Library Internet Filtering and the Courts

In the news this past week, there was a short report about a library that had settled a lawsuit with the ACLU over the use of internet filters to block “occult” materials. The short version (from both the news story and the court’s consent order) is that an adult had asked the library to unblock websites that related to searches regarding Native American spiritual practices and traditions. At the time, the library had opted to filter out websites that fell into the category of “occult” and “criminal skills” (whatever that means) as well as the usual suspects of “adult image”, “pornography”, “proxy anonymizer”, and “viruses”. (Not sure who gets to decide what fits into those categories, but I digress.)

After the time she was brushed off by library management and before she filed the lawsuit, the filtering software provider contacted the library and informed them that some of the blocking was overly broad (shocking, I know) and that other organizations had raised concerns about their inclusion.  At this time, the library was offered a chance to revise the categories they wanted blocked; they choose to drop “occult” and “criminal skills” from their filtering software. The purpose of the lawsuit was to seek a permanent injunction against filtering those categories as well as damages and fees. In arriving at a consent order (a voluntary agreement between both parties), the library is prohibited by a federal court to expand filtering beyond the categories it currently blocks unless required by state or federal law. The suit is over and the file is closed.

This should all seem straightforward, right? A library made a mistake in the way they filtered their internet, they were taken to court, and now things are as they should be (or as best as they can be, considering they are under the thumb of mandated filtering policies), and this person now has access to Constitutionally protected speech. But for me, the story doesn’t quite end there.

A couple thousand miles away in the state of Washington, Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District had wound its way to a federal court last year. Some might remember this case from its Washington Supreme Court ruling which held that its library internet content filtering (includes refusing to unblock Constitutionally protected speech for adults) policies do not violate the free speech protections contained within the Washington state constitution. In shifting to the federal level, the ACLU plaintiffs were pressing the case as a violation of their First Amendment rights. Last April, a federal court granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the library on the grounds that the content filtering policy and the refusal to unfilter computers for adults was not a violation of the First Amendment. The ACLU declined to appeal the judgment and so the ruling stands.

So, as I see it, what we have here is one federal court that has ruled that an expansive filtering policy is not an undue burden while another federal court has expressly prohibited the expansion of filtering policies beyond those required by the law. My question (or more wonder, I should say) is why the Missouri library didn’t use the Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District ruling as a cornerstone for a defense against the case. In terms of timelines, Bradburn’s state ruling was on May 2010 and their federal ruling was on April 2012; the lawsuit was filed in January 2012 and the settlement was March 2013. In looking at the timeline, this means that there was a ruling in place that the library attorneys could have used as part of their case.

Now, I will freely admit that I’m not a lawyer; I did attend law school for a year but that hardly qualifies me for in-depth legal analysis. But from what I did learn is that in arguing a case you look for other identical or similar cases to bolster your side by showing legal precedent. Here, Bradburn would have been an excellent similar case where a District Court (the same venue as the Missouri case) made a decision in favor of library filtering policies. Coupled with the majority opinion from the Washington Supreme Court, to me it would seem like it would provide a lot of ammunition in favor of library filtering policies. But, instead, the library opted to settle and consented to a court order against discretionary expansion of filtering. But why?

Perhaps the time and cost of a lawsuit was enough to induce a settlement. Maybe the removal of the filters in question made a trial moot. While I’ve been able to track down the original complaint and some of the other documents, I’m probably missing some other information (as well as legal training) that would make this picture make sense. But, right now, I’m left wondering how future courts will riddle out library filtering practices when two similar federal courts have differing outcomes.

Change a Word, Change the World


While I understand the “yay intellectual freedom” underpinnings of the original quote, I’ve never been a big fan of it. The implication that the measure of greatness is directly related to creating repulsion somewhere in the library collection has never sat well with me. I concede that this is not the ultimate grading system for the value of a library, but as this is an oft repeated phrase I think it earns some scrutiny as to what it seeks to convey to the listener.

Inspire is the word I substituted because I feel the emphasis should be on what a library can do for a person rather than how it could drive one away. What word would you have put there? Are there other library sayings that could use a little modification of their own?

“Bring Me the Head of Seth Godin!”

