Wicca, censorship, and the library

[So, one of my goals this year is to update this blog weekly on average. I did not quite expect to start with this topic, though.]

I’ve just seen a number of news stories come across my professional blog RSS feed about the case of a resident of Salem, Missouri (Anaka Hunter) who (supported by the ACLU) has sued both the library and various other named parties (including the library director) for blocking reasonable access to material – namely information about Wicca and Native American religious practices, among other topics.

 Ars Technica has an excellent overview, and links to the PDF of the complaint.

Reading the stories I’ve seen so far, I have both a few questions – and the thought that a lot of people don’t know how libraries are supposed to handle this sort of thing, or what the common considerations around filtering/etc. are in public libraries and schools.

 Some context for the Salem, Missouri library:

(Given what I can tell via the web… If you, dear reader, happen to have more specific data, I’d love to include it.)

It’s a small-town library: about 5,000 people live in Salem, though it is the county seat. Only one person is listed as a contact person for the library (and the ‘email the library’ address is clearly a personal one, not an institutional one.) The library is only open 40 hours a week.

Here’s where I pause for something complicated in the profession: the idea of ‘professional’ librarians, which is the most commonly used term for people who hold a Master’s in Library Science or Library and Information Science degree. (I hold a MLIS, for the curious.)

The degree is designed to focus not on the day to day running of a library as much as the larger issues and considerations of providing appropriate service to all users of a library (not just ones whose tastes/interests/politics/religion/etc. you share) and there is a shared general agreement about the Library Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights. (Now, librarians reasonably disagree with specific parts of this, but the emphasis on intellectual freedom and access to information is not there by accident.)

And just to be really clear, this library’s actions are not seen positively by other librarians. (The LSW or Library Society of the World is an ad hoc group of librarians who hang out, support one another, and make commentary. It’s awesome. I hang out there under my professional username.)

Back to Salem.

According to survey data from the State Library of Missouri, there were 2.86 staff in 2010 (but it’s not clear whether that’s people with the MLIS/etc. degree, pages, or what.) Since no other staff are listed on the website, I am guessing this might be the director, a children’s librarian or library assistant, plus some part time help (pages, programming/outreach assistance, etc.)

It’s quite common for libraries in a small town to have no one on the library staff who holds an MLIS. At my current job, one of the other library staff was director of a small town library in a town of about the same size, without the Master’s degree, and that’s quite common in other parts of rural and small-town America.

Even if the director has the degree, generally no one else in the library will. This is realistic, given the size, but it means that there’s no one else to discuss policy with (besides the library board, who may or may not be well versed in all areas of library concern.) and it means that whatever the librarian’s biases are (and we all have them; librarians are still human) can be magnified substantially if the director and board are not careful.

Ok. So what actually happened here? Below, I talk about filtering, filtering software, library policies, and the question of freedom of access.

More about filtering and filtering software:

Why do libraries filter? Some of it is financial: there are laws tying funding for internet connections for public libraries and schools to filtering (e-rate). But also, there are some legitimate things you probably don’t want showing up on public computers, like porn in your children’s section computers.

What’s required? Generally, when filtering is required, it is to prevent minors from accessing obscene or pornographic material (either deliberately or accidentally). However, the laws in question do not require filtering of religious content, and generally people can both choose their filtering software and make specific choices about what is filtered beyond the legal mandate.

That said, many – most, I hope – librarians and libraries recognise that the filtering tools are deeply flawed (the classic example is sites about breast cancer or cooking chicken being blocked) and that there are times when even those limits might reasonably be removed. I’ve been aware of this issue since, oh, about 1996 and the foundation of Peacefire, one of the first orgs to seriously take on the issue of filtering on the ‘Net and free speech. (Filters have gotten better since then, but many of them are still as imperfect as they were.)

So how does this work elsewhere? Since the issue is access by minors, many libraries thus have a fairly simple policy: if an adult requests the filtering be turned off, they have a method of turning off the filtering for that session. (Sometimes this ability is limited to adult-area computers, rather than, say, computers that face the children’s section of the library, though.)

