Some Random Thoughts on /gasp/ PORN! at @officialRPL #yqr

(I don’t usually do disclaimers on my posts but since I work for Regina Public Library and this is a controversial topic for a lot of people, I’ll start off by mentioning that what follows are my personal opinions only and do not reflect those of RPL or anyone else who works at RPL…although given the Canadian Library Association (CLA) Statement of Intellectual Freedom which RPL has endorsed, I also hope that most people working at RPL would see things in a somewhat similar fashion!) 😉 

From the CLA Statement of Intellectual Freedom (emphasis mine):

It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. To this end, libraries shall acquire and make available the widest variety of materials.

It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee the right of free expression by making available all the library’s public facilities and services to all individuals and groups who need them.

Libraries should resist all efforts to limit the exercise of these responsibilities while recognizing the right of criticism by individuals and groups.

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.

But the most recent example hit a bit closer to home as a patron at RPL’s Central Branch saw someone looking at porn a couple weeks ago and has filed a complaint to get porn banned at the library since he’s offended/concerned about the improper use of public space/worried about the effect on children.

Let’s take a closer look at his concerns one-by-one…

1. Porn is Offensive

The only thing that is obscene is censorship. – Craig Bruce

Saying “I’m offended!” is a bit of a red herring argument as the important question we need to ask is “Is it legal?” And the answer is, whether you view it at home, at the library or on your muted smartphone while in public somewhere, porn is legal to view, even if others might find it distasteful.

Porn is just one of many things patrons view in libraries that others might find offensive or distasteful.  But it’s interesting how you rarely to never hear complaints about those other things.

For example…

Jason’s (Short) List of Offensive Things He’s Seen Patrons Viewing in the Library
As an illustration of what makes it so hard to police what patrons look at on a library’s public access computers, I wanted to share just a few of the things that I’ve seen (or heard about) patrons looking at on library public computers which other patrons could find offensive and very possibly lodge a complaint about:

  1. A war video from Afghanistan which graphically showed civilians being killed
  2. A patron whose dad wanted to “teach him to hunt” invited me watch a deer skinning video with him
  3. An extremely misogynistic rap video with scantily clad women dancing while money and champagne showered on them from above
  4. A patron with neo-Nazi tattoos looking up videos of Nazi Germany and concentration camps
  5. A child birthing video which a patron complained was “sexually explicit”

Whether you find none, some or all of the above examples offensive, they’re also all legal and therefore allowed to be viewed in the public library (the Nazi one is actually the one that probably veers closest to “hate speech” and could therefore be seen as illegal.)

But since “porn” always seems to be the thing that gets people excited (er, no pun intended), that last example best illustrates the problem with trying to define what is allowed and what isn’t.  The line for what is “sexually explicit” is going to be different for every single person – whether they’re a patron or a page, a Library Director or a TV reporter, a board member or a branch head.

So instead of trying to “define the line” on what is and isn’t offensive or sexually explicit or whatever wording you choose, Regina Public Library takes the (to me) eminently reasonable approach that they allow anything that is legal to be viewed and restrict anything that is illegal.  Period.  That way you don’t end up in a situation where you’re always trying to appease every person who complains about any possible offensive information or forcing your staff to make “I know it when I see it” judgement calls about what is allowed and not allowed.

Caveat:
Regina Public Library has a policy that encourage patrons looking at any controversial and/or private material to use a privacy screen.  Staff are also empowered to ask patrons to move to another computer if there are complaints.  Some libraries in other communities have also designed their workstations so only the person using it can see the screen.

But ultimately, the only line that public libraries should be drawing is between what is legal and illegal.  (Of course, this is problematic too – nothing’s ever perfect or easy!)

2. Concern About Improper Use of Public Space

Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but unlike charity, it should end there – Clare Boothe Luce

As a public place open to everyone without restriction, public libraries must constantly balance tensions around how that public space is used – boisterous children’s areas and quiet adult reading areas.  Well-attended public programs and individuals doing private research.  Patrons using public computers with a reasonable expectation of privacy and patrons who might get a glimpse what others are doing on their computers.

That last point is especially relevant here.  A lot of the discussion about this issue has focused on the “porn in the library” question.  But no one has pointed out the equally problematic issue of a patron who, by his own admission, consciously chose to blatantly invade another person’s privacy.

From the CBC article, a direct quote from the patron making the complaint…

“[I] Saw two guys standing up, another guy looking on the screen and I was kind of curious, what are they looking at?” Williams told CBC News. “And I went wow. I only had a quick view but I thought wow, this is unbelievable.”

How would the person lodging the complaint feel if he was using a computer in the library and somebody who was “kind of curious” looked over his shoulder as he checked his bank balance? (Wow!)  Or test results he just got from his doctor? (Wow – this is unbelievable!”)  Or invaded his privacy in any other way?

Someone I know even quipped that it’s the person who was invading another patron’s privacy who deserves to be banned, not porn!

Caveat:
I totally understand the squicky feeling that comes with knowing people are looking at porn in the *public* library. But ultimately, as long as patrons aren’t “taking things into their own hands” (which then crosses into “illegal” territory), library staff have to accept this as one part of the job they might not agree with or enjoy – just like a vegetarian getting a job at a fast food burger joint or someone who doesn’t believe in birth control selling condoms at the drug store or whatever.  We also have to be very careful not to pre-persecute someone before their actions cross the line from legal to illegal.

To put it another way, even though you may believe differently, the reality is that looking at porn in public doesn’t mean someone is automatically going to masturbate in public, it doesn’t automatically make them a pedophile, and it doesn’t mean they’re going to rape someone. (In fact, some studies actually show that providing access to pornography can reduce rape.)

