Librarians caught in the Net

Should a library be a 'porn palace' or porn-free? RAY CONLOGUE reports on the union grievances and philosophical disputes the issue has sparked

Globe and Mail
February 10, 2021
By Ray Conlogue

TORONTO -- Last week, representatives of Ottawa's librarians called the city's libraries a "porn palace." The problem is young men signing on to hard-core Internet pornography sites in full view of library staff and other users.

The beleaguered librarians, feeling they have been left to deal with the problem by see-nothing, do-nothing managers, have filed grievances through the Canadian Union of Public Employees. And they're not alone. While grievances have not yet been filed in other jurisdictions, there is unhappiness aplenty.

"We had a librarian chased by kids when she tried to shut down their [porn] site," says Christina Duckworth-Pilkington, who works at Toronto's Downsview Library.

Librarians made a presentation to the board of the Toronto library system three years ago asking for an Internet policy, including sanctions against people who break the rules. A policy was duly announced but, CUPE representative Sue Leger says, "it didn't incorporate any of the librarians' suggestions." According to Duckworth-Pilkington, the Toronto board was concerned with "making sure their liability was covered, that they couldn't be charged," rather than protecting their employees.

The Toronto board did reply to the concerns, tardily, with an amendment to the policy in September, 2002. "The amendment authorizes staff to take action if anyone is viewing unsuitable material," says Michelle Topa, a senior planning officer. In addition, the Internet policy is now posted publicly so librarians can point it out to offending customers.

Much of this is lawyer-driven manoeuvring. But behind it lies a major philosophical dispute about what libraries are for. Management, whose views are reflected in the stance of the Canadian Library Association, see this as an intellectual-freedom issue. They are afraid that censoring even the worst pornography will start a slippery slope, and eventually all sorts of Internet content will be banned, including a good deal that is legitimate and essential.

"What if somebody needs to research breast cancer, or a kid has some private issues about transsexuality and desperately wants to learn more about it?" says Wendy Newman, president of the CLA. She believes that Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms obliges libraries to provide all manner of information, including what some people consider pornographic.

Lorne Carter, the CUPE officer representing Ottawa's librarians, says that librarians "are being made sick by what they see" in the name of intellectual freedom. He argues that "in a democracy there must be a balancing of interests." Freedom of information must be balanced against the human rights of the librarians.

CUPE is relying on Ontario's Human Rights Code to argue that "no employee shall be subject to harassment in the workplace," where harassment can include what Carter calls "a poisoned work environment. That means being exposed to materials of a degrading nature, where you the individual are being focused on in some way: your gender, your race, your religion." The deciding factor is the complainant's own beliefs.

For library management, this opens the nightmarish possibility of a religious librarian preventing the transsexual kid from learning about people like herself because the librarian is offended. For Newman, "this is not a new issue," but merely a continuation of the ancient struggle about what kinds of books should be excluded from libraries. It took decades for Lady Chatterley's Lover, not to mention homosexual novels, to reach the shelves. She fears that censoring the Internet could cause this progress to be lost.

All parties recognize that in one sense, the Internet is utterly unlike books. No library can buy every book in the world, and so they pick and choose. Hard-core pornography is not on any library shelf in Canada. "Even if somebody says they'll donate skin magazines to the library, we wouldn't accept it," says Ken Roberts, Hamilton's chief librarian.

But everything is on the Internet, including pornography and racism, and it all comes into the library.

In the United States, Congress addressed the issue in December with a blunt instrument called the Children's Internet Protection Act. It obliges libraries receiving federal funds to install filters on all computers. The problem, as everyone admits, is that filters "overblock and underblock." They overblock by taking out, say, all references to "sex" or "affair." The near-comic outcome, as one librarian pointed out, is that an entire magazine database might be blocked because it includes a journal called Business Affairs. Underblocking, on the other hand, is what happens when a pornography peddler slips through simply by removing the word "sex" from her Web site.

In Canada, land of compromise, some library systems (such as Toronto and Ottawa) use filters on computers designated for children's use, but leave adult computers unfiltered.

A further challenge is that some Internet content is actually illegal under Canadian law: pedophile pornography and incitements to racial hatred, for example. On this, everyone agrees that the library must intervene. "Material clearly against the law, not only do you stop it, but you call the police," Newman says.

However, hard-core conventional pornography is legal. It is perfectly legitimate to show a man and a woman copulating, and even animated sites showing popular cartoon characters being raped are arguably legal.

In many libraries, this kind of thing is dealt with using privacy screens. In Hamilton, Roberts says, a user is not normally asked to stop just because a librarian has noticed. That usually requires a complaint from another library user.

CUPE holds up the Hamilton library system as a model of courageous and responsible management. Hamilton is still the only system in Ontario that suspends the library privileges of anyone using a computer to "display overt sexual images," even legal ones.

This means that in Hamilton, librarians must decide for themselves which legal sexual images are acceptable and which are not. This is the "slippery slope" that makes the Canadian Library Association so nervous, but Roberts says it is not difficult in practice.

"We restrict explicit sexual images in the same way we don't collect sexual books, on the grounds it's not a good use of limited resources. Also, we forbid behaviour that disturbs others, including setting a machine so the pornography persists after you leave. And we monitor all that by installing software which lets us trace exactly what each user has done."

On the difficult question of where to draw the line on sexual images, Roberts says the policy is clear. Not only actual copulation, but even standard Playboy-type nudity is forbidden. On the other hand, when an off-duty policeman complained that some boys looking at pictures of women in bikinis offended him, the library dismissed the complaint.

Implicit in this is that librarians do sometimes have to look at offensive material. That, Newman says, is a librarian's professional duty and she has little patience with librarians who find such work shocking or upsetting. "It's a core value of librarianship that you protect diversity," she says.

Many librarians are sympathetic to the argument. "We also believe in intellectual freedom," Duckworth-Pilkington says. "We just want management to ensure our physical safety."

At the end of the day, the problem is really about evasive and unresponsive management. The Ottawa situation has already put other library systems on notice. "Just this week we introduced computer booking software" that will shut off screens automatically, says Ron Dyck, director of information technology in Toronto's libraries. This will save librarians from the awkward task of shutting off screens themselves, a major Ottawa complaint.

If librarians and management can regain mutual trust, they will find common ground to protect intellectual freedom, says Jane Pyper, director of planning and policy for Toronto. "It's a balancing act. Much as you'd like black and white rules, we have to judge individual cases. We consider freedom on the one hand and respecting other people's rights to an enjoyable environment. We have to use the policies together."