Or so it would seem the mood would be in some parts of libraryland upon reading his latest blog post, The future of the library. (Not be confused with the other Seth Godin post by the same name written back in 2010.) In reading some of the other reactions and comments, it seems like another trip on the professional self-esteem merry-go-round. We want non-librarians to talk and write about the library (in any sense of the word) yet completely despair when it is not a full throated praise of the institution. If it invokes any stereotype, it’s considered a step backwards for the entire continuing conversation. (Cue the wail of lamentations and the gnashing of the teeth.) If it challenges current practices or principles, we give the author a dismissive pat on the back while marginalizing their words by telling them essentially “thanks, but you don’t know what you are talking about”. We’d rather accept bland praise over anything of substance that pushes our comfort levels written by people who are friends of the library institution, then quietly mutter to ourselves why more people don’t talk or write about the library.

Another spin on the merry-go-round we go.

This isn’t a pass on what Seth wrote, either, but I’m going to work to avoid stepping into the some pitfalls as listed above. A civil and well reasoned challenge deserves response in kind.

If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be trying to brainstorm clever ebook lending models. I would prefer to dump a wheelbarrow full of cash on the desks of the six major publishers and say,”My associate Mr. Franklin thinks you should lend to public libraries. Does this cover your intellectual property worries?” It would be convenient to buy our way out of their insecurities, but alas, the current state of budget affairs does not allow for such things. Libraries don’t have that kind of cash so instead we have to be clever. Personally, I think it is the silver lining of this funding catastrophe for it makes people focused, creative, and innovative. But it’s a bit hard pill to swallow since it is coming at a huge cost of libraries, jobs, and the communities once served.

I agree that the prices on eBooks and eReaders will keep coming down; they’ll become like disposable razor and blades as Seth wrote. But that is not the present situation and is predicted to happen further down the timeline (five years is mentioned). While I can plan, work, and hope for that day, I still have to work with what I have right now. Right now I have patrons asking for eBooks. It might be thought a poor excuse, a fool’s errand, and a waste of taxpayer money to collect these eBooks now, but I need to reasonably act on today’s reality more than tomorrow’s speculation. I mean, what’s the alternative? Tell my patrons, “Come back in five years when the publishers and eBook market have their shit together”? That’s not exactly the best customer service practice out there, even if the predictions come to past. I’m looking to the future, but I still need to act on the present.

On top of that, even if they become that cheap, there will still be a digital divide. Those are the people the library seek to serve: the information have-nots. I know these eReader-less people will exist because I know there are care packages and boxes sitting in shelters, churches, and other aid group offices that have a disposable razors and blades sitting in them. They may be cheap, but there will still be people who can’t afford them. Since libraries are in the knowledge business, we’ll be working to serve this small section of the population as well. To that extent, a portion of our collection will always be linked to their fate.

I agree with Seth about the birth of the modern library and how it was created for a different time. In looking at that period of time in the 19th century, there are the values of the Age of Enlightenment (egalitarianism, for one) combined with the emergence of the Second Industrial Revolution (machines replacing manpower). On the heels of the recent establishment of public education was the further societal need and desire for self-improvement and self-education (along with some entertainment for the new middle class literate). As Andrew Carnegie steps into the picture, the library as a public institution takes off across the United State (and the world as well). To that end, yes, it was a public institution built for another time in the history of the country.

And now we are in the digital age.

So far, this digital age has been an uneven balance between proprietary and open source paradigms. While the President talked in this year’s State of the Union address about winning the future through innovation, Congress has introduced a heavy handed bill in favor of copyright holders. Apple has taken steps to keep you from poking around the devices you own with special screws to secure their hardware. The Kindle and iTunes outline clearly how limited your rights are to the content that you own lease. Pharmaceutical companies work to reformulate the same drugs so that they can re-patent them and extend exclusive protections along with the higher asking prices. DRM puts a giant lock on literature and prose, the worries of the piracy outweighing the greater conversations and influences that could await them. For all the mentions about the overabundance of data out there, there is a mad scramble to lock up as much as possible and as fast as possible. The visible web is the proverbial tip of the iceberg compared to the deep web, where bits of information are locked away under passwords, firewalls, and IP authentications. Seth mentions The Mesh, but according to some of the most popular content companies, the future of business is sharing only when they will let us share. And that does not move any conversation forward.