3. Concerns About Children

If parents and kids can talk together, we won’t have as much censorship because we won’t have as much fear. – Judy Blume

Won’t someone please think of the children?” is a logical fallacy based on an appeal to emotion that always seems to get trotted out in these situations.

There are a couple points to remember when you hear someone worrying about “the children” as a homogeneous group who might be permanently scarred by a brief glimpse of something on a computer screen.

For one thing, you have to really work to even see what someone is viewing on a public computer, especially if they’re using a privacy screen.  Also, the library does have all sorts of materials and programs which may be considered “offensive” by some parents if their children were to encounter them during a library visit – from illustrated books on sex and sexuality to programs about the LGBT community to tequila tastings!

Whenever I hear “Won’t someone please think of the children?” arguments, I am reminded of a story I heard of a parent who covered her child’s eyes every time they saw a homeless person downtown.

Although some parents try, they can’t hide reality in all its beautiful ugly glory from their children forever and sometimes I think the “Won’t someone think about the children?” people are really saying “Won’t someone think about how hard it is to talk to a child about sex/violence/homelessness/poverty/racism/etc.”?)  To put it another way, if I had my eight-year old son at the public library, I’d rather he caught a glimpse of a porn video than a video of someone being killed in Afghanistan or a recently killed animal with its guts hanging out.  But that’s just me…

There’s also a flip side to the “Won’t someone think of the children” argument which is the very alarming idea that anyone might think they have a right to tell anyone else what their children can or cannot view/read/believe/etc.  Although I suspect most parents don’t let their kids actively watch porn (I hope!), there is a range of parents from those who let their kids watch nothing but Common Sense Media-approved, age appropriate Disney movies to those who let their kids watch R-rated raunchy frat comedies, play violent video games and worse.

Caveat:
The idea of adults going on a public computer in a children’s area and looking at porn does seem to cross the line in a different way even though it’s technically “legal”.  But as I outline below, there are ways that libraries can control patron behaviour without making it about censorship.  For example, a very easy workaround, which I saw in a children’s library in Toronto, is to have a policy that children’s computers can only be used by children or “Adults accompanied by a child” which *greatly* reduces the chances that some lone adult is going to sit on a computer in your children’s area watching PornTube.com all day.

Those are my main responses to the core of this complaint but there are all kinds of other random thoughts around this I haven’t touched on beyond what seems to be the main issues of this most recent complaint…

  • They say that it’s easy to defend the things you agree with and hard to defend the things you don’t.  That’s the situation many librarians find themselves in when they defend patrons’ ability to view any legal material, even if they might personally find it distasteful or offensive.  But to paraphrase Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you view but I will defend to the death, your right to view it.” 😉
  • I have to say I was very impressed with the responses of both RPL’s Manager of Corporate Services (a non-librarian who hasn’t worked at RPL for very long) and our Board Chair who explained RPL’s position to different media outlets including some prominent national ones..  I was less impressed with Regina’s Mayor who weighed in on the topic during his weekly Q&A session on a local news radio station.  He starts off by saying no one wants to censor at the library but then basically goes on to say we need to censor! 🙁  (You’ll have to fast forward to the 3:50min mark to hear his comments.)
  • Many people think you just need to install filters to block “the porn” but even if a library was willing to do that, many studies have shown that filters are more harmful than good, often blocking “legitimate” sites such as those with information about breast cancer, art, information about homosexuality targeted at young people trying to come out and so on.
  • One of my best examples of why someone might want to access actual porn actually comes from a non-library setting.  My wife is an RN and spent some time on a unit for people who had brain and spinal injuries.  Many of the people who suffered spinal injuries were young men who had become paraplegic or quadriplegic.  Looking at porn, often on the public work station in the Unit, was a way for these young people to “figure out if their stuff still worked” and although many nurses found it offensive or wanted it banned, others (including my wife and thankfully, the manager of the unit) realised that it was a necessary part of these people’s rehabilitation, no different than their need for physical therapy or psychological counselling.
  • The colleague I referenced earlier was a strong proponent of free speech but also pointed out that libraries can censor without censoring.  For example, he talked about how libraries don’t subscribe to Playboy even though we carry other magazines and Playboy would surely be one of our highest circulating items.  “But the reason we don’t subscribe to Playboy is that it would be a target of theft and also likely to be damaged regularly so that is not a responsible use of the taxpayer dollars in our collections budget.”  And then I think he winked at me! 😉
  • There are all sorts of gender issues mixed up in this too.  Many female librarians are even stronger defenders of freedom of information than I am but there are also issues around some staff who feel unsafe working in an environment where the public are able to openly view pornography.
  • A (female) colleague pointed out that for some, it’s not even about looking at porn but about the thrill of breaking taboos or not knowing social mores or creating awkward/creepiness by forcing a staff member, usually female, to tell you knock it off.
  • Not that the original CBC coverage was overly sensationalistic but I’m always disappointed when our friends in the media, who should advocate free speech and access to information as strongly as libraries, run a story which might end up promoting censorship.  And don’t get me started on how right-wing “news” radio jumped all over this story!  (Of course, I’m sure people in the media are disappointed in libraries when we collect books on Conrad Black so maybe it’s payback?) 😉
  • I used to think only YouTube comments would make me weep for humanity but the comments on the CBC & Global Regina Facebook pages aren’t far off – someone who thinks that “pedophile” is a synonym for anyone who looks at porn, someone who thinks all porn is already illegal, ill-informed opinions about libraries from people who appear to have not visited a library in years.
  • Why Librarians Are Defending Your Right To Watch Porn at the Library is a great article I’ve referenced before.

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