Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Appendix 5
Summary Minutes: Library Administrators

September 18, 1997
9:00-10:30 A.M.

Tom Shanks (TS), to begin the meeting, asks the librarians to assume he knows nothing and explain why the issue of access on the internet in public libraries has recently become important.

It's an issue because the problem has never arisen before. The librarians have no control over what information is accessed, and that is very different from the thoughtful decision- making librarians have made in the past.

The other side of that is we have encountered attempts to censure information, probably throughout the history of libraries, because there are always different points of view.

I would say that with almost every new medium that is introduced into the library there comes questions with it. Those questions generally cover the appropriateness of the new material or new medium for the general public.

I think it also reflects some of the crisis that is going on in society and communities in general, where parents are looking for safe harbors, and, rightly or wrongly, libraries historically are considered safe harbors. Consequently there is a lot of dismay and lack of understanding concerning why libraries may no longer be as safe as they once were in this regard.

There are other issues as well. People tend to believe they can drop their kids at the library because someone is overseeing it and it is therefore a safe place, but that is not true anymore.

TS asks the discussion now to focus on the commonly held notion of a library as a safe harbor rather than as a marketplace for ideas. "Why is it that many people think of the library as a safe harbor?"

This popular idea is partly explained by the fact that, in libraries, you have people on the staff who care about children and work with kids, which is something you do not find in other places outside of school. As an organization it is organized, open to anybody in the community, there is a degree of decorum, it looks quiet, and there has been intellectual safety because anybody could come in with any point of view and be accepted.

People are also looking to the past and drawing, from their own experiences in the way the library used to be, generalizations about how things operate today.

The other reality is that, as a parent, I never look at the library as being any safer than other places because they are famous for being places where people expose themselves--libraries and hiking trails. We have not gone out into the world and said to parents to be sure they have informed their kids about flashers.

We also have not adequately informed parents of our open access policies. When I came to San Jose we had no statement anywhere that said, "your child can use any materials in this library."We did not tell the parents when they signed for registration cards for their children that along with the card came complete, unlimited access to the library's materials. We have recently changed that; now our brochure covers that information along with other tips for borrowers. When I tell people they are often kind of shocked.

Many people assume that the public library is an extension of the public education system, and they do not understand the different legal responsibilities involved with the public education system vs. the public library. The public education system has certain legal responsibilities that translate into legal restrictions on students while they are doing school work. The public library does not have the legal authority to do that. It is a total reversal of our roles.

Also, at school, in order for children to get Internet access or email accounts the parents must sign consent forms which describe restrictions, and many parents believe the same protection will automatically occur in the public library.

A deeper more underlying reason in some ways is our society is ambivalent about free speech. Pornography is an issue here. What people consider to be pornography varies a lot, at least in my conversations with people. Many people feel children should not see a naked body. People also have a hard time determining what a child is, but there is a legal definition of a child. According to a poll I saw, the college-educated portion of the population is where the majority of the people in this country believe in free speech. People generally are happy to defend their own free speech and express concern about things said by strangers with whom they disagree. The idea is, "I want free speech my way because I know what is right."We should think about the clash of values. People say we have to protect children and guarantee free speech, and in terms of the way filters are currently applied you cannot have both. The freedoms we have are what protect the children. Without the freedoms, how protected are the children? There is a double issue that no one is speaking to, and it scares me sometimes.

TS--Is open access the equivalent of freedom of speech for the libraries?

Not for the libraries but for the people who use them.

One of the issues for me is, what are the implications of putting some kind of filtering system on the Internet for everything else that you have in the collection? Soon people will ask why we cannot put these books and magazines over here, and there should be some third party who goes through and says these are ok for this age and these others are ok for that age. So it has a lot of implications for any ability to provide access. We can say we have selected these under some kind of guidelines, but nevertheless there will always be things in the collection that are offensive to people.

I have also heard people argue that libraries do not have any control over what is in the Internet, yet we also do not have control over what a magazine puts into their publication either. Once we select the magazine we also select whatever they choose to put in it. There are a lot of thorny issues.

This is an issue that arises anytime we deal with a significantly differently way of delivering information.

I think we need to look at it in that context. This is a move from an artifactual method of delivering information to a virtual method of delivering information, and I think that is why some of the arguments are raging the way they are. The issue of where does it stop is the really important one, because we have gone now from artifactual to virtual and we will go from virtual to something else five years from now, we'll be gathered in this room again dealing with the same issues, so it is the overall decision making structure that we are talking about that you apply to whatever the delivery system is you are dealing with today.

