Internet Filtering in Libraries

25 Jun

In my most recent issues of both Library Journal (June 1st 2010) and School Library Journal (June 2010), there is discussion of the recent decision of the state of Washington’s Supreme Court to allow libraries “to filter the Internet without being required to disable the filter when an adult requests access to websites with constitutionally protected materials”.  I especially appreciated Brian Kenney’s editorial on this matter in School Library Journal when he compares Internet filtering to outdated collection development policies where librarians select only the “best material” for their users.

My opinion on filtering has changed quite drastically since I began library school two years ago. In fact, I remember being surprised during a library school trip in the first year of my MLIS to the new Greenboro branch of the Ottawa Public Library. The librarian conducting our guided visit proudly talked about their no-filtering policy and their computer privacy screens. At the time, I thought “What, they don’t filter and they use privacy screens? Are they asking for trouble?” I have since developed the opinion that access to information entails access to all information without discrimination. It is ironic then that I have experienced filtering at my new library since arriving only a few weeks ago. I’m proud to say that our public access computers have no filtering; however, there are sites that I, as library director, am not authorized to access on my staff work computer since it technically belongs to the provincial government. Now we enter into a weird grey area because I do completely understand and respect the difficulties of managing the technical support for an entire network of provincial computers. From what I’ve been told viruses and bandwidth problems for such a large network cause major headaches for everyone involved especially the tech support team.  The public access computers are set up to be wiped every time someone logs out. This eliminates whatever software/viruses might have found their way onto the computer when it was being used. However, the settings for the staff computers are different. I smile weakly at the irony of the public having better internet access than the library personnel.

I am fairly certain that I will be so insanely busy in my new director position at the library that I won’t be tempted to browse the internet for fun while at my job. However, yesterday I was on our Intranet looking for sites with free clip art/images for a poster when I discovered that a link to Flickr was blocked.  It seemed like false advertising to post a link on the Intranet only to block its access. I have discussed the issue with our regional tech guy and he completely agrees with me that there should not be blocked links on the Intranet and he is working to fix that problem. He has informed the “powers that be” at the provincial level and either the site will be unblocked or the link will be removed. Flickr is a site on which you could possibly find questionable photos but there are also a lot of great images with creative commons licences that could be useful for all sorts of library use. It’s like the Internet; you have to take the chance of there being some bad in order to access all the great stuff that is available.

Instead of adding filters, I think libraries and government bodies should be more focused on educating users about internet security. Teaching users how to identify and avoid the dangers of the internet from viruses to internet fraud to damaged reputations (posting indecent photos) is a valuable investment of an organization’s resources. If organizations like libraries were to provide training sessions on these issues then they might save a lot of the time they currently spend on surveying and modifying their filters. Not to mention, they would be empowering people by providing them with more knowledge instead of disabling them by censoring their access to information.  What do you think? What do you do in your library?

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2 Responses to “Internet Filtering in Libraries”

  1. Jennifer Stirling June 25, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    Just wanted to clarify Ottawa Public Library’s policy on filtering. Privacy screens are mandatory on all PCs and filtering is controlled by use of patron borrower type. All children are filtered through a proxy filtering system unless otherwise approved by their parents and adults are provided a choice between filtered and non filtered access. It is certainly a difficult issue, but this is how we have handled it. Best of luck in your new position!

    • Amanda Halfpenny June 25, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

      Thanks for the clarification! McGill’s MLIS students had a whirlwind tour of the Greenboro branch in January 2009; it’s possible that I didn’t catch all the exact policies that were explained to us or that they’ve faded with my memory. I’m glad your watching the web for info on your library!

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