studies over the year about how people can rationalize or ignore their way out of cognitive dissonance. These are not ideologues of the extreme nor fanatics blind in their devotion, but ordinary people from all walks of life. While we have the capability of changing our opinions or knowledge on the basis of new information, we have the same capability to explain it away or simply ignore it. It’s illogical, it’s irrational, but it is also perfectly normal and par for the course when it comes to being human.

On top of this selective information mess, our days are full of making selections and judgments based on our biases, experiences, and a whole host of internal and external influences contained within our lives. It is embedded in our choices of what to wear, what to buy, what to cook, who to talk to, what emails to respond to, and any number of decisions that we make on a constant basis. It drives us to buy that particular brand of peanut butter, to chose a particular color to paint our bedroom, and tells us what we are looking for in an ideal mate. At this point, human beings have a whole host of conscious and subconscious inclinations that move us to and fro in our existence.

It’s not that I am saying that people cannot be objective, logical, or rational. It’s that I believe it is a lot harder than it appears to be when it comes to supporting and defending the principle of intellectual freedom. It involves setting aside a great deal of biology as well as our own psychology to reach an objective state. Nor am I suggesting that every collection decision be open to second guessing as to what the true motivations for making those choices; that would lead to a lockdown of the decision making process. No, judgments about the collection have to be made; the library must continue to grow and move with the times. It’s just a matter of examining and being mindful of the context in which those decisions are made.

Will Manley recently made a statement in a blog entry which conceals a question in the middle, In leading up to the passage I am quoting, he makes a list of books he would never want to see in the library, such Holocaust denial or bomb making. “I am sure that you can think of other types of books that contain ideas that are destructive to human beings.  I am also sure that you would not want these types of books in your library.  I know I do not want the books described above in my library.  Does that make me a censor or a selector?  It’s a fascinating debate. Basically it comes down to this:  If you’re a librarian, you’re a selector; if you’re a patron, you’re a censor.”

If there is one thing I learned from my year stint in law school, it’s that the best answer to any question like this is contained thoughtfully within the two word statement, “It depends”. I believe it has less to do with the position you are in (whether you are a librarian or not) and more as to the underlying motivations as to why a book was chosen (or not chosen) and why a book was challenged.

It’s one thing to say that a book was added to the collection because it is written by a popular author, a well followed series, or an established expert in their respective field; it’s clearly another to exclude material on the belief that the person is an blithering idiot, a partisan hack, or a certifiable quack. And if you are asking yourself how you can tell the difference (as I have asked myself while writing this), then you can see part of the conundrum that the principles of intellectual freedom present in practice. I don’t have a clue as to how it can be unraveled unless someone is quite opaque and forthcoming in their inclusion/exclusion reasoning. Unless it is stone cold obvious, such exclusions can be rationalized away or otherwise dismissed. It just becomes part of the fodder for never-ending debates on the how or why we choose collection materials.

It’s also one thing to say that a book is being challenged on the ground of maturity (in that the subject matter is advanced for the age group); it’s another to say that the book is morally corruptive, racist/homophobic, or otherwise a bad influence. These subjective charges of the latter embody the most obvious foe to intellectual freedom as they directly clash with its working definition as listed above. In their most basic form, these challenges seek to limit or squash another expression or viewpoint because it runs afoul of another moral or social sense. Only by examining the context and the underlying rationale of the challenge can selectors (or in the case of the first example in this paragraph, deselectors) be separated from the censors. This is not without its own related discussions that revolve around what is right or wrong for a library to possess and the influences (both good and bad) it may engender.

In considering current librarianship when it comes to making collection selections, I think there is a fine balance that every librarian should consider as it relates to intellectual freedom. Within the last few years, there has a notion suggesting that librarians position themselves as knowledge scholars who impart bibliographic instruction and educate people as to the best tools for information evaluation. As a profession, we can provide people with the best tools to make their own decisions about the data and information in their lives and research.

