Tuesday, May 11, 2010

internet filtering: what the Washington decision means to me.

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled this (last week, but I started writing this on the day of the decision.. one good thing about Twitter is that you can find out about stuff really fast) week that it's okay for libraries to filter the internet. And they ruled that libraries are not required to lift the filter when asked.

"A public library has traditionally and historically enjoyed broad discretion to select materials to add to its collection of printed materials for its patrons' use. We conclude that the same discretion must be afforded a public library to choose what materials from millions of Internet sites it will add to its collection and make available to its patrons."
There are many who insist that the internet is an all or nothing proposition. That once you open the door to internet access, you must accept everything comes with it. You can't filter out any part of it.

But librarians have the right to regulate behavior within the library walls, what about the internet changes that?

If you check Worldcat and no library owns the book, or if you submit the ILL and no library chooses to loan the book, is the requesting library obligated to purchase it if it can be found for sale? No. Try to get that single handwritten copy of cemetery names from 1819 that your patron wants. The patron is going to have to contact the library to get a copy made or travel to Virginia to see it.

Or try to get a copy of Margin of Safety which currently sells for almost $2,000 on Amazon. Yes, you can probably find an online copy, but are you going to provide materials to your patrons that you know violate copyright? Or will you pretend that you don't know?

Librarians are clear on which are "good" internet sites and which are bad. We link to the good ones from our library web sites and we teach internet classes to the public on how to recognize them from long lists of internet links.

But yet, we stop there. What good is our expertise on finding good sites on the internet if we don't use our magical librarian skills to keep the bad ones from our patrons? We select the best books and keep out the crap (barely). Or at least, we know we should.

But turn on the internet and everything goes out the window. It's like we're afraid to say No. I guess because it's all free? You turn it on and everything comes out? But the same can be said for printed matter. I could fill our entire library with free books. With no exaggeration, I can get 1,000,000 free books to fill my library: they would come from various religious and political groups and crackpots and struggling authors and hate groups. A third of the material would come from L. Ron Hubbard.

But yet we say No. Because we have a selection policy that we all went to library school to learn about. We represent our community and so we have a policy derived from our mission to educate and support the cultural needs of our local residents and taxpayers.

But the internet seems to bypass all that, how? Providing internet access is the only situation where libraries have no say as to what material is collected, displayed, or circulated. Are we afraid of the internet? Did it threaten us with a Sears List of Subject (Horse) Headings in our bed?

What good is a library without a collection policy? The Washington decision recognizes its importance to the existence of the library. Filtering the internet was never a freedom of speech issues; it's always been a collection policy issue.

You can say the internet isn't part of the collection, but what happens when the police come to the library to investigate a crime? Do they take the computers? Because there might be data on the hard drive? Computers collect data. And since we don't live in a police state, libraries use software to delete that data between users. Or is your position that the internet is just a window into the virtual world and not part of the collection?

If libraries can't (or won't) enforce a collection policy regarding online behavior, what's going to happen in 5 years when everyone has a wireless-enabled device? If it's limited to a wireless-enable contact lens that fits over the eye, I won't care. But the popularity of the iPad means that devices could be getting bigger, not smaller. And I don't doubt a day when some asshole unrolls an 8' sheet on a library table to watch an internet gang bang.

Whether Washington has any affect on other states could be years away, so who knows whether any of this matters. I just know it sounds good to me.

This topic was also discussed way back when, here: Does Porn = Freedom or does Freedom = Porn?