Librarians are working to change that.

We are in tune with an emerging sharing culture. We strive for information access for our constituent communities. Despite moments of inanity with our funny little rules at times, the profession works to give information away as much as humanly possible. We work to put books in hand, answers at fingertips, and ideas in minds. And we’ll dance with The Devil to make it possible. It’s not a noble profession, intellectual and aloof; it’s a wholly maddening, sometimes frustrating, fraught with uncertainty, second guessing working-on-your-own-time profession to which the practitioners love deeply. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either drunk or nuts.

In coming up with the blog post title, I thought it might grab’s people attention (nothing quite like a little cheap ‘Gotcha!’ advertising ploy, right?) but also serve two functions. First, librarians can’t keep trying to kill the messenger when it comes from outside libraryland. Putting Seth’s head on a proverbial pike does nothing but tell people that librarians (oddly enough being the strangely open minded intellectual freedomniks that we are in defending divergent viewpoints) are not interested in outside opinions. That does not serve us well going into the future for those looking to lend a hand and offer an outside viewpoint.

Second, to paraphrase a line from Braveheart, the trouble with libraries is that they are full of librarians. There were libraries before I was born and there will be libraries long after I turn to dust. It is static in purpose and principle and mutable in practice and presentation. Don’t let the former blind you to the latter; let the library loose to evolve into the digital age. We are still honoring the past while ensuring its continuation and future librarians will thank us for it acting responsibly at the birth of the new information age.

And if we are really going to headhunt, Seth Godin should be waaaaaay down on the list of scalps to attempt to claim right now. Think about it.

The End of the Public Library (No, really, I mean it!)

Tuesday will be my birthday. Saturday will be Judgment Day.

Since The Rapture will take place on a Saturday, I’m a bit concerned for staffing on Sunday (although from my own experiences at conferences I believe it is safe to say that the reference desk will still be fully manned). And, unless I’m picked up in that Rapture as well, it looks like I’ll still be presenting at the Northeastern Pennsylvania Library Association Spring Workshop on May 27th since the world won’t actually end till later that year. This wouldn’t be the first time around for such absolute certainty about the end of the word. October 22, 1844 is called The Great Disappointment since it did not actually mark the Second Coming of Jesus. Heck, you can’t swing a Google cat without hitting results about other end-of-the-world predictions that date back hundreds of years. And let’s not forget what awaits us in 2012 (note: the website features a countdown clock!)

I would guess that the majority of my readership would think that these kinds of events are completely unfounded and/or silly speculation, but I’m wondering why some of those same people get all riled up by people who write the same sort of dire pieces about the demise of the public library. I have yet to read a strong argument for closing public libraries; most revolve around “everyone” having Kindles, Google, and the internet. That sort of reasoning doesn’t even make me get up from my seat anymore. It’s usually a cover for the real argument of “I don’t want my tax money being spent on things that I don’t personally benefit from” which is a whole different ballgame.

So, why do librarians give such credence to any person who writes about the end of the public library? Is the profession really that insecure? Or do librarians have our own irrational fear of an impending public library apocalypse?

Across the Pond, E-readers are not Library Equivalents Edition

Leo Benedictus writes in Prospect Magazine about the closing of libraries in England and the rise of e-reading. Salient quote:

The talk of a future in which children cannot access books is also not just wrong, but backwards. E-readers—already available for £52 ($83), and falling—offer an incomparably more convenient way for anyone to find good things. While defending libraries, surely there is also time to promote the fact that, thanks to Project Gutenberg and Google Books, every child in the country can now download virtually any out-of-copyright book for nothing. (Piracy will doubtless do the same for most in-copyright books too, as may digital lending, though this is less cause for celebration.)

He goes on to argue that digital readers will be able to provide children with libraries of their own. I would agree with that notion if libraries were simply book access centers; who wouldn’t want to make it easier for readers to get a hold of books? But libraries operate beyond that capacity. E-readers do not provide the same internet access as current library computer labs; they do not have classes on computer use or other topics; nor do they provide programming for people of all ages.

A library also functions as a place, whether for old men to gather and play chess or teens looking for a safe space to be to do their homework and avoid the dangers of the street. It’s a community focal point, a space preserved for mental and social activity the same way parks are saved for physical activity. An e-reader is a poor substitute for an actual place where these ideas can congregate and be exchanged.