At the other end of this balancing act is the explosion of the digital content and communication that has created the greatest mass of data in the history of mankind. As members of a greater society, we demonstrate and justify our value by sifting through this information space and pulling out the best materials for our users. In applying our knowledge of popular culture, science, art, or any number of subjects, librarians can ensure that leading theories and thoughts as well as their competition or leading dissents are accessible. While not all viewpoints are included (a clear violation of intellectual freedom), librarians can make the best case for those expressions that are part of the collection.

This balancing act is the constant struggle I contend with when I think of intellectual freedom. I want to provide as many viewpoints as I can, but I don’t believe that all viewpoints hold equal weight (or in some cases, any). I want my users to be able to consider sources objectively, but I know they also want me to narrow down the choices to the best materials. In essence, I want to provide for my users in the greatest number of ways possible, but I know of all the limitations of the collection, the budget, the building, and myself. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I think it’s foolish not to acknowledge the deeper struggle contained within intellectual freedom.

I think it’s the right relationship for librarians and intellectual freedom to have: “It’s complicated.”

Banned Book Bullshit, Revisited

Like Thanksgiving each year, Banned Books Week brings the library community together like one giant intellectual freedom loving dysfunctional family. Gathering around the proverbial communal dinner table, an unavoidable recurring conversation gets raised about what the week actually means in this day and age. The usual questions are trotted out (Can books really be banned anymore? What does censorship actually mean? And why do we call it Banned Books Week anyway?) like old family quarrels, acting as the fodder for print and online commentary. Whether used to snipe at each other or provide the starting point for actual meaningful discussions, the conversations (and some shouting matches) provide an intriguing insight as to how librarians relate to intellectual freedom as a value. Just like an familial eavesdropper at this family function, I find some of the positions expressed to be rather interesting.

Take the one about the name itself: Banned Books Week. It’s a misnomer, they will say, because what books get banned these days? It’s a position that is completely blind to the historical timeline and context of the event. The event was created as a response to a rising number of book challenges and removal in 1982. Considering that it was created during in this pre-internet-as-we-know-it and digital nascent age, the number of alternate venues for books were limited (especially for rural communities). What options, if any, could an individual have? Yes, I’m sure that if they really wanted the book they could track down a copy , but let’s not kid ourselves as to the effort required to do that. It might as well be banned, even by our modern take on the term.

In keeping the name, I would cite tradition as a powerful motive for doing so. While it may not address the issue of banned books as it once did, it does still celebrate intellectual freedom by defending the right to read as one wishes. Just as there no serious effort to rename St. Patrick’s Day (a religious feast day celebrating a Catholic saint) to something more accurate (“We All Pretend to Be Irish and Drink Green Beer Day”), Banned Books Week embodies an ideal more than a manifestation of its name. And, to paraphrase another commentator on the subject, “Challenged Book Week” just simply does not roll off the tongue like “Banned Book Week”. Nor does it provoke the same emotional response ot the finality of the word, “banned”. Keep the name, dump the quibbles over it.

Speaking of quibbles, I am not without my own for the event. An overly broad definition of a challenge casts the widest net to include reasonable people who challenge on the basis of maturity (otherwise known as age appropriateness). Should a parent who has believes that a second grade book might be more appropriate for fourth or fifth grade be included as a foe to intellectual freedom? Common sense tells me no, of course not. The people who rate the age appropriateness of books may be experts in their field, but they are not infallible. It’s a reasonable request for reconsideration and should be treated with due diligence. Get a second grade teacher and a fourth grade teacher (and possibly another educator if you need a third opinion) and figure it out. If the person is making a reasonable request, then they should be able to accept a reasonable answer as to why the book is being kept at second grade or moved to a higher grade. To me, situations like this don’t arise to an actual threat to intellectual freedom.

