Porn in the Library

There are many things that the classroom and academic aspects of library science school will not adequately prepare you for. Managing a team of students workers, tackling tricky reference questions, and dealing with unruly patrons are just some of the things you learn while on the job. Luckily I am fortunate enough to work as a graduate assistant in a campus library, so I’ve had hands-on learning for about nine months now. And one of the things I never considered having to face was how to deal with porn in the library.

It is a fact of modern life that pornography exists, people look at it, and some people look at it in public places. With the advent of mobile technology, screens are everywhere. And due to our country’s commitment to freedom of speech and expression, many of those screens could at any moment be displaying pornography.

There are no laws that require libraries to prohibit the viewing of pornography on library computers. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which went into effect in 2001, states that only school and public libraries that install internet filtering and/or blocking software onto their computers are eligible to receive federal funding. There are many state-level laws that mirror CIPA. However, many libraries have chosen to turn down the federal funds and still refuse to filter.

At the library where I work we do not filter or block any websites. Our policy is that patrons are allowed to use the public computers to browse whatever corners of the Internet they wish to. At a recent staff meeting, a new employee seemed dumbfounded and asked, “So, if a patron is openly, blatantly looking at porn, we aren’t supposed to do anything about it?” The answer, at least at our institution, is no. If other patrons complain, we can direct the offending patron to kindly use a computer that is not so openly visible. And, as another librarian was quick to point out, we are certainly allowed to instruct a patron to leave if their behavior becomes inappropriate (in her experience, she had come across a patron who was looking at pornography online and touching himself; he was promptly instructed to leave, and did so).

Pornography in libraries had gotten a lot of press this year, as incidents such as those in San Francisco and Seattle have sparked controversy, editorials, and a surplus of prescriptive moralizing.  Some libraries have installed privacy partitions or privacy hoods that help to obscure the screen from passersby. Others post signs encouraging patrons to be considerate and conscious of others when viewing adult sites on library computers.

Overall, I have to side with most of my librarian colleagues here and say that I understand and uphold the decision to not censor or filter Internet use on library computers. While I personally do not wish to catch an eye-full of pornography at my workplace or any other library, I do not wish to censor or limit patron access to resources the library provides (in this case, internet access). That being said, I have no problem asking said patrons to move to a less visible station, and I would absolutely have no problem ejecting a patron who was acting inappropriately and/or being disruptive. I think the key is to find solutions that both respect patron privacy and respond to patron concerns and complaints. Privacy partitions and hoods are one creative way to do so.  It is our job as thoughtful, responsive, ethical librarians to come up with more ideas to meet this challenge.

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