Mr. Benedictus argues that 2011 will be the year that each child will receive their own library through an e-reader. That may be so, but it will be at the loss of the discovery of books next to those titles on the shelf and a place that houses them.

(h/t: The Daily Dish)

Now What? We Do This

Toby Greenwalt’s recent post asked “Okay, Now What” in regard to the HarperCollins/Overdrive debacle along with a couple of very good questions. These questions are important because they signal negotiating positions from where librarians are (roughly) coming from: what our ideal eBook lending environment would be and what price we would pay for that. They are also important because that kind of introspection examines a more basic question as to whether or not eBook lending is even a viable option.

In watching the conversations develop on different fronts, I believe that what I am about to outline is the best course of action moving forward.

Between Now and March 7th

[March 7th is significant since that’s when the new licensing agreements start. Overdrive will move them into their own catalog on that day.]

(1) We work on getting actual communication going with HarperCollins (one blog post statement that simply restates their reasoning is not bilateral communication). I have yet to see anyone post a reply they have received to their messages send to, so I’m not sure if that is simply a black hole for people to air their discontent or an actual feedback channel.  If anyone has heard anything, I’d love to see it.

HarperCollins, if you are actually reading this, consider hosting a conference call that librarians can dial into. We’d like to hear from you in more detail and ask a few (dozen) questions. That might be the easiest way to reach a good number of people who have interest in this issue all at once in a short period of time. This email thing is not working too well here.

(2) We expand to contacting authors, readers, library board members, trustees, and friends to educate them on what this change means for us. I’d suggest a sample letter or notice for each group that explains the importance of the perpetual collection and the cultural record that the library maintains. There are other avenues of pressure that should be utilized and we should be looking to expand support for our side.

March 7th and onward

(1) I believe that boycotting HarperCollins eBooks is the most effective tactic at our disposal. It doesn’t deny physical print to patrons and addresses the problem as we see it (the eBook licensing agreement). Since it is a matter of the licensing agreement changes, to make that the recipient of all the protest and attention would be the best and most compelling action.

(2) We continue sending letters and emails to HarperCollins, Overdrive (as a client), authors, library patrons, and readers everywhere. We look to both librarian and non-librarian news outlets and take our cases there. We are not out of forums for our discontent, not by a long shot. It is just a matter of continuing to push.

How long? Till we get the change we are looking for.


Other Thoughts

I think a total boycott is overreaching since the problem is with the eBooks, not the entire line of HarperCollins products. I think accepting these terms and continuing to do business is an even worse decision for it puts the future of eBook collections entirely at risk. As much bellyaching as there is about a disruption to the workflow since all of the HarperCollins titles will have to be reevaluated for purchases when they hit the magic twenty six number, I assure you that NO ONE will be happy when they are doing it for the ENTIRE eBook collection.

For those who suggest that boycotting is against service to patrons or assault on reading, I disagree. Service to patrons is not done in a vacuum; the idea of “giving them what they want” is not without outside considerations for space, staffing, budgets, or means. To ignore the greater issues of future information access in order to give our patrons an eBook now is a complete abandonment of professional principles. The library cannot maintain the cultural record if it surrenders the very materials it wishes to keep to a third party. Art museums do not store their collections at the artist’s studios; neither should we allow publishers to offer eBooks on the electronic equivalent of a yo-yo string.

Service to patrons is also not blind devotion in which parting with good judgment or business sense is a prerequisite.  This myopic rationale surrenders the future of eBook access in favor of what is easy, what is convenient, and simply another chapter of going-along-to-get-along in the history of librarianship. The people today who are flabbergasted by the idea that library did not order more physical copies of their favorite title will think us stupid when it comes to not having an eBook available because of an expired license. And they will be right.


This is a situation in which we as individuals will have to stand together to be the change we want to see in the treatment of eBooks. There is no one who is going to come to our rescue; not the ALA, not our state associations, not authors nor readers. The future of lending and collecting eBooks is what is at stake here. And as they become a greater part of our collections, how eBooks are handled and treated matters all the more. It is important to act now and decisively. It is important for the continued future of eBooks in libraries.

