Internet Freedoms and Filters:

Roles and Responsibilities of the Public Librarian on the World Wide Web

by James LaRue

web site:

for the Central Colorado Library System

and the Colorado State Library

Note: this was produced in 1997. A good many of the links have now expired, I see. I am no longer maintaining the page as of 12/2000.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: the rise of the WWW
  • What is the World Wide Web
  • The State of the Web
  • A Sample Search
  • The role of the librarian in the information age
  • Controversy: pornography and filtering software
  • How Internet content steps around usual library collection development processes and policies
  • Cyberporn and some legal definitions
  • The national debate: the Communications Decency Act
  • Software filtering
  • Three reasons not to use filtering software
  • Other strategies: terminal placement, glare screens, and "time outs"
  • Safe use, child-friendly sites, and public awareness
  • Policies
  • Intellectual Freedom: What do public libraries stand for?
  • Doris Day in Pillow Talk
  • Who Needs Libraries Now that I'm on the Net?


    Introduction: the rise of the WWW

    Futurists say that it takes roughly half-a-century for breakthrough technologies to reach the common person. Invented near the end of the 15th century, movable type took about 50 years to make its way around Europe. The fax machine was invented during World War II. It showed up in K-Mart in the 1990's. 

    At the end of World War II, American scientists invented a new way of linking researchers and their research. The purpose of this link was to maintain vital defense communications even in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. We know this technology now as the Internet. 

    Thus the illuminated manuscripts of the past became the mass market paperback of today. The Internet has become the World Wide Web, the ubiquitous "www" at the beginning of a seemingly infinite number of Internet addresses or "URL's" (Uniform Resource Locators). 

    Like printing, the Web is a powerful medium for the recording and transmission of human knowledge. That's one of the reasons it interests librarians. But also like printing, the Web represents a profound technological advancement with (potentially) sweeping social consequences. The effect of the World Wide Web may not be clearly understood for hundreds of years. This makes it interesting not only to librarians, but also to everyone else. 

    What is the World Wide Web?

    1. First, it's all the phone lines and wires and boxes that link many millions of computers together.

    3. Second, and more important, it's all the information that sits in all of those computers.

    5. Third, it's the way a human being navigates among all those machines and data. This is the "point and click" interface of the World Wide Web. It requires a relatively sophisticated monitor (capable of the display of images, preferably in color), a mouse or other pointing device, and a keyboard (and you can do without the keyboard in a pinch).



      This interface is predicated on the idea of hypertext : links from one document (where a document means a collection of text, an image or images, a sound or video recording, or some combination thereof) to another or other documents. Here's what you see: you slide the mouse (or pointing device) over the underlined word or phrase, then "click." That simple, physical act sends a coded request across a complex and curiously resilient network of phone lines and operating systems and hardware platforms. After some period of time (depending upon the speed of your connection and thousands of other interactions among various devices), the images on your computer screen change. 

    7. But here's the fourth element of the World Wide Web: somebody has to build those hypertext links. Behind every click is a human intelligence saying, "this connects to this." Sometimes that intelligence is manual: a human being types in an address. Sometimes the human intelligence is one step removed: it creates software to run around and gather or create the links. But even these software packages follow rules established by people.

    The state of the web

    As a research tool, the World Wide Web offers compelling advantages to libraries and the people they serve. Some Web information is simply more current than can be found on paper. For instance, such companies as EBSCO ( load the full text of magazine articles, fully indexed, on a daily basis. The paper-based edition of Reader's Guide to Periodicals covering that article might not make it to the library for several months. And when it does, it still doesn't include the article itself. The electronic version is better. 

    More locally, the Web can contain information about tonight's governmental meetings, or cultural calendars, updated weekly. Such information is often too ephemeral to be saved in print; no indexing tools exist for them. If it weren't for the Web, they would scarcely be "public" documents at all. 

