For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
June 27, 2001 - Lessons Learned from Minneapolis Public
Several people have sent me information about a recent court case: some librarians at Minneapolis Public sued the library for sexual harassment. The reason: widespread patron viewing of pornography on Internet terminals.
Some of the folks who sent me this were gleeful: liberals want unfiltered terminals, but think when other people look at a picture that might offend a feminist, it's sexual harassment. Pick one!
Others were more libertarian: these librarians are arguing FOR censorship. Isn't that a betrayal of all they stand for?
It happens that I have a good friend who works at Minneapolis Public, so I've been tracking this for some time. And I disagree with both parties.
The issue isn't about sexual harassment, and it isn't about free speech. It's about civil behavior in public places, and it's also, to be blunt, about bad library management.
Here's what I mean. Like most libraries, Minneapolis Public did some staff training before they put out their Internet terminals for the public. They brought in one of the big guns of the American Library Association to lecture about Intellectual Freedom, and the ostensible right of patrons to view anything they please on the Internet.
When the terminals hit the floor, Minneapolis Public experienced what every other library has experienced: some library patrons tested the limits of acceptable behavior.
That's not new, by the way. When I was a kid, I thought it was the height of sophisticated humor to practice can can dances in the library stairwell. So did four of my 7th grade friends. Library staff disagreed.
We got kicked out.
These days, some people walk into the library with boom boxes blaring. Library staff ask these patrons to turn them off. Sometimes the patrons refuse. Then they get kicked out, too.
Some people pull up the raciest imaginable materials the Internet can offer. Do they get kicked out?
Well, it depends. In most libraries across the country, staff is bound to notice eventually. Then they intervene. Sometimes they discover that the "racy" material isn't racy at all. It's legitimate research: artwork, mainstream advertising, or health-related. In that case, library staff back off. As they should.
Sometimes, they discover that the material is grossly pornographic. And in such cases, most library staff ask the patrons to stop, or to move along.
At Minneapolis Public, staff were instructed that any incidents of the latter case (patrons viewing sexually explicit content) were to be studiously ignored. When other library patrons complained (and they did), staff were basically discouraged from saying anything except, "We can't do anything about it."
And after several months, this de facto policy resulted in three things:
1. the virtual abandonment of the library by regular patrons,
2. the increased incidence of ever more extreme patron behaviors, and
3. the perfectly understandable discomfort of library staff.
Finally, after repeatedly refusing to deal with this issue, library administrators learned that the local TV station had waltzed in, and captured for video to be aired that night, the pathetic truth that fully 50% of library Internet workstations were being used for the viewing of what was, arguably, obscene material.
The very next day, library administrators authorized security guards to directly confront and escort the miscreants away. The strategy -- 180 degrees from the previous policy -- did solve the problem. The grosser misbehavior stopped. Slowly, the general public started returning.
The library had found a new principle. Patrons have an absolute right to view what they please. Unless it's bad PR.
I humbly submit that that's the wrong lesson.
So let's tackle some tough questions. Is it illegal to view sexy pictures on the Internet? Nope.
Do you have the right to do anything you want at the public library? I say again, nope. You have a right to free expression, but that right is constrained by place. I can expect to sing in the shower, as loud as I want (assuming a decent distance from my neighbors), pretty much without interference. But I can't expect that same freedom every place else. I probably can't prance around naked everywhere, either. Not even in the library.
Is it always perfectly clear what is appropriate and what isn't? Nope again. But the judgment of library staff is pretty darn good. And unless you're doing something out and out threatening or illegal, we're not calling in the cops; we're just reminding you to be polite when you're out in public.
Did any of this nonsense have to happen at Minneapolis? For the last time, nope. Here's one of the grimmer rules of administration: you get what you permit.
Libraries are not now, nor have they ever been, places where "anything goes." They have a purpose that most people, almost all of the time, understand and respect. On occasion, some people forget that, and have to be reminded. Sadly, that includes library administrators.