Now is the time. Take action.

Library Beyond Print

Photo by ~ Phil Moore/Flickr At the end of last week, there was an article in the Boston Globe talking about a prep school discarding all of their books and converting the library into an information center, complete with Kindles & Sony E-readers, plasma televisions streaming internet video, and coffee bar. Most notably in the article, the headmaster sees books as “an outdated technology, like scrolls before books”. The reaction on Twitter (where the article was linked to me) was mostly sadness and outrage at the decision. (Here’s a quick search regarding it.) I can’t say that my gut reaction wasn’t along those lines; but the more I think about it, the more such a decision makes sense to me.

From the collection development point of view, a non-fiction collection represents a static snapshot of the world as it understood at that moment. In general, from the moment a non-fiction book is printed, the information within starts becoming obsolete. On a long enough time line, this book will be replaced by a new one that reflects the new research, new understandings, and/or new information that has been uncovered on a subject. I will concede that some subjects are going to remain unchanged barring a revolutionary breakthrough. However, when it comes to non-fiction of dynamic subjects such as modern events, science, economics, computers, art, and sports, static print will inevitably be outdated on a regular basis. Within my own library system, parts of our print reference collection are being replaced by virtual reference library. The contemporary nature of subscription services and reference materials on a host of subjects (such as the ones I have named) make a virtual reference collection preferable to a print collection so as to reflect the most up to date information and make it universally available across all of our branches.

In terms of examining a fiction collection from a collection development point of view, the move by the prep school confuses me. Fiction literature, unlike its non-fiction counterpart, does not carry the burden of being dynamic and up to date. Why not keep print copies of the great classics, for they will always be the same? Keeping a print copy on hand couldn’t be that bad, could it? But I think the issue is beyond a collection one; this passage from the article was very telling to me:

School officials said when they checked library records one day last spring only 48 books had been checked out, and 30 of those were children’s books.

In my mind, it turns the issue into a circulation one. As I work on weeding our non-fiction collection at my branch, I’m looking at numbers as a factor as to whether or not I remove a book from the collection. (Don’t worry, it’s not the only factor.) But within your own library, if you have a book that doesn’t circulate, isn’t that the first step towards weeding it from the collection? In this drastic case, all of the books got weeded as one for anemic circulation numbers.

(Aside: In talking about this with The Unquiet Librarian, we are both left with the question: Where is the school librarian in all of this? I would presume under a gag order from the school, but there is no mention of a library staff member from the headmaster or the article. I would be curious what part this person has in the conversion process, if any.)

I think this type of move by a school is intriguing enough to see how it goes; an experiment, if you will. But I think the real question that librarians and library professionals should be asking themselves is this: are we married to a medium or a message? If we fight to preserve books for the sake of books, are we adding argument to our own irrelevancy? Nowhere in the article is it stated that reading is being discouraged; in fact, there is a distinct impression by one of the commenters that using online or e-readers is a second class citizen of reading. (William Powell: ““There are modes of learning and thinking that at the moment are only available from actual books,’’ he said. “There is a kind of deep-dive, meditative reading that’s almost impossible to do on a screen. Without books, students are more likely to do the grazing or quick reading that screens enable, rather than be by themselves with the author’s ideas.’’) To this point, I cannot agree. It is the words that matter, not the medium on which they are found. An idea does not morph or mutate when it moves from print to screen; only the form of the messenger that relays them.

It is my belief that one of my purposes as a librarian is connect a patron to the literature or information of what they desire regardless of the medium. If a patron wants something in a non-print format (audio, e-book, or video), then I should do my best to get it to them in their preferred format. To outright defend the removal of the print medium regardless of the underlying facts and circumstances is a rehearsal of one’s own prejudices against words found in forms other than print. Librarians are for intellectual freedom with no stipulation as to how the mental investigative process runs; in that capacity, we should look to champion such an ideal in all possible mediums, regardless of our personal preferences.

The strength of the future library collection is not in the total numbers of titles owned, but the number of different formats materials in the collection come in. The book will never die, but the printed page that it is most commonly found in may fade into the background as the paperless book revolution marches forward. This is an exciting time as the barriers to information access crumble away with each technological innovation cycle. This is a time to innovate our services and materials to match this future need.

