What we don’t know can hurt us: filtering in public libraries
Shorter hours, outdated materials, lackluster programming: these are the visible effects of budget cuts on public libraries. For low-income communities in particular, one of the biggest challenges in recent years involves what patrons aren’t seeing rather than what they are. As budgets shrink and demand for Internet access grows, libraries in low-income neighborhoods are accepting e-rate funds from the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) along with the filters attached to these funds. Libraries receiving these funds must agree to filter or block certain material as determined by CIPA. In general, public libraries reject filtering—but libraries that are struggling financially may see no other option. As a public librarian in our state capitol, it is my professional obligation to advocate for unfiltered Internet access across all communities. This access benefits individuals and strengthens communities. But Internet filtering tied to CIPA funding magnifies the differences in access between low-income communities and wealthier ones. Filtering impedes access, threatens participation and therefore threatening democracy.
Access to information is at the core of library service. According to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, the library should provide resources for the interest, information and enlightenment of all people the library serves and materials presenting all points of view. A library cannot physically house all these materials; by providing Internet access, the library can provide as much useful information to patrons as possible. As more items are removed from circulation because of budget cuts, access to information online becomes increasingly important. To install filters on public use computers in public libraries is to detract from the library’s ability to perform this core service.
Access to information in public libraries is important to community members for several reasons. Particularly during periods of economic downturn, libraries serve as a resource for people who may not have access to the Internet at home. Increased Internet and computer access leads to increased social capital, higher performance for students and higher wages for working adults (Kinney 2010). Unfiltered Internet access lessens the disparities between low-income communities and wealthier ones; filtering information only magnifies the differences by making it even more difficult for library patrons in low-income neighborhoods to find and apply for jobs, complete school assignments, or make informed purchasing decisions.
Equal access to Internet and computers also leads to increased community participation (Kinney 2010). Community members with Internet access are more likely to participate in community events and organizations. We also know that community participation strengthens democracy (NEA 2004). So if Internet access increases participation, and participation strengthens democracy, then filtering Internet access effectively threatens democracy. Free and unimpeded Internet access for library patrons is essential not only as a core library service, but as a democratic principle.
Of course, filters required by CIPA are meant to block pornographic and obscene content. But if libraries agree to filter or block even a tiny amount of information, we cannot control what is actually blocked by the filter. There is no perfect filter—that is, no way to guarantee that a filter blocks only offensive content. For examples, a filter blocking pornography could also block articles about the impact of pornography on the way women are portrayed in the media. Inevitably, information that’s useful—even critical—to library patrons will be blocked by even the best of filters.
Just as there is no perfect filter, there is no universally offensive content. There is always a possibility that some offensive content is also useful. It is not our responsibility, or the responsibility of the government, to make advance decisions about what could be offensive. We are better off giving access and leaving the public to sort it out rather than leaving it up to one person or committee (Doyle 2003). By choosing what is offensive and what is not, Internet filtering creeps dangerously close to censorship, impeding democracy.
But despite the benefits of unfiltered Internet access and the flaws of filtering, libraries facing budget cuts have limited options. As community members and library patrons, we must ask: what is the cost of this sacrifice? Why should public libraries be forced to sacrifice core principles and services to function? As librarians, we have a professional obligation to advocate for unfiltered Internet access in public libraries. We also have a responsibility to improve understanding of the benefits of access to computers and the Internet. As a community, we must work together to seek and secure alternative funding solutions or advocate changing legislation so that libraries in low-income neighborhoods need not sacrifice access.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Not censorship, but selection, Asheim, L., (1954). Book Selection and Intellectual Freedom: Proceedings of the Second Conference on Intellectual Freedom, Whittier, CA: American Library Assocation.
Selection versus censorship in libraries. Doyle, T. (2003). Collection Management 27(1): 15-25.
The internet, public libraries, and the digital divide. Kinney, B. (2010). The Internet, Public Libraries, and the Digital Divide 29(2): 104-161.
Reading at risk: A survey of literary reading in America. National Endowment for the Arts.