    World Wide Web documents are easily produced -- even the least sophisticated word processor can make so-called "HTML" files. (These files insert "Hyper-Text Markup Language" to control the display of text on a monitor. This language, and its many paired codes, also enable live "links" from one document to another.) And once someone signs up for an Internet connection -- whether through America Online (, Prodigy (, or a dedicated Internet service provider such as SuperNet, Inc. ( -- such files are easily "published" to the world. 

    As a consequence of this ease of creation and distribution, the Web is both wide (covering a great many topics), and surprisingly deep (a well-designed web page connects to comprehensive online reference material). 

    On the other hand, some kinds of materials do not appear on the web, and probably never will in any quantity. 

    What won't you find on the Web (usually)? -- "book-length" works of both fiction and non-fiction titles. [See the appendix for an answer to the question, "Who needs libraries now that I'm on the 'Net?"] 

    In general, the World Wide Web is optimized for relatively short documents: encyclopedic entries, scientific papers, magazine-length articles, and other relatively narrow topics. 

    A sample search

    So it's easy to put such documents on the Web. But this ease of creation and dissemination is also the Internet's chief weakness. To the conscientious public librarian, the World Wide Web is like a warehouse full of potentially useful pamphlets and brochures, but in no particular order. And new truckloads of pamphlets are arriving every hour. 

    The problem becomes clear the first time you conduct a World Wide Web search. 

    At first, it seems simple enough. You click on a button labeled "search" and find your cursor in a text-entry box. You type the phrase that interests you, and click on "search." 

    And just moments later, you get the response: you have 42,694 matches! 

    Here's the good news: 123 of those matches are just exactly what you wanted. In less than a minute, you pulled together as much information -- and we're talking about remarkably current data, data posted just a few seconds ago -- than you could have located in 16 hours at your largest metropolitan library. 

    But here's the rub: first you have to wade through 42,571 entries that have nothing to do with your topic. For instance, you searched for "Denver and restaurants." What you got (and I'm just making this up, but it captures the feel of things) were multiple listings about a New Zealand TV star whose favorite food is "Denver omelettes," blistering criticisms of the music of John Denver, reviews of "Alice's Restaurant" by a Midwestern college film class, and promotional information about a chain of shoe stores in Toronto. That's page one. 

    The odds are very good that you won't search through the 42,571 entries you don't want to find the 123 that you do. So the 123 genuinely useful links (restaurants in downtown Denver, complete with daily menus and specials, price listings, good information about best seating times, accommodations for children, and remarkably clear driving directions) really aren't doing you much good. 

    You've run up against the two essential problems of information management: 

    • retrieval. When you search a library catalog, you want to pull up all the related topics.

    • relevance. But you want those other to pics to have something significant to do with what you're searching for.
    This is why librarians invented the powerful tool called "cataloging." Right now, the various search tools on the World Wide Web are not too bad at retrieval. They are not so good at relevance. It is this same problem that makes Internet filtering software so worrisome to librarians (see below). 

    The role of librarians in the Information Age

    Librarians have always been quick to adopt useful new technologies. We were among the first corporate users of typewriters. We were the first major clients of microfilm vendors. Almost any public library in the United States has at least a sprinkling of audiotapes and compact discs (both for music and for data). We were among the pioneers of mainframes and minicomputers, which we used to keep track of library patrons and materials. We were some of the very earliest database developers. 

    We have also been quick to add the World Wide Web to our library tool chest. At this point (according to the American Library Association), over 75% of the public libraries in the United States of America provide free public access to the Web. 

    The traditional strengths of librarianship, it turns out, translate pretty well to the electronic environment. The librarian job description is, in brief: 

    • to identify and/or create data, particularly authoritative or trustworthy information
    • to gather and organize the data
    • to provide public access to the data.
    We've been imposing order on diverse collections of books, periodicals, and various other media for over a hundred years. Certainly, the World Wide Web could use a little organizing. 

    At first blush, librarians seem to be the ideal solution for a timely problem: providing access for those too poor to afford it on the one hand, and making it more useful and less frustrating for everybody. 

