I was invited to speak on a panel with three other speakers: Christopher Kevlahan, Branch Head, Joe Fortes – Vancouver Public Library, Miriam Moses, Acquisitions Manager, Burnaby Public Library, and Greg Mackie, Assistant Professor, UBC Department of English.
I think that libraries do a great job of promoting Freedom to Read Week with events and book displays, but could be doing a better job in advocating for intellectual freedom in the digital realm.
Public library examples
I spoke about how Fraser Valley Regional Library filters all their internet, how Vancouver Public Library changed their internet use policy to single out “sexually explicit images”, and how most public library internet policies don’t appear to have been updated since the 90s.
Bibliocommons is a product that has beautiful and well designed interface that used by a lot of public libraries to sit over their public facing catalogues. It is a huge improvement over the traditional OPAC interface, I like that there’s a small social component, with user tagging and comments, as well. However, Bibliocommons allows patrons to flag content for: Coarse Language, Violence, Sexual Content, Frightening or Intense Scenes, or Other. This functionality that allows users to flag titles for sexual content or course language is not in line with our core value of intellectual freedom.
Devon Greyson, a local health librarian-researcher and PhD candidate said on BCLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee’s email list:
Perhaps the issue is a difference in the understanding of what is “viewpoint neutral.” From an IF standpoint, suggesting categories of concern is non-neutral. Deciding that sex, violence, scary and rude are the primary reasons one should/would be setting a notice to warn other users is non-neutral. Why not racism, sexism, homophobia & classism as the categories with sex, violence & swearing considered “other”?
Academic library example
I also talked about the Feminist Porn Archive, a SSHRC funded research project at York University. Before the panel I chatted with Lisa Sloniowski who was really generous sharing some of the hypothetical issues that she imagines the project might encounter. She wondered if campus IT, the university’s legal department or university administration might be more conservative than the library. What would happen if they digitized porn and hosted it on university servers? Would they need to have a login screen in front of their project website?
This session was recorded and I’d love to hear your thoughts. How can libraries support or defend intellectual freedom online?
Ahhhh! It’s done!
This project took over 7 years and went through a few big iterations. I was just finishing library school when it started and learned a lot from the other advisory board members. I appreciate how the much more experienced folks on the advisory board helped bring me up to speed on issues I was less familiar with. I also valued how people treated me as a peer, even though I was just a student.
It was published this spring but my copy just arrived in the mail. Here’s the page about the book on the Library Juice Press site, and here’s where you can order a copy on Amazon.
A few people were critical of my directness in my letter to the VPL board, so I was surprised to get a response. I have permission to post the reply I received here. I’d love to know what other people think.
Thank you for your email dated August 26, to the VPL Board regarding the new VPL Policy.
VPL upholds high standards with regard to access to information and intellectual freedom. We have demonstrated this repeatedly in response to challenges to items in our collection and room rentals. The issue of public displays in a public space is a challenging one that raises unique issues that access to collections for personal private use does not.
Staff considered a multitude of options before and during the development of this policy solution, including all of the considerations you mentioned in your email , space design, equipment options, specific versus more general language. Ultimately, each of these solutions creates their own problems and it was determined that the approved approach, while not perfect, was the most appropriate given the library’s circumstances.
The Board agrees that implementation of the policy and appropriate training for staff will be critical to ensure that people’s rights to access content are not unreasonably restricted. Our professional librarians at VPL , who share common library professional values , have considerable experience in managing and balancing diverse values and public goods in policy and service. In fact, we have high confidence in our professional librarians’ ability to apply this policy in a nuanced and appropriate manner that does not unreasonably restrict access to content. We also all agree that the appropriate person to have this conversation are public service staff; however, there are occasional circumstances when Security staff are appropriate.
Staff will monitor the outcomes of this policy change and will report to the Board after a full year of implementation. At that point, they may or may not recommend adjustments to the policy.
If you have any further questions, we invite you to connect with VPL management. We understand you have many personal contacts on the VPL management team who are always open to discussing matters related to the library with colleagues.
Mary Lynn Baum
Chair, Vancouver Public Library Board
I’ve been pretty critical of Vancouver Public Library’s new Internet Use Policy. After sending a letter to their Board I was wondering what other public library policies were like. VPL is a member of the Canadian Urban Libraries Council, so I thought it would be interesting to see what other member libraries policies were.
I put up a spreadsheet on Google Drive and got help from some other librarians (thanks Justin, Myron and Sarah for your help and translations). Here’s my initial thoughts.
VPL’s policy isn’t the worst.
Here are some things that I was a bit shocked to learn:
- Brampton Public Library filters their public wireless network.
- Burlington Public Library, Windsor Public Library and Winnipeg Public Library prohibit using FTP. I wonder about the reason for this.