However, at the opposite end of such reasonable objections, there exists a particularly unreasonable side to the book challenge and removal equation. It’s the grotesque vitriol surrounding book challenges in places like West Bend and Stockton that stand in stark contrast to the aforementioned concerned parent of the previous paragraph. Anecdotally, it is the accounts of library directors and librarians that come under enormous pressures from politicians, oversight committees, community members, and outside groups to “do the right thing” while having their moral, intellectual, and personal beliefs and principles (and sometimes employment) questioned and/or attacked both privately and publicly. If the estimate offered by the Office of Intellectual Freedom states that only one in four book challenge or removals are reported is true (and I accept that number on the basis of my own research into the matter), then I can only grimace and wonder as to the true number of library staff out there who are suffering this unfair onus in silence right now. Whether they hold their tongues because they lack the backing to fight for the book or under the duress of losing their employment, I believe they represent a truly silent minority in this book challenge and removal equation. For myself, it is this unreasonable condition that lends gravitas to the event; it is why I think that taking a week to reflect on the depth and ramifications of book challenges and banning is important to the library community and one that should remain.

In the end, Banned Book Week does retain that Thanksgiving family feel to it for it collects the librarian community together under one roof for a brief moment of time every year. It should remind us on the things that we as a profession agree on: that access to materials is important, that people can and should be allowed to make their own choices (even questionable ones), and that freedom of expression is a human aspect that should be celebrated. As Thanksgiving remains a tradition in different parts of the world, so too should Banned Book Week remain a library tradition and an anticipated annual event. It is one that we can be proud of, that we can still argue and fret over, and act as a reminder of the underlying reasons and principles that bring us together in the first place.

[This post is somewhat related to my previous blog entry, Banned Book Bullshit, that I wrote back in 2009. At least, I feel this entry is a good companion piece. -A]

Virtual Read-Out

As part of Banned Books Week this year, the event organizers are sponsoring a Virtual Read-Out on YouTube. Here’s the types of videos that they are looking for:

You have two video options for the Banned Books Virtual Read-Out:

1) You can submit a video no more than two minutes long of a reading from a banned or challenged book. Here is a list of banned literary classics as well as a list of frequently challenged books throughout the years. You should also check out Mapping Censorship and Robert P. Doyle’s Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom to Read for more ideas. Banned Books: Challenging our Freedom to Read is available for purchase at the ALA Store or can be found at your local public library.

2) A video of an eyewitness account of local challenges can be submitted. This video should be no longer than three minutes long.

Whoopi Goldberg recorded a video for the event in which she reads a Shel Silverstein poem. Have a listen!

I can’t tell how many videos are on the channel right now, but it is easily dozens of them. So find your favorite controversial prose, get your webcam ready, and give it a good reading!

(Here’s my video from last year’s Banned Book Week. I thought I might share that one again.)

N-Word

The whole hubbub about the creation of an edition of Huckleberry Finn with the word “nigger” changed to “slave” reminded me of a reference interaction I had about a year ago. I was sitting on the reference desk at the library when one of my regular patrons came up with a question. They were looking for a book of Flannery O’Connor short stories for their reading club. There were a few specific stories that they wanted to read and they wanted to know if I could find a collection that had the four they were slated to read. The rest of the exchange went something like this:

Patron: “I need a book that has following short stories: (story name 1), (story name 2), (story name 3), and [pauses and lowers voice to near whisper] The Artificial Nigger.”

Me: “Excuse me? What was that last one?” [I actually didn’t hear him his voice was so low]

Patron: [a little louder but still leery] “The Artificial Nigger.”

With a bit more searching, I was able to find the patron a pair of collected volumes so as to get all four stories for them. For someone watching the interchange, it had to be a bit ridiculous to observe as we would drop our voices down low every time we mentioned the title of that particular short story. It was, after all, part of the name of the short story they were looking for. We weren’t referring to anyone by that term; we weren’t usually it in a manner that made light of it. But, as we both knew and understood the hurtful history of the term, we acted on the fact that it was not a term that we wanted to be overheard saying without the benefit of the context of the conversation.

In reflecting on that brief exchange and the term in my own life, I have an odd relationship with the word. On the one hand, I’m a WASP that grew up in the New Jersey side of Philadelphia suburbs. I’m pretty mindful of the term in having only a handful of black classmates. It’s one of those terms you didn’t use unless you wanted to provoke a fight. I was taught early on that it was one of the worst slurs that you could say to anyone. To an extent, it was a word that could transcend context and be partially unacceptable even in the most meaningful exchanges (like the one I had with my regular).