TS--Haven't libraries always selected materials? Isn't open access, in a sense, a myth?

Absolutely not. We select materials to cover all sides of any issues.

With the Internet we are either getting the whole thing or we are being asked to restrict with tools that are totally ineffective. People are asking us to restrict pornography and access to hate crime information, yet we have those materials in print. We always have.

There is a real lack of understanding of what "selection"means. When we talk about "selection,"we do not talk about content. The public hears the word selection and assumes there is a moral selection taking place. Our staff certainly does not read everything that goes on the shelves.

There is a real arrogance that we would be taking on if we said we are not going to put this book in our collection unless we have read it and approved its morality.

I think our communities think of us as a conservative institution and they think of the people who work in the libraries as conservative individuals. I would say the profession in general has a liberal bias. I have seen my share of collections that reflect that liberal bias. The public perceives our collection as a conservatively selected collection of materials that adhere to a standard morality, but we actually aim to create a collection that broadly reflects the needs and ideas of the community.

TS--Is it true that the Internet allows material into the library that you would never select to put in the children's library?

We don't select what's there. People have to go seek what is on the Internet. All of the information available on the Internet is wonderful for us in our quest to provide the broadest range of information, knowledge, whatever. The Internet gives us a freedom we have never had; we have been selective in the past only because we have had a limited amount of money to spend. I imagine if we had all of the money in the world we would buy everything that is published. Now the Internet promises to allow that, so are we going to throw out a lot of good with some bad. We are not presenting pornography and hate crime information. People come in with questions that they are seeking to answer and the Internet is providing yet another means to do that.

TS--If you had infinite resources, would everything end up in the library?

Why not?

TS--Would there be any limits?

We would select within the law.

We will inter-library loan anything that we would have within our collections.

Our role is to organize searches and provide tools so people can find what they want.

People want to make their own decisions.

We need to move from a gate-keeping to a facilitating role on information and teaching information literacy to our users so that they will successfully use the resources without us.

Most of us do select on the Internet as well. Most of us offer pointers to sights that we consider especially useful, but only to give the users shortcuts to commonly sought information.

TS--How about the children's room?

The children's room is a myth. The children can leave the room.

TS--If I am eight and alone in the library, can I go anywhere I want?

The favorite library story is of the young child who has chosen a book on sex and has snuck to the back of the children's room where he reads it in hiding--that's the reality. People don't realize what the cut off is for the children's room, which, in a lot of ways, is middle school. It's no longer cool to be in the children's room when you are in middle school.

TS--You wouldn't put Playboy in the children's room, so what is the difference between having a Playboy in the children's room and having an unfiltered Internet.

But we might have Playboy in the library, and the children can go to it.

TS--If a child did come up to you and ask for a Playboy, would you give it to him.


In my library our city council decided and we implemented a guideline that says that children between the ages of eight and twelve need permission to use the Internet. Children under twelve also need permission to get a library card, and that was the basis for making that decision. That is a pretty narrow group that is being protected if you want to call it that. Those parents who have signed up to allow their children use the Internet do not necessarily monitor their use. We hoped we would encourage parents to sit down with their kids and talk about what their expectations were in terms of their use of the Internet. Here they could discuss their family values, but I think in most cases they do not do that.

TS--For a child to get a library card, does the child need permission from a parent?

It varies by jurisdiction.

The reason we do it is because the parents are responsible for materials, and without the parent's signature we cannot collect money on materials that are not returned.

Anyone can walk into a library and use anything without a card. There is no relation between having a card and accessing information in the library.

TS--Do any of the other libraries have age restrictions limiting the use of the Internet?

Other libraries in this country.

TS--Why do you think some libraries have allowed filtering software?

There are several reasons. In some cases librarians have been directed by politicians to do so. In houston I know of a library that decided if it did not implement the filtering software they would be forced to, and they wanted to control how it was done. Some other people have done it out of fear. In other cases I have no idea why some libraries have done it, because no one asked them to. Normally the case is the library is directed to do so or they fear being forced to do it in a less palatable way.

There is a relationship that goes back beyond that does talk about the type of community in general in which that library exists. This takes us back to the political ethic of libraries. Here we are with some very strong feelings of freedom of access and First Amendment issues, and there may be cases in which the political tenor of the jurisdiction within which the library operates is not there. We get caught in that.

