FTRW 2009 – Happy Freedom to Read Week (Feb 22-28)

Canada’s Freedom to Read Week begins today and continues until February 28.  As I did last year and the year before, I’m planning to do a week long series of posts on current happenings and issues around this topic.

I’m not sure if he planned it to coincide with FTRW or not but a colleague at RPL posted a query to the professional librarians on staff asking people’s thoughts about the viewing of porn at the library. 

He was especially interested in what this might mean in light of RPL’s new Service Plan of which two of the four core service responses will be “Visit a Comfortable Space: Physical and Virtual” and “Create Young Readers: Early Literacy”.

These are defined in the Service Plan respectively as: “Residents will have safe and welcoming physical spaces to meet and interact with others, or to sit quietly and read, and will have open and accessible virtual spaces that support networking.” and that “Children from birth to age five will have programs and services designed to ensure that they will enter school ready to read, write and listen.”

His e-mail seemed to indicate that he interpreted these service responses as meaning that the library wants to be more “family friendly” – although a search on each of those terms in our service plan reveals only one semi-relevant reference: “Children will have dedicated areas able to accommodate family activities, with age-appropriate design and furnishings.”

And I couldn’t find anything else in the new RPL Service Plan that would indicate to me that we are somehow moving towards the filtering or outright banning of pornography on our PAC’s or even that families would be a new focus (just that we are focusing on children’s literacy – which isn’t the same thing at all in my mind.)  

In fact, I think a pretty strong case could be made that the other two of the four main service responses: “Stimulate the Imagination: Reading, Viewing and Listening for Pleasure” and “Satisfy Curiosity: Lifelong Learning” could be equally used as a defense of those patrons who choose to view porn in the library. 

These two Service Responses are defined respectfully as: “Residents seeking materials to enhance their leisure time will find what they want when and where they want them, and will have the help they need to make choices from among the options” and “Patrons will have the resources they need to explore topics of personal interest and continue to learn throughout their lives.”

It’s been a good discussion which I would say sees the librarians who’ve responded so far split on the issue.  Tellingly, it appears that the ones who are most in favour of not allowing pornography in the library work at our Central branch in public service roles where they have a lot of direct interaction with patrons and deal with this issue firsthand on a regular basis. 

Not saying this is the reason for my colleagues leaning towards censoring/filtering necessarily.  But I also think there’s also an “ick” factor that always happens (as I try to point out in my response which I’ve reprinted below), where people in our society get all worked up about pornography and anything related to sex but don’t care if there’s a ten year old boy watching a YouTube video of some guy getting his leg blown off in Iraq or whatever. 

So what’s the solution?  Definitely not banning the viewing of pornography – that’s wrong on so many levels, I don’t even know where to start. Definitely not trying to get a policy to define what porn is so that staff can act – that’s impossible.  

One colleague mentioned that at a previous library she worked at, all screens were somehow embedded in the desks AND had privacy screens so it was literally impossible to see what the patron was viewing.  So then, the little old lady walking by (who’s probably going to look for a steamy Harlequin romance) 😉 is “protected” from seeing something she may find offensive, staff aren’t put into a (potentially dangerous and definitely inappropriate) position of trying to police morality and all is right with the world. (Where’s my Kumbaya smiley face???)

That’s a big part of it.  It’s also important that staff know when to step in and/or involve authorities.  If a patron moves from viewing porn to being a bit more “actively” involved in the viewing experience, that requires intervention.  If the material being viewed is obviously illegal, that requires intervention.  If the material being viewed contravenes library policy, that requires intervention.  (And in fact, RPL has a policy that was adapted for use in Southeast Regional Library as well
so I have seen first-hand how you can cite policy to deal with this type of viewing if it makes you or other patrons uncomfortable.)



Anyhow, I won’t post my colleague’s initial query (or any of the other responses) since I haven’t asked permission.  But here’s what I chimed in with:

It’s always a challenge to take a position defending pornography but let me try! <grin>

There are some pretty standard arguments why pornography should be viewable on public library computers…

1)      The biggest one (to my mind) is that, in keeping with the value of Freedom of Expression that is core to our profession, libraries don’t censor books, DVD’s or other materials based on their content.  Not censoring any of the material that patrons view on PAC’s can be seen as an extension of this value.  (To be fair, libraries do “censor” with our selection in some ways – have you ever heard of a public library that has a subscription to Playboy?  Me either.)

2)     Another major question around this issue is: who gets to decide what is appropriate and what isn’t?  Should we restrict all scenes of intercourse showing penetration?  All scenes of intercourse?  All nudity?  What about erotic photography that’s artistic in nature?  Clips from award-winning movies that have nudity?  And how do you write any policy that will be equally enforced by all staff?  (I’m reminded of the US Supreme Court Judge who said “I can’t define pornography but I know it when I see it.”) Ultimately, just as I may be offended by some of the violent or sexist or racist videos that I see patrons watching on YouTube, I understand that it’s their right to watch these videos (as long as they are not illegal.)

3)     How do you balance the right of the person watching the pornography with the right of the person who may be offended by it?  Although it’s not an exact parallel, my wife worked as a nurse on a unit in Calgary dealing with lots of young guys who had suffered serious spinal injuries and were left paralyzed.  They had a public access computer in their common area and many of the nurses were offended that these young guys were watching pornography.  But should the patients’ right to explore or deal with their sexuality in this manner be trumped by someone else’s right to not be exposed (no pun intended) to material that may bother them?   

At any rate, a timely topic with Freedom to Read Week (www.freedomtoread.ca) coming up in a couple weeks!  Thanks for raising it!

As you know, I don’t post a lot about what happens in my working life and this topic especially may seem like I’m airing something private.

But with the start of this year’s Freedom to Read Week, the timeliness of this discussion was too good to pass up.  The discussion so far has been very respectful – exactly what you would expect from a group of engaged, intelligent professional librarians.  And who knows – maybe some colleague will read this post and the discussion can continue here in a public forum in the spirit of openness and sharing that defines both libraries and Web 2.0?  Or some other readers may choose to chime in with their thoughts and experiences as well.

Finally, another reason I’m extended on my initial thoughts here instead of writing a second response to the librarians’ mailing list is that this sort of feels like debating “Is there a God?” or “Is abortion right?” – people feel very strongly about their position and it’s next to impossible to convince them otherwise.  So sometimes it’s better not to argue at all.  (Shea, reading this, rushes to take Jason’s temperature!)

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  1. From Head Tale - Some Random Thoughts on /gasp/ PORN! at @officialRPL #yqr on 18 Jun 2015 at 8:33 am

    […] librarian, this has proven true as I’ve seen it come up in libraries across Canada again and again and […]

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