The issue of internet filtering on library computers is heading back to a policy committee for further refinement.
The Timberland Regional Library District’s Board of Trustees conducted a healthy debate on the issue during its regular meeting last week at the Westport library, but ultimately decided to kick the issue to a committee to figure out the details. Only the two Lewis County representatives, who are pushing for the filtering to happen, objected to the decision because they said the debate was cut off too soon and they felt the board would end up talking about it some more eventually any way.
The decision follows a staff survey where 90 percent of the recipients told the Board of Trustees not to pursue a policy, which would mandate filters on all of the computers.
Currently, the library district filters content for children and teens, but adults have the choice to view whatever they want on the public computers. If adults choose to use an unfiltered computer, a special recessed screen built into the table is used, making it harder for those around the user to see what’s on the computer screen.
Acting Timberland Executive Director Gwen Culp said she sent the staff survey to 300 employees. Ninety responded. Of those, 81 asked the board to keep the current policy intact, which allows adults to choose unfiltered computers. One employee wasn’t sure what to do and eight told the board to filter all of the computers. Staff responses were anonymous.
“I was blocked the other day from a church supply web site,” a staff member wrote. “Church supply. And as a patron, I could not use the report form, since it did not work. At any rate, I was not really interested in coming back a week later to see if the site had been unblocked. I just needed it right then.”
Another staff member pointed out that the blockbuster series Fifty Shades of Gray — a pretty racy book about sex that is part of Timberland’s book collection— “started out on a fan fiction site.”
“Should an adult, wanting to read it at that point, have been blocked from doing so?” the staffer wrote. “I think it is important to preserve adults’ rights to access material that is relevant and important to them, even if that material is something that others might find offensive or disturbing.”
Another staff member said that a cousin recently came out as being male to female transgendered.
“I want to be supportive, but quite honestly, I have very little idea of what this means and went to do some research,” the staffer wrote. “I was extremely frustrated to find almost one in four sites concerning the transition process blocked by our filter,” noting that even a doctor’s website in Seattle who specialized in transgender surgery was being blocked by the filters.
“If all the computers were filtered, my cousin — and me! — are blocked from researching the most important decision they’ve ever made,” the staffer wrote. “I would be a very angry patron. I’ve heard that we may have the option of unblocking a site a patron wants to view — if they come up to the desk and ask us. Can you imagine a curious teen or adult asking to unblock a site like this? Me neither.”
The Timberland Library system has slowly been increasing the number of filtered computers since 2004, Culp said in documents she provided the board. At that point, 51 percent of the computers were filtered. But, today, 69 percent of the computers are filtered.
In Aberdeen, for instance, there were 13 computers in the library back in 2004. Of those, five were filtered and eight gave users the choice. Today, there are 14 computers and only three computers give users the choice.
Culp said there have simply been more requests for computers that everyone can access, including children. She noted that since the beginning of the year, only 5 percent of computer users have chosen to use unfiltered computers, even when given the choice on the recessed screens.
Board chairman Emmett O’Connell, the Thurston County appointee, pointed out that the library district needs to come up with some kind of policy because what’s in place now isn’t really down on paper.
For instance, in 2009 all of the computers in Salkum went filtered. And, in Elma, all of the computers went filtered in 2011. Those decisions were made by the executive director without direct board action, or even much public feedback, library staff said.
The process for those kinds of actions — allowing libraries to become all filtered — need to be codified and should be the responsibility of the board to decide, O’Connell said.
The two Lewis County representatives — Edna Fund and John Braun — on the seven-member Board of Trustees are pushing for filtering to be expanded to all of the libraries in the district. Or, at a minimum, they say they want library managers to be able to decide what works best for them. The board has seven trustees and each county in the system — Grays Harbor, Pacific, Lewis, Mason and Thurston — are represented on the board. They are appointed by the county commissioners of the five-county region.
Braun noted that as far as he knows, there’s been no complaints about the filtered computers in Salkum or Elma.
“I think filtering everything is something we should strongly consider,” he told his fellow board members. “I don’t see this as an intellectual freedom or censorship issue. Plain and simple, this is really, to me, in my opinion, it’s about pornography. We don’t choose to put that in our collection and technology allows us to choose or not to choose it online.”
But many of the staff survey responses consistently cited the American Library Association’s ethics policy and bill of rights about the need to keep access open.
“Part of our role as a library is to provide access to constitutionally protected speech, and having the option to bypass our filters is a very important part of that access,” one librarian wrote to the board.
Fund said she felt it was just as important to solicit public feedback, as well.
“We don’t have taxpayer or patron comments on what they believe and that’s really crucial to me,” she said.
Braun urged Culp to utilize special survey software and solicit comments from the public at large.
“I take a little bit of an issue with the idea that we’re censoring legal speech,” Braun added. “We’re not censoring anything. We’re just saying we won’t offer it in the library. We’re not shutting down the Internet. We’re not shutting down Starbucks because they have Internet, too. We’re just making a choice about our collection.”
Board member Corby Varness, who represents Grays Harbor, said she’s received some “strongly worded” emails from the public against filtering all of the computers. Varness said she went to five different libraries to solicit opinions on the subject and found some users had problems accessing websites to buy guns, had difficulty doing political research, as well as the staff member who had the issue searching for church supplies.
“And none of those through any circumstance, especially the church supply website, come under the category of porn but they were blocked,” Varness said. “I think it’s a knee-jerk to think it’s porn and that’s all that people want to do with it. But I’m very curious about the broader discussion because then it does come to be a broader question.”
Varness said it’s important to secure access for the minority of computer users, who need unfiltered computer access for research, in particular.
View the filtering discussion