    Controversy: pornography and filtering software

    But libraries have been caught in the crosshairs of the culture wars. 

    Here's a quote from the March, 1997 minutes of a group called the Front Range Public Library Directors (of Colorado): "All libraries offering unfiltered Internet access are experiencing, to some degree, customer use which results in screen displays which are offensive to others." 

    At issue is the indisputable presence of pornography on the Internet. If librarians provide public access to the World Wide Web, they are also making it possible for the public to pull up explicit graphic images. 

    Lest anyone doubt: while librarians are (justifiably) proud to have made the incomparable information resource of the World Wide Web available to all their patrons and/or customers, we are not happy about some of the more dubious "information resources" that came with it. 

    I know of no public library that has adopted "the provision of graphic sexual content" as a collection development goal. Although sexual content makes up just a tiny portion of Internet resources (see below), that's what we're in the news for. 

    Take USA Today, April 22, 1997, in an article called "Libraries torn over censoring Internet's seamy side." Take the front page Denver Post story (March 13, 1997), "Internet addicts pose library dilemma: restrictions weighed as porn appears." 

    The issue of pornography on the Web isn't just an internal question for libraries. Consider the opening paragraph of the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Action News for March 1997 entitled "Banned In Boston -- Again" ( 

    "On February 13, in response to complaints from patrons and members of the Boston City Council ... Mayor Thomas Menino mandated that filtering software be installed in all city computers to block access for minors and adults to sexually explicit materials. The Mayor's order includes all computer terminals in public libraries that have Internet access."
    A piece by Brock Meek for Microsoft NBC, called "Librarians need a reality check" (, begins like this: 
    "Someone should upbraid the American Library Association for its impotent stance against prohibiting children from accessing pornographic material on library-supplied Internet connections."
    [Incidentally, he later reversed himself. Read] 

    In other words, the public is complaining, the heads of civic government are mandating what should and/or should not be available for the public through the imposition of "filtering software" (see below), and the national news media has some unusually critical comments about how librarians are handling all this. 

    Even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), usually a staunch supporter of the public library, is "considering suing a Florida library system that put blocking software on its terminals," according to a special report by Rebecca Vesely called "Carded at the Library" [] . 

    Another potential legal problem for libraries is the issue of sexual harassment. Here's a sample question from a quiz developed by corporate trainers Hubbard & Revo-Cohen of Reston, Va. 

    "Is it sexual harassment?

    "A supervisor does not interfere with the passing around of pornographic magazines at the work site. 

    "Most likely, yes. Even if all employees enjoy and are not offended by the material, supervisors are held to a higher legal standard. If one person, perhaps a new employee, is offended, the company could be liable."

    So add the staff to the picture. In Colorado (and elsewhere in the United States of America) library staff are predominantly female. (For a good starting point about gender issues and computing, see Simply by placing World Wide Web terminals in the library, we are, in some cases, subjecting public servants to an environment that is sexually intimidating. 

    Let's summarize: if you don't provide Internet access to the public, you are ignoring a revolutionary tool for research. If you do provide it, you might get sued by the people who object that you haven't limited the research to "appropriate" results. (See Livermore, California - if you try to do just that, you might get sued by attorneys who object to your intolerable restrictions on the First Amendment. (See Loudon County, Virginia - 

    Welcome to the Information Age. 

    How Internet content steps around usual library collection development processes and policies

    The provision of World Wide Web terminals in the public library raises some important issues. 

    The first and most significant is the issue of collection development: what gets added to the library's holdings and why. 

    What you do find in the library is a solid collection of trustworthy reference tools, thousands of current and classic novels, a broad range of non-fiction titles on a host of subjects, and numerous other materials. Most American libraries do a good job of managing their funds to provide materials that are of interest and utility to the public. 

    But let's be honest. There are some things you don't find in public libraries. While you might find Playboy (which has a consistently high standard for fiction and non-fiction), probably you won't find Penthouse, or the many other magazines whose content largely consists of photographs of sexually charged scenes. 