On the other hand, one of my favorite movies of all time that I was introduced to in high school is the Mel Brook’s classic “Blazing Saddles”. My friends and I loved that film and as such would quote it to each other, including the New Sheriff scene (amongst others that featured the word “nigger”). We wouldn’t censor ourselves at all when it came to the language. We knew and understood what the term meant there. Even at a high school age, we could understand why the word was acceptable in one context and not in many others.

In looking at this new edition of Huckleberry Finn, it is not the changing of the author’s words that concerns me the most. The publishing industry has released edited and re-edited version of literature for hundreds of years that change around the wording of the original. My principle concern is the mindset behind the changes as it concerns the reader. Specifically, it is a lowering of expectations in how the reader will interpret and react to the terminology as presented in the original text. In other words, that the word is so unacceptable that it cannot be presented to any audience for fear of being misunderstood or taken as being personally offensive.

I believe that the real crime in this case is dumbing down the text of a work of literature like Huckleberry Finn through word substitution. It shows a lack of respect for the reader’s intelligence to deny them the chance to make an informed decision as to the text, to be able to take the meaning of the original context, and make their own decisions on it. It lowers the bar for everyone in making a sweeping decision that since some may find offense it should be forbidden from all. It seeks to create a ‘one size fits all’ text when literature has the capability of pushing boundaries and comfort areas. In essence, the change of the word “nigger” to “slave” in Huckleberry Finn seeks to unravel the very purpose of literature as commentary on life and society as a whole.

While the cry of censorship has risen out from the ranks of libraryland, I think the better line is that we owe it to our readers to say that we have faith in their ability to tackle hard subjects. We go to bat for works of literature that present uncomfortable and/or controversial issues so that they (not others) can make decisions as to the meaning of the text. With Mr. Twain’s work, it is no different now than it was then'; it is important to acknowledge that and act accordingly. The continued opportunity for future generations of understanding and interpreting depends on that.

Access in the Hands of an Aggressive Filtering Policy

In the November 1st issue of Library Journal, there is an LJ Backtalk article entitled “The Internet is Not All or Nothing”. It is written by Dean Marney, the Director of the North Central Regional Library in Wenatchee, Washington. This is probably not going to ignite any immediate recognition for some readers but this is the library at the heart of Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District lawsuit. (If you are familiar with the lawsuit, you can skip on down to the break below and avoid all this legal background stuff.) It was the first case in the post-CIPA United State et al. v. American Library Association ruling which held that Children’s Internet Protection Act was not unconstitutional. In the concurring opinions for the case, Justices Kennedy and Breyer focused on the ability for adult patrons to request unblocking or disabling of the library filter.

Justice Kennedy wrote:

If, on the request of an adult user, a librarian will unblock filtered material or disable the Internet software filter without significant delay, there is little to this case. The Government represents this is indeed the fact.

Justice Breyer wrote:

The Act does impose upon the patron the burden of making this request. But it is difficult to see how that burden (or any delay associated with compliance) could prove more onerous than traditional library practices associated with segregating library materials in, say, closed stacks, or with interlibrary lending practices that require patrons to make requests that are not anonymous and to wait while the librarian obtains the desired materials from elsewhere.

As policy, the North Central Regional Library District adopted a procedure for adults to get websites unblocked. From the Washington State Supreme Court ruling:

Here, if a library patron wants to access a web site or page that has been blocked by FortiGuard, he or she may send an e-mail to NCRL administrators asking for a manual override of the block. The site or page is reviewed to ascertain whether allowing access would accord with NCRL’s mission, its policy, and CIPA requirements. If not, the request is denied. If the request is approved, access will be allowed on all of NCRL’s public access computers.

In the case brought against North Central Regional Library District, the plaintiffs were alleging that the library refused to unblock First Amendment protected speech sites when requested by an adult of legal age. From the Free Expression Policy Project:

[T]he plaintiffs include a woman seeking to do research on drugs and alcohol; a professional photographer blocked from researching art galleries and health issues; and the Second Amendment Foundation, which says that the library’s filters blocked access to Women & Guns, a magazine covering such topics as self-defense, recreational shooting, and new products.