Many libraries also have a better way of dealing with concerns about it – but I’ll get to that in a minute. (The Saint Paul Public library has a particularly nice clear policy, with methods for requesting filtering be removed that do not require the library user to justify their request or for asking larger questions about categories of content.)

This software: The software chosen in this case (Netsweeper) is not one I’m familiar with but it explicitly says that you can have granular control over what’s blocked, which categories are filtered, etc. This information is restated (and expanded) in the legal filing. It also states that removing filtering for a single computer session is possible and reasonably efficient.

In other words, if the librarian doesn’t think it’s customisable (as stated in the legal brief), that’s wrong. (Missouri has been using this software since 2009, per a press release from Netsweeper. And MORENet, the relevant Missouri group handling the software on a state level says clearly that it’s the member library’s responsibility to define what’s filtered.)

One final note about filtering here: while the NetSweeper software filters a wide range of esoteric-related sites (including Witchvox, Wikipedia’s entry on Wicca, and a variety of others – there’s a list in the filing), it does not filter Christian-related sites that can provide misleading or heavily biased views of the topic.

(One of the permitted sites, for example, is the Catholic Encyclopedia, which comes from a 1911 edition, and thus ignores pretty much all of modern Pagan thought and practice, even before you get to any question of viewpoint or potential bias.)

Finally, a word from the Salem, Missouri Public Library’s mission statement:

“The Salem Public Library will be a reliable resource center and an advocate of intellectual freedom for the community by providing free and equal access to information, materials, services, and programs. It will acquire, organize, and circulate books, non-print materials and services that help educate, enrich, entertain, and inform individuals of all ages. It will promote and encourage the maximum use of its services and materials by the greatest number of people in its service area.” (as found at the library website.)

Which, yeah. They failed.

How are they doing on other issues? Or with print? Writing all of this got me wondering about what their print collection looked like, and how they did with other titles that are commonly challenged (sexuality, GLBTQ issues, etc.) I have not had time for an exhaustive search, but titles do appear light for a collection that size (the high school library I used to work in, approximately half that size, had 5 to 10 times more titles on all three subjects than I’m seeing there.)

However, the print collection does include  Starhawk’s Spiral Dance and Grimassi’s Wiccan Mysteries. Along with various fiction titles – mostly Cate Tiernan.

Larger freedom of access issues:

All right. Having covered the problems of filtering, I want to turn to some larger issues of access, freedom of access, and so on.

The question of what you filter: First, the obvious problem of filter categories and limitations not required by law, which I’ve already largely covered (though in what universe are sites about religion, astrology, or related topics “criminal skills”. Though, technically, divination is illegal in more places than you’d think.)

There’s also the problem of allowing someone else to decide your filtering for you. There is a history of filtering companies being far more on the socially-conservative side than not, and that having implications for what content they decide is appropriate or not appropriate – even for communities where meeting the demonstrated or likely needs of the community would suggest other solutions.

But there’s some more chilling stuff out there:

“I would have to notify authorities of attempts to avoid the filters”

This is an absolutely chilling statement from anyone in a position to control access to information. There are certainly times when librarians need to make use of or cooperate with law enforcement. But at the same time, this is both a “Huh, who would you tell?” (Trying to evade a filter – if you’re an adult – is not generally a crime, though it might be a violation of library behaviour policies)

But it’s also a “I’m going to say stuff to make you go away”. Which is not how one should handle these kinds of issues at all.

(Compare, on the other hand, the signs common in many library offices – including at my current place of work – since the passing of the Patriot Act, which say in large print “The FBI has not requested any records from this library” (and in smaller print “Watch for removal of this sign”) as quiet note about that law’s gag order on libraries commenting on request of information.)

Demands for detailed information to remove a restriction:

One of the first things I learned about libraries – long, long before I ever really thought about working in one myself – was that people come to them for information they’re not sure they can ask about. That has only become more and more obvious as I’ve gotten older.

(I used to smile whenever I found Our Bodies, Ourselves taken from the shelf in the previous job, and tucked in some back corner of the library – it meant people were finding information they didn’t want to ask about and maybe really needed, from a widely recommended and reliable source.)