Photo by antonio.tombolini/Flickr

Blogathon on behalf of the Louisville Public Library

A week or so ago, I was sent a link to Steve Lawson’s blog post about the flood in the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library in Louisville, Kentucky. They had four to six feet of water in their basement, destroying and damaging an estimated five million dollars worth of materials and equipment. Steve has been collecting money on behalf of the Library Society of the World and plans on writing them one big check of the collected funds on September 1st. Steve’s noble gesture got me to thinking of a way to increase visibility of this fundraising effort. Thus, the idea of a blogathon on behalf of the Louisville FPL was born.

I have set up a wiki for this undertaking. Those who are interested can get the full details at the wiki, but here’s the short short version: make a donation to the Louisville Free Public Library Foundation, register at the wiki, advertise the blogathon with your social media and real life peers, write a post based on the selected common theme, and place that post on your blog on Monday August 31st.

Pretty easy!

Sign up at the wiki and start spreading the word! Let’s give the Louisville staff something to cheer about in September! It’s the best kind of karma: good karma!

Donate today!

I can’t wait to read the entries on the 31st!

Right Here, Right Now

This little gem of a YouTube clip came across my Google Reader as a gift from a fellow librarian blog, The MLX Experience. A video on social media set to a Fatboy Slim song? Yes please!

I wouldn’t say that the content surprised me but it did affirm some of my personal hunches. (I would be interested to know where some of the statistics cited originated.) I was surprised that it was a teaser for a book; a four minute ad entertained me when most thirty second ads bore me. Perhaps it because I am the target audience for the ad, but that is is a whole different issue.

The big takeaway for myself from this video is the word “mobile”. Not simply that libraries need to be on cell phones, but that we should be converting our content delivery to be completely mobile. We can create a deeper partnership with the USPS to expand delivery of books, music, and movies to their homes. We can create social network presences to field reference questions on the web and text. We should utilize all of the communication, all of the delivery methods, and all of the social networks to makes library content as widely available as possible.

This is not a call for the physical dismantling of the library, but a revision of how we do business. The flip side of this equation is making the library a true destination, a place where patrons are rewarded with events, classes, and those things that do not translate through the mail or the web. And it has to be personal, from how they are treated to the sitting areas to the computer lounges. While this last part might be a sacrifice to utility, there must be emphasis on the patron experience. This new world of social connection demands it, for to ignore the potential reputation damage would be folly.

Like this website, like the program I used to compose this post, like the computer I am using to write these words, all of the tools are available to make this happen. We just need to put it together.

If Libraries Operated like Health Insurance…

As the title of the post implies, I got to thinking the other night about that. With all the talk about health insurance reform, I think libraries are poised to consider long term changes to how we approach the patron interaction. Some of these are silly, some are relevant, others are perhaps thoughtful, but I think one or two are real questions for libraries looking ahead. (I’ll let you guess which ones I think are the real deal.)

Would people have to pick borrowing plans? Would these borrowing plans be based on tax/levy contribution? Or the ability of neighbors to band together and negotiate services? Would libraries provide service to only those who pay taxes?

Would dyslexics be denied a library card because they had a pre-existing condition? Or people who are illiterate? Or any learning disability? Or people who don’t know how to use the computer?

Would patrons need a referral to read different types of non-fiction? Or would a patron have to choose from a pre-approved list of subjects based on their library plan? Or would we refer them to a subject specialist?

Would there be a limit on the number of items a patron could take out over a year? Would they have to pay for the ability to borrow beyond their limit?

Image by a.diran/FlickrWould use of a computer be restricted by the library to a certain number of times per week/month? Would databases be restricted in the same way?

If a patron wanted to read a banned/challenged book, would they need to get a second opinion of another librarian? Would they need to sign a “informed consent” waiver before we let them take the book?

Would librarians need to get malpractice insurance in case a reading recommendation ends up offending the patron? Would there be a cap on the amount of awards for people who suffered emotional distress, eye strain, or the dreaded “reader’s thumb”?

Would patrons be restricted to only the materials that are deemed ‘necessary’ by the library?

Perhaps this is more waxing philosophic than hard questions about current practices, but I cannot help but think that some of these types of questions start us down the path to more meaningful policy changes.