Reaction Paper 1: Internet Filtering in Libraries

by Zach Tomaszewski

for LIS 670, Spring 2001, taught by donna Bair-Mundy

Libraries' primary focus is, and should be, providing access to information. In order to meet this goal, freedom of access for all users is a must. This focus can be seen in ALA's Library Bill of Rights in point V: "A person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views." Point II of ALA's Code of Ethics is also helpful here: "We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources" (emphasis added).

All too often, librarians are forced to deviate from solely providing information in order to adopt other roles, such as policeman, parent, social worker, day-care provider, etc. To some extent, these roles are played by any community-minded person. But when they are codified and actually required of librarians, they begin to conflict with users' freedom of access. For example, when libraries begin to comply with all requests from law enforcement, users' privacy is violated, which thereby impedes their unrestricted access.

Placing filters on the internet stations used by minors is the beginning of a slippery slope into other contradictory roles. Implementing filters admits that certain material can be restricted by a library and, more importantly, that this restriction does not need to apply to everyone equally. Filters set the precedence that a person's rights at the library do depend on age. If this is true, I think the library will begin to feel further pressure to restrict minors' access to other things, such as books deemed inappropriate by some parents in the community.

I would have it that libraries focus on providing information to all. What people do with library resources--whether breaking the law, affronting parents, or improving themselves--is their choice. Users are the ones that must be responsible; libraries cannot adopt a baby-sitting role.

Yet, all this said, if the legislature or community feel strongly enough that libraries will lose funding or be shut down if they do not implement filtering, it is probably in a library's interest to do so. Providing slightly restricted access is better than providing none at all. The most acceptable filtering plan I've heard proposed is one in which a parent requests that their child only be allowed access to filtered internet stations. If each station requires a library card, the child's card can be set to determine the allowed level of access. Indeed, not only children may select a filtered view of the net. Filters could be an added service, not a requirement. But I still believe that, unless a parent requests otherwise, a child should have unrestricted access.

Filters are imperfect, and I do not think enough protection or social welfare is gained by implementing them compared to the damage caused by compromising library ideals.