Guns, Porn, and Library Makerspaces

A few months back, the story that a 3D printer created a working (albeit fragile and limited) plastic gun shot around the news in libraryland. As I recall, the reaction in my social circles was swift and decidedly against allowing library 3D printers for such a purpose, despite the fine print about the economics and viability of the guns. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of how some librarians can be in love with the First Amendment and abandon the Second as if the Bill of Rights was a buffet. The argument could made that words and ideas are far more dangerous than guns, but this post isn’t about that.

In thinking about 3D printers and what kind of limits should be imposed on them, I started wondering about the other big makerspace setup in libraries: digital media labs. While I can see weapons being restricted or banned on library 3D printers (whether it is reasonable or not is another matter), what kinds of limits would librarians place on media creation? What kinds of limits exist already? Could a person record a music track that has violent and/or sexual content? What about visual art with the same content? Granted, some of these examples are well within the boundaries of the librarian free speech ideals, but here’s the question I’m leading up to:

Could someone use a library digital media lab to create and/or edit a pornographic movie?

On one hand, limitations against this kind of material are already established. Most public libraries don’t have a subscription to Playboy (the gold standard of pornography in libraries) and have generally avoided sexual materials due to theft and vandalism. Another rationale is that it would be more trouble than its worth, a case in which the public policy trumps the First Amendment and freedom of expression. There’s nothing wrong with picking your battles, especially in the long game of public relations and budgeting.

On the other hand, there have been steps taken to allow people to view pornography on the computers at the library. Why would the creation of it be any different? This might be some of my libertarian roots showing, but what consenting adults do is their business. (I’m sure this point can be bogged down by a million ‘what ifs’, so I’ll concede that it’s not a blanket pass on all content.) If we allow people to put sexual content in their music and visual art, why not be able to make an amateur adult film in our digital media labs?

Like many grey areas in libraryland, I’m sure there is going to be a diverse reaction to this end of freedom of expression. Just like some libraries ban guns and others welcome them, I’m sure there will be a similar dichotomy when it comes to restrictions (or lack thereof) on creating adult content, be it music, art, or film.

My hope is that that libraries will side on the less restrictive side, favoring the freedoms (expression, intellectual) that we hold so dear. Libraries should be the organization that gives people permission to be themselves, no matter what the prevailing societal and cultural winds dictate. It’s in our very nature to collect and protect material that which is deemed unsavory; this ideal should be extended to the individual.

Filtering is for Coffee Makers, Not Libraries (Part II)

(I started to write a reply to a comment from my last post, but part of the reply turned into a full length post.)

Allow me to illustrate why I find internet filtering odious in public libraries.

***

Imagine you are at a restaurant. You pay on a yearly basis to eat there in exchange for having a wide variety of culinary options available to you. When you enter the restaurant, you are seated and given a menu. Upon opening the menu and flipping through the pages, you notice that some of the selections have been blackened out. You call the waiter over.

“Excuse me, but why are some of these selections blackened out?”

“Ah, those are entrees that have been judged to be unhealthy for you by the Health Board. They have possibly bad ingredients that are thought to be detrimental for a healthy lifestyle.”

“What do you mean, possibly full of bad ingredients?”

“Some of the dishes have been judged to be not good for a healthy lifestyle whatsoever. Other dishes might not be good for you so we are erring on the side of caution to exclude them. And then there are entrees that are good for you but since they share some of the same ingredients as the bad dishes, we have excluded them as well.”

“So, some of these entrees could be perfectly fine for me?”

“Yes sir. When we find a good dish that has been mistakenly marked as bad, we remove the blackening material.”

“That’s good! But what about the dishes that might not be good for me?”

“We’ve found that we get different reactions. Some people are outraged to find it on the regular menu, saying they cannot believe we would allow that to be served here. Others are outraged to find it on the complete menu, saying how dare we exclude it from the regular menu. It’s a tough call because it is a rather subjective assessment.”

“I see.”

“If you’d like, I can bring you a full menu without the retractions…”

“Yes, please, I’d like that.”

“…But there are some caveats.”

“Like what?”

“For me to bring out the complete menu, you have to assure me that you are someone who believes in a healthy lifestyle. Also, that it will be frowned upon by the other diners to consume the entrees that are loaded with bad ingredients. In addition, you will not share your meal with other people. Especially if you do end up ordering something that has been previously judged as unhealthy and especially if that person is a child. Can you agree to such terms?”

