VPL Strikes Blow For Freedom of Expression!

Vancouver Public Library has recently made news in libraryland with a controversial revised Internet Access Policy that added a restriction specifically addressing patrons viewing “explicit sexual images”.

And I, for one, am glad to see that Vancouver Public Library has taken this important step!

For far too long, libraries have allowed patrons to view any and all material that meets their information-seeking needs and that has got to stop!

Of course the obvious place to start is with explicit sexual images and like the Justice of the US Supreme Court said in his famous ruling, I’m sure VPL staff also can’t actually define what “sexually explicit” is but they’ll all “know it when they see it” so they can enforce this new policy equitably and without any unnecessary embarrassment or awkwardness for anyone involved.

Why, just recently at RPL, one of our librarians got a complaint about someone viewing sexually explicit material.  Turns out a patron was looking at childbirthing videos!  If we’d been more like VPL, that horrendous offense could have been shut down immediately instead of allowing that filth to continue unabated.   Can you imagine if a child walked by and saw a naked woman delivering…a child!  Who will protect children from learning where children come from if not the library?  (Or, more accurately, who will protect the parents from having to have potentially awkward conversations with their children?)

Childbirth is only one of the many things that library patrons could find “sexually explicit” – what about someone looking at a photo of three nude models (two men, one woman) as was recently displayed in RPL’s Dunlop Art Gallery. Is that sexually explicit?   What about if that photo is in a book in the library?  What if the library has books with pictures of a naked man and woman kissing?   What about a photo in a book of two clothed men kissing?  A photo in a book of two naked men kissing?  What if these images weren’t from art galleries or books?  What if they were displayed on computer screens in the library?  Does that make a difference?

It is also fortunate that, in striking right at the source of all offense in the world with this new policy, VPL remains silent on the many other visuals that may give offence on their workstations so that the tender minds of the left coast are still able to view misogynistic rap videos, racist cartoons, pictures of Nazi concentration camps, real world combat videos with video game-like scenes of actual people dying, images of beheadings and, worst of all, patrons who watch that Trivago Guy commercial repeatedly on YouTube (true story!)

But I’m sure it’s a small slope (a very slippery one) until all possible nudity, violence, racism, sexism, misogyny, and anything else that could possibly be found offensive by one person over another is also properly restricted at VPL.

So join me in saying “Kudos to VPL” for striking a blow for freedom of expression.  Of course, the blow was aimed directly *at* Freedom of Expression but why quibble – there are videos of people having sex on the Internet!  And now that former bastion of free expression, the public library, is at the forefront of stopping that depravity.