- Burlington Public Library has tried to use very accessible language, which I appreciated reading over the policies that are written in legalese: “If you would hesitate to show the site you are viewing to a child, your mom, or ‘Uncle Bob,’ it means it is inappropriate in a public setting. Please click away to another site.” (This is pretty vague, my “Uncle Bob” could have very different standards of appropriateness than your “Uncle Bob”.)
- Calgary Public Library‘s policy states that “Your access to the Library’s Network is in public space, and you must not display materials on this Network which, in the opinion of any Library staff, are unlawful, obscene, abusive or otherwise objectionable.” Any library staff? This seems very arbitrary and wide.
I was surprised at how many libraries policies include phrases like sexually explicit materials, pornography, overt sexual images. Richmond Hill Library and Regina Public Library‘s policies mention “illicit drug literature”. A few libraries mention hate literature, hate speech or incitement to hate and hateful propaganda. A handful of libraries mention that copyright infringement is prohibited.
It was disappointing that some libraries (Bibliothéque Ville de Laval, and Guelph Public Library) don’t seem to have their internet use policies published on their website.
So many of these policies sound like the 90s. There’s a lot of language about the internet being unregulated and that some of the information on the library may not be accurate, complete, or current and there may be controversial information out there. I read the phrase “The Library is not responsible for the site content of links or secondary links from its home pages” more than once. I think that these days we accept these things as common knowledge. Greater Victoria Public Library‘s policy states that their “website (www.gvpl.ca) recommends sites that provide quality information resources for both adults and children.” This seems like a very dated way of viewing information literacy.
Toronto Public Library‘s policy is worth reading. I like that it’s written in plain English. I think they do a good job of acknowledging that users are sharing public space without singling out sexually explicit content:
Internet workstations are situated in public areas, and users are expected to use the Internet in accordance with this environment. All users of the Toronto Public Library, including users of the Library’s Internet services, are also expected to follow the Library’s Rules of Conduct which are designed to ensure a welcoming environment. Disruptive, threatening, or otherwise intrusive behaviour is not allowed and Library staff are authorized to take action.
I’m not sure how this policy is being applied, it could be good or a bit of a disaster. I don’t know.
I am writing to urge you to reconsider the changes in the Public Internet Use policy that the Board recently passed. These are bad policy changes that erode intellectual freedom, are problematic for library workers and are harmful to libraries. I have many concerns both as a library user and as a librarian.
I served as the chair of the BC Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee from 2006-2008, have blogged about intellectual freedom issues in libraries for 8 years and sit on an editorial committee for an encyclopedia on intellectual freedom for libraries.
According to the VPL’s 2013 Annual Report there were 1.3 million internet sessions and 1.1 wireless sessions. The management report cites 31 complaints out of a total 2.6 million internet sessions. This is not enough of a problem to justify a drastic policy change.
I appreciate that the management report dated July 17, 2014 references the Canadian Library Association’s Statement on Intellectual Freedom and talks about VPL’s commitment to this core library value. This policy does not “guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity”, in fact it erodes these freedoms. The phrase “explicit sexual images” is highly problematic and extremely vague. Who decides what is sexually explicit? A colleague at a public library told me about a complaint from a patron about another patron who was apparently looking at pornography. This person turned out to be watching a online video of childbirth.
It seems like there is confusion about what intellectual freedom looks like online versus the library’s traditional print collections. If someone was to read an ebook version of the graphic novel Lost Girls on a tablet device, or search for online information about sexual health or human sexuality, or watch a video of well known contemporary performance artist Annie Sprinkle–would VPL staff or security come and kick them out of the library? While some people might find these topics offensive, they are all legitimate information needs.
Reading the current practice of what happens when someone reports seeing something offensive really troubles me. The management report states that either staff or a security guard asks the user to stop viewing the inappropriate material, if the library user does not comply they are asked to leave the library. I’m concerned that there isn’t an evaluation of whether the material is acceptable or not. Also, having a security guard come up to you and possibly kicking you out of the library is a scary and intimidating experience, especially for many socially excluded individuals.
The management report describes this as being a problem primarily at the Central library and Mount Pleasant branch. This sounds like a design challenge: “how do you design public spaces so that library users’ freedom to access does not impact staff member’s freedom to work without seeing things that offend them?” As the Central branch has moved to a roving reference model, perhaps it is time to rethink how the seating areas and computers are set up.
Again, I ask you to reconsider this policy decision.
I was recently interviewed by Jarrah Hodge for her Revenge of the Feminerd series on the Bitch blog. I’ve been a huge fan of Bitch magazine since their first issue, so this was pretty exciting (read: I nearly wet my pants when she asked me).
The interview started with the lesbrarians, and veered off into intellectual freedom, community development, and classification.
Go on, go read it