In the end, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the library system. The essence of their ruling was that libraries were within their discretion to exhibit this level of control over Internet content as part of providing the general public internet access. Specifically, the court held as follows:

Most importantly, just as a public library has discretion to make content-based decisions about which magazines and books to include in its collection, it has discretion to make decisions about Internet content. A public library can decide that it will not include pornography and other adult materials in its collection in accord with its mission and policies and, as explained, no unconstitutionality necessarily results. It can make the same choices about Internet access.

A public library has traditionally and historically enjoyed broad discretion to select materials to add to its collection of printed materials for its patrons’ use. We conclude that the same discretion must be afforded a public library to choose what materials from millions of Internet sites it will add to its collection and make available to its patrons.

The case is continuing to lurch through the federal courts now so another appeal to the Supreme Court is inevitable.

And now that you’re caught up, we can go back to the article in Library Journal.

***

In the conclusion of his article, Mr. Marney asks that librarians “exhibit graciousness, civility, and respect for one another” when it comes to this particular can-o-worms issue. I’ve read the article five to six times and I can see the points that he is making. I’m willing to extend him this courtesy so I will ask forgiveness if I come off as being too harsh or sharp at times. This issue is certainly something that gets the blood going, and I anticipate some good healthy (and perhaps not so healthy) debate on his article and my blog entry.

In the interests of dialogue, I’d like to address what he writes on a point by point basis.

We do not allow the filter to be turned off, as many libraries do, but allow individual websites to be unblocked after review consistent with our collection development policy. (Sometimes there’s a slight delay; rarely does one last more than a day.) As part of the case, we commissioned a study of our filter by Paul Resnick at the University of Michigan School of Information that revealed that fewer than 1/3000th of patron searches resulted in incorrect blocks.

I hate to start off with questions, but I need a better grasp of the policy. Who reviews these requests? When the internet policy states that “the mission of the North Central Regional Library is to promote reading and lifelong learning”, what exactly are the restrictions on latter part regarding ‘lifelong learning’? I ask this since I’m trying to get a better handle as to what made the plaintiff’s sites ineligible for being unblocked as part of their intellectual inquiry.

As to the 1 in 3,000 figure, I see that the National Center for Health Statistics has reported that your chances of dying from “natural forces” (such as heat, cold, acts of weather) is roughly 1 in 3,357. (I’m just mentioning this to give some additional perspective to the figure.)

The outdated tenets about using technology to manage the Internet, promoted by the Freedom To Read Foundation (FTRF) and American Library Association (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom, express dogma and fundamentalism and deserve challenge.

You bring up this point, but it never gets explained. How is it dogma? Why does it deserve challenge? I keep looking for some meat on this point, but there is none offered. I’m willing to hear your view on this point, but there is no payoff to these statements.

I believe that some form of filtering is a best practice in libraries. Everyone at least uses a firewall and a spam filter. Using technology to manage our collections on the Internet is economical and equitable. Filtering offers a technological solution for a technological problem. If your filter is inadequate, find a better one.

I’m going to presume that the filters you are referring to in the last sentence are the ones that control content. I do believe that firewalls and spam filters are a necessary defense against those who seek to invade and do harm to a computer network; it just makes sense in this day and age of technology. The last sentence struck me as odd, though.

The big issue about filtering internet content is that the software is imperfect. To me, it comes across like the Momma and Poppa beds in the Three Bears story: they tend to be too soft (allow too much undesirable content) or too hard (block too much desired content) and never in a state of being ‘just right’. By saying that you allow adults to request sites to be unblocked, one could draw the conclusion from having this procedure in place that the NCRL filter is inadequate and in need of a ‘better filter’. Now, I concede that I don’t know what the frequency of unblock requests that NCRL get, but I hope that I got my point across.

I believe that ALA failed in its attempt to invalidate the Children’s Internet Protection Act in the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices ruled that filtering does not violate the First Amendment. The case against us was an attempt to undo that ruling with an applied ­challenge.

