Libraries and filters: a quick guideline

A post on a local list about a library filter blocking the Covenant of the Goddess website got me making a lengthy post about the issues of freedom of information access, libraries, and filters: I thought I should duplicate my comments over here.

My background:

First, a quick note on my background. As I mention elsewhere, I’m a relatively recent Master’s in Library and Information Science graduate (I finished around this time last summer!) with a strong interest in online interaction, freedom of information access, and in particular, how libraries can better support minority communities (and in particular, minority religious communities) despite limited resources.

I don’t link my common usename (Jenett) online with legally identifying details, but if anyone’s actually in need of verifiable details for some reason, I’m glad to provide them privately. (‘some reason’ is basically anything beyond curiousity: if you’d like to re-use some of my comments here for a discussion elsewhere, for example. Or if someone reading this would like me to come talk to other librarians about this issue, or something like that.)

Among other things, my work in these areas has included

– Classes in Public Library History and Theory (with a particular focus on how the Library Bill of Rights affects information access issues) and on Information Policy (including how we design information policy to protect access to information and deal with censorship requests)

– Projects in grad school about providing library resources of interest to Pagans, and a project I’d like to get back to on how Pagans actually use library systems, and how libraries could do better with this. (I have a lot of theories to test, but am stuck at the ‘figuring out how to do data collection’ stage.)

– Presentations to three different classes at other schools (and two as part of school projects) about providing fair and equivalent information access to minority religious members, and how to find resources that represent the community, not from outside the community. In all three cases, I got a lot of “This is fascinating and important!” feedback – everyone in those discussions was very supportive of the need to provide service to everyone, not just majority religions. I love my profession, sometimes.

My current workplace (an independent non-religious school) has a firm policy about filtering: we don’t. Period. (We do log where both students and staff go on the web, but these logs are only checked if there’s an actual problem. Quite honestly, who has the time to read through every teenager’s Facebook and MySpace URL? Also, I think schools are a somewhat different issue than public libraries: we also occasionally use these logins to block access for students who abuse online access or use it for harassment/etc.)

What are filters, and why are they there?

Many public libraries and schools have filtering software installed on their systems. Why, since the American Library Association thinks they’re firmly against the Library Bill of Rights?

Simply, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This act was intended to give libraries and schools some financial help and relief in bringing technology (computers and internet access) into these spaces.

Nice idea, but one of the requirements of the related Children’s Internet Protection Act (passed in early 2000) was that all systems that took advantage of the Internet Access or Internal Connections e-rate funds (or some specific grant money) had to make use of filters.

Many libraries and schools have turned down these two areas of funding, in order to keep control over their own systems. Some places, though, are working on severely limited budgets, struggling to keep afloat, and simply can’t afford to turn down (fairly significant) funding options that will bring a lot of good to people.

12 years later, we are, however, still stuck with some issues. There’s currently a decent Wikipedia article on content-control software (their term of choice) that highlights some of the other issues and concerns and history. (As always with Wikipedia, apply grain of salt and keep reading beyond the site.)

What’s the problem with filters?

1) They don’t work.

Really. They don’t. Every filter out there misses some stuff it really should catch, and catches stuff that is totally legimate. There is no way to do this kind of filtering manually (especially now, with the number of blogs, free hosting sites, and other resources out there.) All of the filters use various methods – keyword matching, searches of text or images on the page, etc.

Plus – and this is the one I note at work when talking to parents – an intelligent teenager can find ways around at least 90% of the pure technology solutions. Sometimes that’s as simple as using the computer at a friend’s house.

When I was in college, a then-teenager named Bennett Hasleton started an organization called Peacefire specifically to focus on freedom of access issues for the Internet among teens. While I’m not sure how active the organization is currently, they did do a tremendous amount to get the basic issues recognised (including testifying as an expert in Congressional hearings), and their site highlights some of the basic issues with filters.

I particularly like this quote from the CIPA FAQ I already linked to: It is important to note that the law states that filters must protect against visual depictions outlawed by the legislation. The filter does not have to prevent access to all such depictions. (No filter is 100% effective in preventing all such access.) In developing the CIPA regulations, the FCC declined to further define the filter requirements or to adopt any type of definition or certification on how effective a filter must be, beyond the very general protect language of the law. Thus, there is no such thing as an FCC certified CIPA compliant filter.” (a little less than 2/3rds of the way down the page)

2) On many – probably most – filters, you don’t get to see the specific sites filtered.

In some cases, you can choose categories. Pagan sites, for example, often fall into either the Occult/Esoteric category, or sometimes into others. On these filters, a library or school could decide to enable the entire category.

But on some filters, there’s no category control, no individual administrator override, or a process that only removes specific challenged URLs from the filter. The problem with the last one, of course, is that it doesn’t do anything about similar sites blocked by the same filter.

3) Whose values are we talking about?

One other problem is that a number of the filtering companies – not all, but enough – come from specific backgrounds that often feel it’s appropriate to limit some kinds of information (which has included sites about non-Christian religions, sexual health material, political groups they don’t agree with, etc.)

