letter to the Vancouver Public Library Board

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.

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