I disagree on this point. The heart of the CIPA decision is that any adult could request that the filtering software be suspended or disabled at their request. The Justices took note that this request did not create an onerous burden on the adult and therefore was not a restraint on access to materials protected by the First Amendment. The issue here is whether or not a library should be able to make a determination as to which web content is accessible when an adult patron makes a request.

While the Washington State Supreme Court agreed that it was within the library’s rights to limit access to internet sites (under the premise that collection development policies on physical materials are just as viable on electronic materials on a site-by-site basis), I’m not so sure it will pass muster before the Supreme Court. In ruling on US v ALA, the Court outlined conditions under which the filtering was permissible. Namely, that it could be removed at the request of the individual. The two concurring opinions outline that as a specific reason for upholding CIPA. If you took that pertinent fact away, one could argue that the Court would have decided 5-4 against CIPA as the two concurring opinions jumped sides. Given their recent case of Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association and their treatment of First Amendment issues within that case (restrictions on selling minors video games with violent content), I would be curious as to how they would handle a publically funded government entity making decisions as to what internet content is accessible. They might embrace the reasoning under Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion as an extension of library collection policies or they might see it as an excessive burden on access to protected speech.

I believe that “all or nothing” would include everything on the Internet. Librarians daily deny patron access to valuable First Amendment–protected speech because it is subscription- and fee-based. These same librarians may feel morally superior for providing uncontrolled access to the free parts of the Internet that include, among other things, obscenity, pornography, child pornography, material harmful to minors, and illegal ­gambling.

I’m having a hard time following the point made in the first half of this passage. In denying the patron access to valuable content due to differing sorts of paywalls, are you saying that the library is preventing people from paying for that content? Or are you saying that the library should be obligated to pay for content behind these paywalls? Or are you saying (and I’m guessing this is what you actually mean) that librarians deny people the access to content because they are not taxpayers or fee based supporters/subscribers to the library? Because, under that logic, I should demand to pay the in-state tuition for public colleges in other states than where I legally reside on the basis that I would be physically standing in that other state when I am making my demand.

I think it is unreasonable to conflate the issue of “who pays to support the library” with “what kind of internet access people receive”. I don’t have numbers to back this up, but my understanding is that the majority of libraries provide a guest card or other free temporary access conditions to their collection. The basis of ‘denial’ of access is not a philosophic one, but a funding one. The library provides a benefit to the community that provides its budget, no different than paying for police or fire or trash collection coverage within a certain jurisdiction area.

As to the kind of internet access they receive for their tax or fee money, your statement leans towards a specific kind of harmful materials to minors. But I’m going to address that in a moment.

I believe that pornography can be harmful to children whether they access it or are exposed to it by others accessing it. It creates a hostile environment for our staff and other patrons and overshadows many of the benefits of the free Internet access we provide.

I have a question to this passage: what about violent content? Is that content also harmful to children? In terms of violent content, what kind of content are we talking about? Old Bugs Bunny or Tom & Jerry cartoons? Ultimate Fighting Championship or Bumfights? Depictions of real war and violent crime (either photographic or video)? Hollywood violence? Game violence? Does this create a hostile environment for the staff and other patrons?

I can see your point regarding pornography and children, but I’m now wondering why pornography is getting singled out for rebuke compared to other materials that have been previously labeled as “harmful to children”.

I believe that the “tap and tell” tactic some libraries use isn’t fair or equitable. Library personnel and security guards are universally untrained to make snap judgments about Internet content, and there are no standards for enforcement.

I find it odd that the qualities of fairness or equality are a consideration here as the NCRL internet policy does not provide transparency for the internet unblocking administration and decision making process, a summary of what sites in the past have been approved or denied (and why), nor outline a process for appealing a internet unblocking denial to either the Director or the Board of Trustees. I’d be interested as to hearing more about how this process is fair or equitable in comparison to the “tap and tell” method. To me, it reads as though the subjective judgments regarding internet content have moved from being reactive to proactive, hidden behind the walls of library administration.

