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.
July 9, 2003 - Internet filtering
People are still talking about just what the recent Supreme Court decision regarding Internet filtering really means. It seems to boil down to this: if public libraries accept federal "e-rate" reimbursements for Internet access, Congress has the right to require those libraries to use software "filters" on all Internet workstations.
The intent was to protect minors from pornography. However, the Supreme Court also said that those filters should be capable of being instantly disabled at the request of an adult. So far, there haven't been any other features required: number of sites blocked, how arrived at, frequency of updates, etc.
"E-rate" is a federal program funded by the Universal Service Fee we've all been paying on our phone bills for years. In essence, it provides a discount on various telecommunications costs for qualifying public entities.
Douglas County Libraries, it happens, does NOT apply for e-rate reimbursements for Internet access. Right now, it appears that the ruling does not apply to us. (We do request e-rate reimbursements for what the feds call "Plain Old Telephone Service," which is for us the much higher bill.)
For the past couple of years, we have had a software filter installed on all of the Internet terminals in the children's areas.
Couldn't we extend it to include all terminals in the adult areas as well? Yes, but there's no easy way for us to disable them on the spot -- it requires some technical fussing by network administrative staff. We didn't know, at the time we did our research into the options, that this particular feature might be required by the federal government. Nor, as noted above, do we know what new features may be required, which makes it difficult to shop for a replacement.
Like several other Supreme Court decisions this year, this one has precipitated a lot of posturing by the usual suspects, both liberal and conservative. I find those approaches tedious and divisive. Here's how one librarian sizes it up:
1. Libraries do have a basic job description. It is to gather, organize, and provide public access to what I call "the intellectual capital of our culture." That means books, magazines, movies, music, local organizations, databases, websites, and more.
2. Librarians, like everybody else, have to follow the law.
3. Librarians have no more desire than any other citizen or parent to push pornography at anybody, much less children. Public viewing of pornography may not be unconstitutional, but it is certainly lewd, crude, and rude.
4. Librarians have some real concerns about filters. We've tested a lot of them, and every filter we've looked at blocks access to a disturbing number of things that don't seem to have anything to do with pornography. Some of them block access to ANYTHING on the National Organization of Women's website. Some of them stop people from looking at the Focus on the Family website. It seems to many of us that these significant, often secret biases of commercial software directly contradict our basic job description.
5. According to various news reports it appears likely that the Colorado State Legislature, which provides no money to public libraries at all, will seek to mandate filters for all terminals in public libraries.
I admit that I'm troubled by what seems to me to be a trend. I just discovered that the Internet search engine Google routinely tracks and stores your searches. Under the Patriot Act, the federal government may, without your permission or knowledge, seize those profiles.
In that context, new limits on what people can search for or see at their public libraries is worth thinking about. Sometimes, as at the fourth of July, people get so caught up in the fireworks, they forget about the meaning of Independence.