“I can understand and abide by that last part, but I don’t get the first two.”

“The Health Board wants to promote a healthy lifestyle for all the diners. While as an adult you are free to eat what you please, just know that eating so freely may not be held in the highest of esteems by the other diners. Even though it will be your food and being consumed by you, it may be upsetting to them.”

“Why should they care about what I eat?”

“Because they don’t eat it themselves and feel that no one else should either. Nor do they even want to catch sight of someone who could possibly be eating something they find repulsive.”

“So, why do I have to promise you that I lead a healthy lifestyle just so I can get a complete menu even though I’m an adult?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

“But that’s absurd!”

“It’s the rules of the Health Board. Take it or leave it.”

***

I will admit that the restaurant menu illustration is far from perfect. It doesn’t address the sexual harassment that library workers can experience from someone viewing pornography at the library, nor does it address the idea keeping kids from being exposed to pornography. Those are certainly important issues that need to be handled as well. But it is the best way for me to explain how I feel about filtering.

People tend to confuse anti-filtering arguments with being pro-porn. They are not the same. If someone was to show me a filtering software that could prevent people from viewing pornography while allowing all non-pornographic sites through, I’d speak in its favor for libraries that want filtering to use it. However, there isn’t such a thing; it doesn’t exist. Instead, it is much like a fishing net trawling the ocean, pulling up anything in its path. To me, that ‘s an unreasonable imposition.

What is also unreasonable to me is that underlying notion of filtering software; it is based on a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ concept. You cannot be trusted with unfiltered internet access, even if you have no history of deviant web browsing. And if you ask for unfiltered access, you are subject to be judged for having ulterior motives. It turns our American notion of due process on its head.

For myself, it is a lack of trust based out of fear-mongering; every person with unfiltered internet access is a potential offender, a sleeper cell agent waiting to act upon illicit information desires (porn or drugs or otherwise). From this fear mongering, the common refrain of how there is the potential for harm, that this potential is omnipresent and always certain to happen if we lower our guard for one second.

Filtering software is another form of security theater in which people have to be treated like potential threats based on the tiny number of cases. It is the antithesis of dialogue and education, for it sets aside logic in favor of the cheap emotional reaction. When we treat our neighbors with suspicion of potential wrongdoing as part of “the price of doing business”, it does not build a society that brings us together as a nation. It merely reinforces that the ‘other’ is something that should be feared, shunned, and eliminated.

To me, that is not what the library is about. In creating the environment for understanding, there has to be trust given. While a person’s words and actions may erode that away, it won’t be because of a lower starting point on my part. It’s the eternal optimist in me; I want to believe that people are good until proven otherwise. Some might pounce on this statement as evidence of being naiveté, that the world is a cruel place full of evils in around every corner. I am acutely aware of the unfeeling indifference of universe as acted out by nature and society. I am an optimist in spite of it.

In writing this all out, I wonder as to whether it actually advances a dialogue or just adds to the noise. A dialogue would mean that the two sides are actually conversing and listening to one another; the noise is when they are just shouting past each other. There really isn’t a perfect solution, but I think it’s better to examine the people involved in the transaction than focusing on the software.

Filtering is for Coffee Makers, Not Libraries

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The picture above is the splash page for a website called the Safe Library Project. It’s supported by the group Morality in Media, “the leading national organization opposing pornography and indecency through public education and the application of the law”. Here’s the blurb from the About page on the site:

This site was begun by Morality in Media, in conjunction with the War on Illegal Pornography, to help restore sanity in public libraries. All public, taxpayer-funded libraries should refuse to allow pornography on public computers – that is common sense.

We are not in a fight with your local public librarians. They are good public servants. Rather we are at war with those, like the American Library Association (ALA), the ACLU and others, who have advocated access to porn in public libraries. The ALA has been the driving force behind pornography on library computers. ALA and the ACLU fought a losing battle all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court against the Children’s Internet Protection Act, a federal act that requires public libraries that take certain federal funds to block pictures that are (a) obscene; (b) child pornography; or  (c) harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors). Imagine! Shouldn’t the American Library Association be on the side of protecting children from pornography?

This passage is followed by a couple more paragraphs full of argument fallacies (most prominently the appeal to emotion). The short version is that it advocates for the enforcement of obscenity laws (using possibly the narrowest interpretation of the Miller test, though it is not mentioned) against free or commercial pornography sites and because all of these sites are obscene (in their opinion) that libraries should be mandated to use filtering software whether they take the federal e-rate money or not. It’s a nicely packaged bundle; all but softest core porn is obscene, therefore it should be prosecuted and also all libraries should be filtered to prevent people from reaching material (because it is obscene) even if it is not an issue (but it could be). Everyone with me so far?