Finally, as we migrate our collections and our entire libraries onto the Internet, we must be responsible to the communities we serve and make our mark as the profession that intelligently manages and makes usable the vast stores of information available online. Content matters.

I both like and dislike this closing statement. I like it because I agree that libraries should be a reflection of the communities that they serve and the collection should be a reflection of the taste and values of the population. It should be authentic to the local person, a place that resonates with the vibe of the community. I dislike it because I don’t think managing the entirety of the internet should be our job. One can find great fault with this idea, but I am in favor of rules and guidelines along with the necessary enforcement. I am well aware of the horror stories that accompany unfiltered access to the internet at the public library, but I think it ignores the lawful use of computers that make up a regular day in the life of the library.

Now, if access to illegal online content becomes an issue at a library, I’m open to taking steps in order to curb it. There is a flex point in which the enforcement passes other duties to the point of being disruptive to staff. How the library proceeds from there is something I’d be curious to hear about as it is a fine balance of staff time and patron need.

While I can appreciate the ideas behind the policy of evaluating requests for website access as opposed to blanket unfiltering, I cannot divorce myself from my information libertarian feelings. I really don’t feel it is the place of the library to place itself in such a position no more than it is the role of the government to tell me what to watch, read, and what I can do with my body. I can accept filtering as a necessary evil of the Federal e-rate and as something to curb the most egregious of internet actions, but I cannot accept the role as being an administrator on a site-by-site basis. It is the right of the individual to marshal their own decisions, to live with consequences, and this is one area where I think libraries can get the hell out of the way.

In closing, I will agree with Mr. Marney and say that I think this is a subject worthy of additional debate. I think there are common grounds that can satisfy this ideal. And I look forward to his replies to my points and the comments of others.

Banned Books Week 2010: Footnotes

“[I]f a parent wishes to prevent her child from reading a particular book, that parent can and should accompany the child to the Library, and should not prevent all children in the community from gaining access to constitutionally protected materials. Where First Amendment rights are concerned, those seeking to restrict access to information should be forced to take affirmative steps to shield themselves from unwanted materials; the onus should not be on the general public to overcome barriers to their access to fully protected information.” – Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, 121 F. Supp. 2d 530 (N.D. Texas 2000).

Photo by wajakemek | rashdanothman/Flickr Tonight, I was driving up to Princeton to see Revolutionary Readings at the Princeton Public Library to cap off the end of Banned Books Week. I was winding my way through one of the roads off of Route 1 into the main street area when I noticed a couple holding hands and walking in the same direction on the opposite side of the street. They were two college age men, smiling and talking, making their way down the street as I drove by them. I think that on any other night it would have been wholly unremarkable to me, but in the context of the readings I was going to attend for the second time (I had seen them at the Burlington County Footlighters back in August), it took a different significance.

At first brush, it was certainly something that I take for granted. The most stressful part of holding a woman’s hand was the act of doing it the first time, not where the hand holding was taking place or who might be observing it. Nevermind other simple acts of public affection for that matter. I certainly can’t imagine being a gay teen, even though my relatively liberal high school was gay friendly. I’m probably remembering this through the kaleidoscope of recollection, but I remember the early 1990’s as being a time where gay issues and acceptance were starting to hit the mainstream (with “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act being a response to this particular time period’s movement.  There is a good chance someone will correct me in the comments; please keep in mind that this is what I remember so be gentle.) But even modern more accepting attitudes have a long track record to overcome against the stigma of centuries of bigotry and hate. Although there is progress, there is still a long road ahead.

While I was driving back to my apartment after the reading, I found that there was a question that kept asking myself: what are the true consequences to keeping or removing a GLBT title such as Revolutionary Voices or Heather Has Two Mommies or Boy Meets Boy? In other words, what are the actual ramifications that challengers and supporters would endure if the book was kept or removed? What are the beneficial or detrimental effects associated with either choice?