Now where’d I put that </sarcasm> tag…

Okay, sarcastic response over I’ll add a couple other thoughts…

  • Hypocrisy alert.
  • RPL apparently wasn’t one of the dozen or so libraries across Canada whose Internet Policy was consulted by VPL (purposely?).  We have two guiding policies for the inevitable porn discussions that seem to come up like clockwork:
    -> Our “Safe Use & Conduct Bylaw” which guides all patron behaviour and does expressly prohibit “sexual misconduct or harassment” (which I’d be hard pressed to extend to a complaint about someone looking at porn) but also prohibits “[any activity that] otherwise interfere[s] with another’s use and enjoyment of the Public Library” which is the clause we *can* cite when we do have to tell patrons to be a bit more discrete.
    -> RPL’s “Internet Access Policy” is even better.  It has two great phrases which do a great job of protecting the library from getting into messy debates about the morals and ethics of what people view in the library: Right off the bat, it says: “Because the Internet is an unregulated network of resources, it also enables access to information, opinions, and images that may be inaccurate, controversial or offensive.” and then later, it adds: “The Library provides access to workstations with privacy screens, to ensure that both your legal right to access information under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and your privacy rights, are respected.”  The closest RPL’s Internet policy comes to VPL-like language is this clause: “The Library is a public space that is shared by people of all ages and backgrounds. We strive to balance the rights of individuals to access a wide range of information resources with the right of staff and users to work in a public environment free from harassment. The Library may terminate an Internet session if sites are accessed, which are inappropriate for viewing in a public setting.”  There’s still a bit of wiggle room about what we mean by “inappropriate” but compared to the moral judgment and loaded language of the VPL policy, we’re miles ahead.  
  • I was reading online comments about the new VPL policy and a BC-based librarian (but who’s not at VPL) had a great point.  They said they liked Seattle Public Library’s Internet Policy which is basically “Poor people like naughty pictures too.  If what they’re looking at offends you, maybe you should overt *your* eyes.”  😉
  • Someone pointed out about how there’s always a tension between “Freedom to” and “Freedom from” something.   In this case, the tension is between a patron’s freedom to view porn (or whatever material they want) and a staff member’s right to be protected from things they find objectionable.  But to me, I think it’s similar to a vegetarian working in a grocery store who might object to the meat counter or a young clerk working in a drug store who might be offended/disgusted by someone buying condoms and KY Jelly.  Employers have a responsibility to inform potential new employees about some of the things they’ll encounter in their new workplace, the cultural values and framework that defines *why* they might encounter those things and if they are going to be offended, why the library (or the grocery store or the drug store) might not be the workplace of choice for them after all.
  • Kinda related to that last point – someone else pointed out that since this policy change being so specifically about “sexually explicit” images, it may actually have come about due to a staff grievance from someone feeling harassed or unsafe because of what they see patrons viewing.  That is a legitimate concern of course but I wonder how far we go to protect staff from feeling unsafe? Do we remove all the sex guides?  Just the illustrated ones?  Every magazine that has pictures of women in bikinis or other sexy outfits?  (On a slight tangent, you know your MLIS is being put to great use when you have to put on the rubber gloves to remove a tattoo/biker magazine from the men’s washroom since its pages are stuck together!) No more Harlequin novels?  Now, I’m a male and would never claim to have the same understanding as women of what its like to experience unwanted sexual advances (or worse) on a regular basis.  And no one would argue that we want to have an unsafe work environment for any employee – not just from unwanted sexual advances but any type of violence – verbal, physical, mental or otherwise.  But at the same time, I go back to the “Freedom to” and “Freedom from” argument and if you have to pick one way to lean, I’m always going to side with my (female-dominated) profession which has a Statement of Intellectual Freedom as one of its core and guiding principles when deciding which side I’m on in situations like this.
  • As always, my post is very stream-of-conscious and rambly.  If you want a much better formal essay on the topic, click here.

I’ll end with a quote from one of the articles I linked to at the start of this post

How about we take a real look what inappropriate actually is before we outlaw it? Because if you don’t, people (patrons, staff, flies on the wall) are going to assert that their personal definitions of unacceptable are correct. And then they’re going to argue about it. And then everyone involved will feel harassed. I guarantee you that there are going to be people that would lump nude art and pornography in the same category, just like there are people who will assert that they are inherently different 

(This post borrows ideas, links and comments from a Facebook thread by my colleague, TR.)

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 2

  1. From Head Tale - Why Librarians Defend The Right To Watch Porn at the Library on 14 Dec 2014 at 8:10 pm

    […] Anyhow, this is a topic that regularly bubbles up in public libraries and it’s a shame that there seems to be a growing trend of libraries/librarians caving on the subject by installing filters (which often don’t work) or developing poorly worded Internet access policies. […]

  2. From Head Tale - Some Random Thoughts on /gasp/ PORN! at @officialRPL #yqr on 06 Sep 2017 at 4:18 pm

    […] A former colleague of mine once observed that “porn in the library” will rear up as a hot button issue on such a regular basis you could set your watch by it.  While doing my Masters in Library Science and then during my eight years as a professional librarian, this has proven true as I’ve seen it come up in libraries across Canada again and again and again. […]

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