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Libraries, Sexual Content and the Internet: Striking a Balance Between Rights, Access, And Comfort

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Recent sensational media reports about "porn in libraries" do not reflect the reality of library services today or promote meaningful dialogue in our communities. Libraries provide professional services and access to information for their entire community. This information--whether it's a film, a genealogy chart, an online car repair manual, or poetry--helps people get jobs, do their homework, learn to read, or become new Americans. Many public libraries serve as technology hubs for the communities they serve, and librarians help users navigate through all that information.

Libraries exist to provide information needed to analyze, discuss, and tackle the kinds of issues that face 21st century communities. Inevitably, uncomfortable images and words are part of the mix. Some library information will be offensive to some or age inappropriate for others. And sometimes offensive material will pop up on a web site.

U.S. libraries are law-abiding public institutions that have earned the public trust year after year. They do not knowingly provide illegal content. The information they provide is protected by the First Amendment. The word, "Pornography," means different things to different people. It is not a term of law. Child pornography, obscenity, and materials deemed "harmful to minors" are illegal and not knowingly available in libraries. When it comes to legal content, library users have different insights about what is appropriate and inappropriate, and libraries try to serve all their information needs. The number of user complaints about offensive materials is miniscule compared to the positive testimonies about services to children, immigrants, seniors, and the rest of the community.

The librarian's job is to balance the community's First Amendment rights to information, with the desire to provide a welcoming and information-rich space for all. And libraries have the tools to create this balance.

The American Library Association has provided The Library Bill of Rights and Its Interpretations, which are regularly reviewed and updated. These documents are based on legal and ethical traditions and principles. New technology notwithstanding, these principles have stood the test of time. In addition, libraries have local Internet use policies and procedures that deal effectively with most problems that arise.

Library ideals often meet up with everyday library service issues and the American Library Association provides librarians with practical ways to achieve excellence in library service, within ALA's principles. The problem of Internet content that some find offensive, there are several options to consider:

Filtering Internet content, though it is not an ideal solution. No software can yet match the ability of the human brain to decide what information is legal and should be available in a public library. Research shows time and again that filters end up blocking content that is not only legal but is important for adults to be able to view. And sometimes filters let content through that might be inappropriate for children. An ideal example is the word, "breast," which many filters block. The problem is that in addition to blocking what might be offensive content, the filter also blocks "breast cancer." And so the only solution is for parents, teachers, librarians, and other community leaders to work with Internet users. Filters won't do it for them.

Working closely with law enforcement, Trustees, and other community stakeholders. Librarians are trained to spot problems with public Internet use and work with others to uphold the library's written Internet use policies. It is important that librarians and the community distinguish between unacceptable behavior, which is addressed in one way, and controversial content, which is addressed in another. When library users have complaints, the librarian is always ready to listen and take appropriate action--based on the law and on library policy.

Teaching the community how to use the Internet, rather than prohibit it. In fact, the public library is the ideal place to learn how to use the Internet. Trained professional librarians offer courses tailored to various age groups and interests. They offer parental guidance on how to work with their children on social media. They provide a wide diversity of points of view and types of information and provide alternative information for those who find some resources offensive.

If you are a librarian or trustee, you know that there are all sorts of ways to design library space with such devices as recessed screens and pie-shaped carrels to meet the Internet access and privacy needs of the entire community and still offer First Amendment protection for the right to access needed information. Another strategy is to hold community forums to discuss these issues and how to best to deal with them. The American Library Association can provide materials to assist in such civic engagement initiatives.

The American Library Association urges community members to visit their libraries regularly, volunteer, or serve as a trustee. Libraries thrive when their communities actively support them and are actively involved. When the community seeks change in the library's contents and services, librarians are ready to listen. Communities must strive to achieve the balance between the First Amendment right to information, with the desire to provide a vibrant, information-rich space for the entire community to be proud of.