TS--So the libraries have to somehow reflect the political situation that they are in.

That is the crux of the problem.

TS--So legally a library could allow filtering software?

We are not lawyers and it has not been tested. It seems the law would not allow filtering software. Do you filter some and allow choice?

That is the real open question. We have a responsibility to say we have loaded X filter on here, this is the point of view of the filter, and this is how much information we have about the filter.

TS--So if you have filters on some of the computers, will you not have filters on all of the computers? So, for instance, filters may be placed on the children's computers, but the children will not be forced to use those computers.

It depends on the policy. (Tape flips here)

It worries me when I see our profession being really strident. I think we lose our constituency when we do that, and we are risking losing a major constituency on this one. How we communicate with our communities and how we respect their opinion developing process is going to be absolutely critical for us.

One thing that key is that we all really care about kids. When people get upset about this issue we are cast as the villain, and we probably care about their kids more than many other people in society. So this is why it is important for us to want to have a dialogue, be aware of and responsive to what people in our community think, want and expect. We do not want only to be responsive to one group, and that is where the challenge comes in.

Parents come to us from a fear and strong emotional point, sometimes with no specific problem, making the resulting conversations very difficult to resolve. The Internet is ubiquitous; we have to communicate with our children about what it represents and means. If they want to get up to no good on the Internet, they have a lot of places to go for access. I have to educate my child about my expectations on how they are going to behave with this tool. Its overwhelming when the parents say they cannot handle the obligation and expect others to do it for them.

The thing I find very interesting about this is there is a demand for a public institution to take the responsibility to make a choice for a child, and that is exactly opposite from where much of the political spectrum is going in this country, which is moving government out of making decisions for the individuals. There are public institutions that are moving into that void of taking responsibility particularly for children--certainly our public education system is doing it. Our city, parks and recreation departments are taking on parental responsibilities. We are saying as a lone public institution that we will not.

TS--Wouldn't every rational person say that all children should be protected from pornography?

Yes. Pornography and violence.

As a parent there are many things from which I want to protect my child, and I see it as my job to protect him.

You cannot protect the kid from everything, so you have to give him skills to make good decisions. You must educate the children.

It is difficult enough for my husband and I to decide what our children should be allowed to do; I do not need a third party in there interpreting this.

You have to go back to definitions. What do you mean by pornography? We cannot fall into black and white ways of asking the question.

TS--I think most people in this country would agree it is important to protect children from pornography.

You have to ask why wouldn't you want them to do it. It may be that you want them to do it only if you can have it filtered down through your family values. I don't think it is as simple as sin.

TS--Let's say that I personally would want to keep children away from pornography. But as a person who administers a library, how do you react?

Pornography is different to everyone. There is no practical way to do that without eliminating people's abilities to make choices for other materials as well.

Only the parents and the children should make the decision for where that line is crossed. The library cannot be deciding or interpreting that for a given family.

As facilitators we need to help people understand this whole concept, where we are coming from in that we believe it is their right to have the authority over their children to teach their values to their children. This is how we can be a partner with people who have different views from out own.

If parents cannot build a trust relationship with their children, they have the right to say they cannot use that situation unless accompanied by an adult. It's not realistic for the institution to artificially put in place a trust system.

TS--What would your advice be to resolve this situation in Santa Clara County?

I think the approach being taken is good because it's remaining open. This is an open issue. They should continue to listen and contrast the perception of what a library should do with what it can do. Filtering must be discussed so that the pros and cons are really known. Enough people need to be involved to avoid being swayed by one organized, very vocal group. Every side of this issue should be discussed.

Respect and educate.

I agree with the points made. Respect, dialogue and education. I don't think the policies should change. I think changing policies would open more questions than it would answer.

We are in a changing environment, and there may be some court cases that will come down the pipe that may influence the direction of however this is resolved.

I would also support the education. Use the allies that you have.

TS--If there was software that gave parents the power to determine the level of access allowed to their own children, would that be a solution that would be ok for the libraries?

And what about the rights of minors to the information?

If we use the cards, without their parents' permission the kids do not have rights to the information.

When we say we support the parents' right to control what information goes to the kids, we have to be sure we as a library do not have another responsibility.

I don't think parents have the right to control absolutely what information their kids can and cannot access. Are we going to get hundreds of thousands of parents to come in and monitor the children's progression as they age. It's one of those simple solutions to complex problems.

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