Anyway: any requirement that makes people talk to a figure in authority (which includes librarians) and explain why they want certain information will tend to discourage them from seeking that information. Which is not what most people in the library profession are there for. One of the real dangers of librarianship, in terms of mental approach, is thinking that you know better than the people you’re serving about what they want. The best librarians are those who can set aside their own biases, at least for the space of a reference conversation, and look at what really serves the person they’re helping.

Yes, it’s hard – just like it’s hard for doctors and nurses, and therapists, and clergy, and lawyers and all sorts of other professions. But that’s why we study how to do it better, and have professional guidelines to remind us what’s most important, and – when we’ve got the time and space to think through it carefully – create policies and practices that support what we should do, not what we might find easiest.

Response to reasonable questions about policy, access, and changes to same.

The final issue I want to talk about here is the comments about the response to Ms. Hunter’s concerns about the filtering policy and decisions – which, if you haven’t read the brief, are basically that she was brushed off, and told that her concerns were not important or serious. Apparently, at no time was she offered a standard formal method of having the category reconsidered, and the library board also gave very short attention to her concerns.

When I was talking about this elsewhere online, someone asked about how library boards work. This is definitely one of those “it varies from library to library” things, but in general, in small town libraries, the library board is a collection of people who do care about the library – but who often don’t have a terribly strong background in all of the many and varied areas any public library (even very small ones) necessarily touches on.

Commonly, library boards are encouraged to focus on things they do know (helping with fundraising, capitol expense planning, marketing and publicity, supporting a diverse range of programs, making sure the library has resources to meet the needs of the community) rather than being involved in either day to day decisions, or with policies relating to freedom of access, etc.

That said, this is not the world everyone lives in. Some library boards do a great job – others can be prone to micromanagement, or to overruling the library director in cases where the director is, in fact, doing their best to make professionally appropriate and consistent decisions.

I can’t tell which it is in this case, mind you – there’s no minutes readily posted that would make that a bit easier to spot. But it’s worth keeping in mind.

What can you do?

1) Support the many librarians out there who are fiercely committed to freedom of access.

If you know one (or more) tell them you appreciate that. Be a listening ear when they have one of those days where that passion comes into conflict with someone who wants to limit access. Often, simply knowing that these things matter to other people makes it much easier to go on doing the necessary right thing.

Do what you can to support the awesome libraries you know about – support funding requests, consider running for the library board, volunteer, whatever else makes sense for you and that library. Funding can be particularly powerful: it’s much easier to have time and energy to reach out to underserved parts of the community, or deal with requests that may upset your library board when the library is not struggling with a painfully dismal budget.

2) Know your local library.

If necessary, ask questions.

  • Are policies about appropriate computer behavior, filtering, or other related topics posted somewhere anyone can access? Or do you have to ask them?
  • If they filter, are policies about how to request a change in filtering, or temporary removal of the filters readily available? If not, why not?
  • Is there a way to suggest purchase of an item? How often does that result in the item being purchased? (There’s no one ‘right’ answer here – it depends a lot on the library’s budget and number of actual requests they get. But good libraries will have some kind of idea how often they turn down requests, and why.)
  • How about donations? (How libraries handle donations can be complicated – lots of people like to donate stuff the library truly can’t use. But ask about donating titles or funds specifically to support a particular area or interest. It might cost less than you’d think, or could be a great project for a specific religious or interest group.)

3) Be aware of the issues.

Access to information is complicated – it’s not just about the obvious stuff, like filtering. It’s about larger questions of what titles a library buys, how welcoming they are to people who walk in, what the posters and signs and information implies about the people who use the library.

And it’s also about any number of things online: we live in a world where our search engines try to predict what we’re looking for for us (the ‘search bubble’), where people may make assumptions about what we want from not-so-relevant information, and where there’s a lot of information out there, much of it lacking or piecemeal.

Consider doing what you can to support conversations in your various communities about all of these issues, not just in schools, but in religious groups and volunteer organisations. Bring it up if you hear someone talking about only ever seeing the same kinds of comments or conversations. Do your best to read – at least sometimes – outside your preferred viewpoints or interests, as a way to broaden your mind.

All of this helps, eventually.

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