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.

9 thoughts on “Filtering is for Coffee Makers, Not Libraries (Part II)

  1. Pingback: 关于图书馆与信息过滤一则 | Nalsi的西文编目笔记III

  2. When you go to a Chinese restaurant you don’t expect to find Italian food on the menu and vice versa. When you go to a public library, *the public* does not expect to find pornography on its menu. It is outside of the scope of the library’s mission.

    Fine, filters are not for you. It takes me too long to write, and in the end, I don’t think anything I say is going to change your mind. And, no, you haven’t changed mine.

    We accept USF/E-rate money. We are required to filter (including staff computers). I’m going to double check with our reference librarians, but I’m pretty sure they prefer the filtered to the unfiltered (and would prefer it could do an even better job). We don’t use keyword filtering, so overblocking has never been much of an issue and is easily addressed.

    As I said in the previous post, I think that libraries should have the option of how they want to address this issue rather than have it forced down their throats. But I also think that a well thought out internet filtering solution can play a role if a library chooses to use one.

    • Um, I’m just trying to explain how I see the issue. I wasn’t setting out to write a persuasive essay; if I would, I would have used better evidence and dropped the restaurant illustration.

      Nor do I say or imply that libraries that accept the e-rate should avoid filtering; just because I don’t like the law does not mean I don’t obey it.

    • In case it’s not obvious, I’m referring to either purposefully insincere or delusional metaphors, alarmist language that includes not-really-veiled innuendo of the nature the ‘victim’ is railing against, and falsified authority.

      While all of this ticks me off because I care how libraries work, that’s not why I let myself post this while admittedly fuming. It’s because of the presumption that libraries that filter have any idea how it does or does not affect their patrons. It’s because Anon’s language points to a choice to believe that no complaints equals perfect implementation. It scares me to think about the ways this willful blindness might set up walls to self education. It scares me to think about a policy that changes an institution from the role of information provider to one that sends a message of shaming and silencing of those who want information that they might already be embarrassed to ask about in another way. It chills me to think about how easily staff members, and apparently entire library systems, can relinquish sight of their actual mission in the name of what is ultimately a personal value. It’s akin to pharmacists choosing not to provide medicine to customers who will otherwise die because the medicine interferes with their personal religion. We should strive to be bigger than we are when we clock in at the library.

  3. Have you ever used an internet filter, Tim? Have you ever set one up? Do you even know what you are talking about?

    And, yes, I do know because we clearly use one because we do accept USF/E-rate funds. I also set up the filter (and over the years have used more than one from different companies). And I administer it.

    If you use keyword filtering, you can run into issues with overblocking. As I mentioned we don’t, so our main issue is underblocking. And we only block on the category related to pornography. And, yes, we do get some complaints about incorrectly blocked websites, and clearly patrons come tell us. But these have been few and far between and are easily remedied.

    As I have repeatedly try to point out, the mission of the public library does not include providing pornography. And no one will die if they don’t get it at the library, so your comparison to the pharmacist is completely off base.

    As for the rest of your reply I don’t think it accurately reflects what I said, so no further comment from me.

  4. ‘If you use keyword filtering, you can run into issues with overblocking. As I mentioned we don’t…

    And, yes, we do get some complaints about incorrectly blocked websites’


  5. Pingback: An intimate encounter with porn at the library - BIBLIOTHEKSPOLIZEI | BIBLIOTHEKSPOLIZEI

  6. Your analogies and philosophies are just fine, but for me it comes down to one simple thing. Saying we shouldn’t use filters because they aren’t perfect is like saying we shouldn’t drive a car, or fly on a plane or use a computer because they might crash. Nothing is perfect. They do a good enough job most of the time, and really that’s not such a bad thing.

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