There isn’t much in the way of supporting evidence or documentation on the website for this stance. No research showing how unfiltered libraries have higher sexual crimes in their surrounding areas than filtered libraries, no studies or reports on the effectiveness of filters and filtering software, not even one fancy chart to make the case. (There are reports on the PornHarms site, but nothing specific to libraries.) I would presume that support is supposed to be derived from the myriad of links offered on the site to news stories (some of which actually don’t actually apply since correlation does not equal causation) and a couple of scraped articles from Library Journal (an Annoyed Librarian column and the Dean Marney BackTalk piece). The website seems more like a contest to see how many times the words “porn”, “harm”, and “libraries” can be mentioned in a single sentence.

Two parts of the website caught my attention (and are my reasons for blogging about it). One is the tab marked “Report on Your Library”. It’s a web form that asks people to check with their local library for these specific questions:

  • What is the library policy regarding explicit material?
  • Do they have a filter in place? Are they willing to install one?
  • How do they keep children from viewing explicit material?
  • Have the librarians witnessed or been the victim of sexual assault on library grounds?

It seems like a case “which one of these things just isn’t like the other?”. There seems to be quite a leap from the third question to the fourth, a jump from asking about the possibility of filtering to whether an actual crime has been committed. I would presume that this is being asked because of the underlying Safe Library Project theory of ‘porn causes sexual assaults’, which if true would be more of a compelling reason to filter the entire Internet rather than just the public access ones. Alternatively, it is fishing for a reason to bring forth a lawsuit and/or manufacture a public outcry in order to compel the library to filter their computers, even if the actual context or frequency of occurrence would indicate otherwise. I find it to be an interesting glimpse in the tactics that the Safe Libraries Project seeks to use to leverage against libraries.

The other comes from the “Do Something” section. There’s too much to simply quote here; you’ll have to take a look yourself. It provides two paths to action. The first is contacting your library and demanding that filters be installed. (Actual quote: “Many librarians will agree with you on this subject and will do all they can to install filters on their systems. We just need to ask!”) The other is organizing and pressuring the library to install filters. Not an unusual tactic, but it does make me chuckle that a group of people would be so unfortunate as to not get one of the “many” librarians that should agree and do all that they can to help. Unlike the previous section I mentioned, this page spells out what a person should do or say while they are at the library gathering information.

Overall, with the exception of those two sections I did not find anything truly concerning about the website. The issue of filtering is akin to a flu strain in the realm of library science ailments; we can do a lot to take steps against it, but it will never truly be eradicated. Libraries are one of the many fronts in the balance between constitutionally protected speech and obscenity; a privileged headache to have compared to free speech restrictions in the rest of the world and one that has been given to us by the writers and subsequent interpreters of the First Amendment.

Personally, I find filters odious, the equivalent of locking up a state park because one person littered. In my opinion, it punishes the innocent more than it prevents the offenders from acting as it is a ham-fisted solution to a niche problem. In essence, it is an ineloquent solution to a complex social, psychological, and anthropological problem.

And so, here the issue remains: those who want filtering and those who oppose it. The Safe Libraries Project is a site created for the purpose of mandating filtering software to every public library in the United States. If this website was a seasonal outlook, it looks like there is a flu season in our future. So be on the lookout for the symptoms.

<Insert Clever Library Porn Story Name Here>

From the NY Post:

Shakespeare’s plays, Einstein’s theories — and porn queen Jenna Jameson’s steamy online sexcapades.

New Yorkers can take their pick at the city’s public libraries, thanks to a policy that gives adults the most uncensored access to extreme, hard-core Internet smut this side of the old Times Square.

The electronic smut falls under the heading of free speech and the protection of the First Amendment, library officials say.

The article goes on in the typical porn-in-the-library Mad Libs manner: ordinary citizens outraged at the very idea while library officials offer stale free speech and First Amendment snippets. The only issue I can see is the poor timing for New York City library advocacy efforts as they combat cuts to their systems. It take the steam out of all the efforts to highlight all of the good things that the public libraries do for their community and focuses it on a tiny minority of computer users. It’s rather unfortunate, really, and I hope this issue fizzles in the media.