These choices are not required by the clauses in CIPA (which is pretty much only concerned with minors seeing obscene content within some definitions) but if you don’t know what’s in the filter, how can you tell what’s getting blocked?

What to do?

1) Individual disabling:

In most cases – as is true for the particular library that got me talking about this – the library policy will mention that the filter can be disabled on request for any adult. (Sometimes computers in the children’s or teen’s area are filtered all the time.)

I’ve had this done in the past – LiveJournal caught the filter at the St. Paul public library a few years ago when I wanted to print some stored information off my journal there: I couldn’t log into the site until I got someone to disable the filter.

This works great for an immediate answer, though it doesn’t answer either the issues of ‘what about people who feel intimidated/don’t know they can ask’ and the issue of what happens to teens who are looking for legitimate info (teen-appropriate sexual health content, religious content, etc.) who don’t have the option to have it disabled.

2) Look at the library’s policies.

In this case (and again, not mentioning the library directly), they did in fact have a quite complete set of library policies linked from the library front page. Many parts of it would have been held up as excellent policy examples in many of my classes: it’s clearly that library staff have given a lot of thought to dealing with censorship concerns, and have put policies into place to minimise problems for their patrons.

But it was also clear from skimming it that it’s a library struggling with financial stresses, whose physical collection was less than they wanted it to be, and who were probably dealing with both cost-of-provision issues, and quite possibly staffing issues. (How can I tell? That’s a question for another post, if anyone’s interested.)

3) Talk to the library:

Why do your research first? Because if you come in saying “I really care about this access, and it’s clear from your policies that you take freedom of information issues seriously.” you’re going to have a much more pleasant conversation than if you start with “You’re censoring me!”

I’ve done my time answering really upset people about policy issues (mostly in a non-library setting: I was on the Abuse/Terms of Service team for LiveJournal for about 18 months). The people you’re talking to are human, with a bunch of stuff on their minds. As humans, they’ll do better if they don’t start on the defensive. And they’ll probably be willing to give you a lot more useful information that can help both you and them, if you’re pleasant to deal with (even if you end up disagreeing.)

(I could go into a long theory of how this also plays into the magical concept of ‘act as-if’, but due to length, am just going to handwave at it here. Will expand on request.)

Also, on a purely practical level, it is probably not the reference librarian who set the policy. It’s almost certainly not the circulation desk person. It may not even have been the library director (who may have been overruled by their board on some point, though at least they have more input.) Getting mad at people who can’t actually change something doesn’t usually help, on a purely practical level.

4) Be aware there may be invisible practical concerns:

  • As already mentioned, the filter chosen may not allow the library to turn off specific categories or unblock specific sites.
  • Many filters work on a yearly subscription model: the library may not have funds to change filtering services until the next budget cycle.
  • It may take a couple of days to get the right combination of people in the same place to talk about a longer-term fix for an issue, especially if the library has multiple branches. (Librarians also have vacations, sick days, and varying schedules to contend with.)

5) What’s your actual request?

Consider volunteering a little time to help: it’s obviously going to be a larger amount of a problem if a filter blocks a wide range of sites (a wide range of religions, not just Pagan ones, political candidate websites, health websites, etc.) than if the blocks are few and far between.

Your local library is probably understaffed. Consider seeing if you can volunteer to run some further tests for them on what’s blocked and what isn’t, or asking what else you might be able to do to help them make a better case for different options for their filters.

Part of this might also be asking what their policy is for book donations: libraries have different policies about this for a wide range of practical reasons, but one way to get more material from a wide range of viewpoints available is to donate it! Arranging a book donation drive of books on less common religions might be a great way to help out a lot of people in the community at once.

Some final notes:

I know there *are* religiously biased librarians out there – but honestly, I have yet to run into one. Everyone I’ve talked to about Pagan materials in libraries has been thoughtful, engaged, and interested in the practical issues, regardless of their own religious beliefs.

However, it is important to note something many people don’t realise. There’s a difference in the profession between those people who have a Master’s degree (generally considered the ‘entry level’ degree for professional jobs) and those who don’t. The two common degrees are a Master’s of Library Science or a Master’s of Library/Information Science.

The MLS/MLIS degree includes information on professional ethics, freedom of information issues, providing library service to diverse communities, and other topics related to privacy of information and freedom of access. People with the degree generally have responsibility for collection development (what items are included in the library), setting policy, and managing the collection and staff.

In a public library setting:

  • The library director probably has a Master’s.
  • Ideally, so do the reference staff – though due to budget issues, this is not true in all libraries.
  • Circulation staff, shelvers, and pagers may have extensive experience with the library, but they probably haven’t gotten the professional ethics training described above.

Small libraries (especially in very small communities) often hire a librarian who does not have a MLIS: this is largely a financial decision (though, honestly, it’s not like jobs with the MLIS necessarily pay all that much more.)

Especially in small isolated systems (not a branch of a larger system) it can happen that the library and librarian forgets about smaller parts of the community, or they get a lot of pressure to go along with the majority view on some issues. Unfortunate but true, but something I file in the “humans are humans” category: libraries are supposed to respond to their communities, and the line between appropriate response and going too far is sometimes a little hard to tell when you’re in the middle of it without direct professional support.

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