In examining each side in purely objective terms, I find that the supporters of a title have a more compelling case. Perhaps it is undocumented or less reported in professional, trade, or traditional media sources, but I have yet to hear of the personal, emotional, social, or physical consequences suffered by a challenger when a book was kept on the shelf. In the absence of readily available evidence (anecdotal or otherwise), I would have to presume that there was some sort of negative effect since such a title was so patently offensive in the first place to warrant such action. I am not being facetious in the slightest; I want to know how a challenger was suffered when an objectionable book is not removed from patron availability in its respective community (regardless as to whether it is a public, academic, school, or other kind of library).

On the other hand, supporters of a book tend to be able to demonstrate the value of a title through the benefit it brings to its target audience. Whether it is presenting a tough subject, using the book as a means to answer questions for a young mind, or providing someone with a similar experience to let them know they are not alone, the benefits provided by supporters of having the title available are greater than the detrimental effects (if any) to challengers.

Now, in considering the opposite: what are the benefits to the challenger when a book is removed? I would surmise there is a satisfaction in the successful removal of the title, perhaps relief as to its removal from public availability, but I am perplexed as to other short and long term benefits. What are the benefits, if any? On the contrary, supporters can argue that the lack of access to the book is preventing the benefits they have described in keeping it. Granted, it is not the strongest causation argument. The absence of the book does not necessarily mean that potential users would suffer without it; they might find other books that would do the same as the book in question. However, the loss of benefits argument feels feel more compelling than any benefit a challenger may reap from being successful.

While this objective examination is good fodder for high minded blogging and discussions, there is an undeniable reality. Undeniable they were, two young men enjoying each others company walking hand in hand along the chain fence of the golf course as the setting sun made its way behind the trees in a cool autumn air. And I in the driver’s seat of my car, passing by them unnoticed, wondering if a book like the one I was going to hear would have helped them be comfortable with who they are a few year prior. For them, I will never know. But I do know that it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

Twain Had It Right

If you haven’t seen this excerpt from recently assembled autobiography of Mark Twain, I implore you to read it now. It’s worth the click.

The restriction or removal of material does in fact present a slippery slope of what is “moral” (to use the example from the Twain anecdote) and that which is not. Moral relativism is the actor in that story in which the portrayal of the virtue of truth (and the vice of dishonesty) are unequally applied as criteria to the inclusion of materials in that library of the last century. Once you banish a book on the grounds that it features a liar, you need to banish all of the books that feature the same.

But I’m going to guess that this is nothing new, nothing surprising to the readers who find their way here. The ideals of librarianship, portrayed throughout the graduate school experience as well as to society at large, is that the library contains materials for all interests, for all ages, and for all curiosities. The reality is that we (the royal ‘we’ as a profession) are biased. We do it everyday with the resources we recommend, the search engines we use, the databases we go to, the books that we order, and the websites we read. These biases serve a very practical purpose: they prevent us from becoming frozen into inaction from attempting to be as neutral and unbiased as possible.

If a patron asked me to look something up online, I could run a search on Bing, Google, Ask, and Yahoo to find the greatest variety of answers. Instead, I just use one search engine (for myself, mainly Google). I could be missing results from another search engine, but that kind of reasoning greatly overcomplicates the situation and stymies the reference process. Of course, if I don’t like the results I get from Google, I can go to the other search engines. The truth is that the ideal (looking to provide the largest range of correct results by being ) does not meet up with the reality.

Likewise, with material selections, all librarians are limited by their budgets. They cannot possibly hope to get all of the materials on every viewpoint with their subject or collection scope. With this, they must pick and choose which materials join the collection and which do not. There will always be something left out; the goal is to be as inclusive as possible by hitting all of the major works or vantages. That’s why we have “go to” resources, material recommendations, and our own judgments when it comes to the library collection. Each of these represents a viewpoint of “the essentials” of a collection, something that raises certain materials above the others of its type. This is a bias, no matter how you frame it.

The critical thing here is to recognize our own personal biases and see them for what they are. It’s what Twain did with that librarian over a hundred years ago; he showed how the same set of criteria could disallow for another book (using the Bible, no less). There is no humanly way for us to reach our ideal of being completely unbiased and neutral; but we should never stop trying to do so.

I think it would make ole Samuel Clemens proud.