Filtering is for Coffee Makers, Not Libraries


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.

19 thoughts on “Filtering is for Coffee Makers, Not Libraries

  1. My guess is that if we followed the money trail, we’d find that this, and similar organizations, are funded by the companies that make filtering software.

  2. I suppose it makes for an interesting title, but I don’t think it is very accurate.

    Libraries heavily filter their physical collections. It begins with the library’s missions statement, collection development policy, and finally implemented with its selection policy (and, of course, both physical space constraints and money are big considerations, too). Granted, the library is theoretically in control of all of these steps, but, in reality, the volume of materials even here is so great that we relegate much of the actual filtering to secondary sources (e.g., positive / negative reviews from various sources, etc.).

    And, yet, if a library even considers applying the same process to the internet, it is “odious”.

    So, please explain how it is perfectly fine to filter the physical collection and yet “odious” when you try to filter the internet?

    Especially since I doubt any public library is going to argue that offering pornography to their patrons is part of their mission. Please scan through your library’s physical collection and enumerate those items that have *visual* depictions of pornography that come anywhere near those that are easily available on the internet. For example, do you subscribe to any “adult” magazines? How many X-rated DVDs / videos do you have?

    My bet is probably none or an extremely small amount. And yet this type of material is easily available on the internet. So, if you don’t offer it in your physical collections, why do you offer it on the internet? Or, if it is not a problem on the internet, then why don’t you offer it in your physical collections?

    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 without it being as “odious” as you make it out to be.

    • Anon, you seem to miss the more valid comparison with physical materials. Very few libraries purchase anatomy books, then cut out the parts that offend some people. Very few libraries purchase R-rated movies and use a special machine that scratches the parts of the dvd with boobies.

      NOR do we prevent patrons whom we suspect are looking at only dirty words in the dictionary from looking at or checking out the dictionary. We do NOT ‘filter’ that type of use. ‘Filtering’ might be closer to the request for reconsideration process, taking care of which is not a full-time job for any librarian that I’m aware of.

      I don’t consider it valid to compare the internet to library physical collections, but if you must, this is my counterpoint.

      And don’t even get me started on your choice of ‘filter’ over ‘selection.’ If I think about it too long I start to take personally your discounting my degree.

      • No, that is not an accurate comparison at all.

        IMO the actual corresponsinding comparison would be that the library be able to purchase all the availabe physical items published, but instead, not choose to purchase those items that lie outside of their mission, collection development, and selection policies. Oh, wait, that’s what we already do. Because buying visually pornographic items is not within the mission of the public library.

        And, please, don’t compare this to anatomy. I’m talking about stuff that you can *easily* find on the internet that would surely be X-rated. How many of those types of things do you have in your physical collections? Go to your collections and count how many X-rated (not R) DVDs / videos you have. How many subscriptions to adult magazines do you have?

        None? Next to none? I thought so.

        When you all have extensive collections of this in physical format (I’m not sure how accurate they are, but supposedly 10% of websites {not pages} are pornographic in nature), let me know. Until then, you are using a double standard.

        And I’m willing to bet, that you will *never* have extensive physical collections of these items.

        Because they are *not* within the mission of a public library.

        The public gets this, but too many librarians don’t.

    • I agree with what Tim wrote. There is a difference between “unwanted” and “wanted but cannot be purchased or accommodated”. The idea that a collection is filtered because a library can’t buy everything is a stretch. If you want to argue that selection is the same as filtering, I think you’ve got a mountain to climb on that one. Good luck on the ascent!

      As to ‘scanning the collection for visual pornography’, are you using what I consider to be pornographic as the standard? The Miller test as the standard? I can’t even carry out what you ask since pornography is subjective; I think some of our romance novels would be considered pornographic by some observers. I presume you narrowed it to visual because of the internet, but people do write pornography as well online. There are erotic websites full of fantasies; should that be included as well?

      If collection selection for physical objects is like drinking from a fire hose, then collection selection for the internet would be like drinking from a tsunami. It doesn’t scale up to the vast sprawl of the internet. To say that libraries could effectively carry out such a scheme is delusional and disservice to their community.

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  4. I’m on the “intellectual freedom” committee of my local library organization and I’m trying to convince my committee members to invite someone from one of these “safe library” organizations to present as our contribution to our annual conference. I want to do this just to show we really are about intellectual freedom. My one caveat would be that they would have to be willing to take questions from the audience. I’d leave up to my other colleagues to nail them if that is something someone else to wanted to do.

    The big irony: most porn people see on library computers is probably there because the filter doesn’t work and it would be ten times worse if the filter wasn’t there at all. As the “safe library” folks say, most libraries are pro-filtering, but the filters just don’t work that good.

    Andy – don’t you mean it is an anthropological problem not an anthropomorphic problem. Anthropomorphic pornography problems just make dirty jokes pop in my head. Maybe my mind in the gutter? Have I been harmed by porn?

    • Doh! I fixed the anthropological spelling. Thanks for pointing that out.

      I’d be very interested to see a presentation by such a group. Would you consider video taping it?

  5. Is anyone going to mention that this site is probably now banned by every filter in the galaxy because our conversation about filtering discusses – without presenting – the content intended to be filtered?

    I’ve been working on my “porn in libraries is a public good” post for months now, but life keeps getting in the way. Here’s why:

    ” Sex crimes against children: Down 53 percent between 1992 and 2006.
    Abortion: The abortion rate has dropped by about 25 percent since 1993.
    Teen pregnancy: In 2009, teen pregnancy hit its lowest rate in the 70 years that the federal government has been tracking the statistic.
    Divorce: The U.S. divorce rate is at its lowest level since 1970.
    Domestic violence: The rate of reported domestic violence in the U.S. dropped by more than half between 1993 and 2004.
    Rape: The forcible rape rate in the U.S. has dropped from 41.1 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 28.7 in 2009. That latter figure is also an all-time low.

    These numbers are overwhelming. What’s more, there are at least a couple of studies suggesting that the widespread availability of pornography is partially responsible for some of these trends, especially the drop in reported rapes.”


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