    Why? Mainly, it's because libraries are an American institution. As a culture, we tend to "draw the line" somewhere in the vicinity of "pictures of naked people." Depending on your point of view, this makes perfect sense, or it seems a little arbitrary. But it's how American society works: say what isn't allowed, then push it as hard as possible in every conceivable medium. Here in the land of the free we have (for a price) thousands of skin magazines, X-rated movies, and now, websites. 

    There's a significant body of research about the effect of pornography on behavior (see Sense & Censorship: the Vanity of the Bonfires, by Marcia Polly, Americans for Constitutional Freedom: New York, 1991). Based on that literature, we cannot objectively conclude that pornography causes sexual misbehavior of any kind. Nonetheless, the viewing of pornography by minors is certainly upsetting to their parents. 

    In general, American society has found a way to keep sexually explicit content more or less segregated from "polite society." 

    But if public libraries have been successful in keeping out erotic periodicals and films, why can't we exercise the same fine judgment with electronic resources? 

    There are several reasons. 

    • First, most print resources are purchased from the mainstream market. While there are many "small presses" (folks whose print runs are 3,000 copies or fewer), most library materials come from a relatively small and identifiable number of well-known commercial players. These publishers have a track record, a reputation. Many library reference materials are selected precisely because of the reputation of the publisher.



      On the World Wide Web, anybody can be a publisher. So many of the players are newcomers that it's hard to know, right now, who can be trusted and who cannot. It's hard to know even if web publishers are who they say they are. 

    • Second, most print materials are reviewed, examined by librarians who come right out and say, "this is recommended for all collections," or "recommended for specialty academic collections only," or "not recommended."



      Internet-based materials are so volatile (thousands, perhaps tens of thousands spring up, or die, daily) and uncoordinated (no one approves or formally sanctions a web page) that often librarians (and their patrons) find them only by accident. There is no established system for professional review. 

    • Third, print materials must be "processed" by local librarians. Even if a library subscribes to an "approval plan" (where materials are shipped sight unseen from a book jobber), librarians still have to examine and handle the material before it is made available to the public.



      But Internet information is part of the broadcast, more like a live radio program than a book. We can turn the channel, but we can't stop the broadcast. Until now, librarians decided what came into the building, or at least what we paid to bring in. Now, material we would not have selected is showing up anyhow, either because some searches bring it up inadvertently, or because our patrons go looking for it.

    Cyberporn and some legal definitions

    The term "Cyberporn" leapt into national consciousness with a July 3, 1996 Time Magazine article called "On A Screen Near You: Cyberporn" by Philip Elmer-Dewitt. ( The article reported on a "Carnegie Mellon" study of pornography on the Internet. 

    Responses to the article quickly followed. (See criticism at Cyberporn 2000 []). The study upon which the article was based -- the work of an undergraduate engineering student named Martin Rimm -- was sharply criticized. For instance, Rimm claimed to have surveyed close to a million images on the Web, 85% of which were "pornographic." But in fact, all of the images came from dial-in, subscriber-based adult sites, which weren't part of the Internet at all (although some of these images did wind up in a small subset of Usenet). A close reading of the Rimm study shows that even with its inflated count, less than a third of one percent of Internet images had anything to do with sex. 

    But the issue isn't whether pornography can be found on the Web. It can. Pornography is to the World Wide Web as obscene phone calls are to US West: an annoying, but miniscule, part of the system. And just as you can hang up the phone, you can click on "Home." There's another parallel to the phone system. While a search may inadvertently bring up a site with sexual content, in almost all cases, that content is clearly labeled in a summary screen. To actually see the image, the user must deliberately select the site -- exactly like calling a phone sex line. In other words, the viewer makes a choice. 

    But the issue has a strong emotional dimension. Most of the concern about pornography on the Internet revolves around children. 

    As Mike Godwin, Staff Counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote in a piece called "Kids, Cyberporn, and Hysteria," "When talking about pornography and child safety on the Net, one often sees several different terms bandied about as if they were interchangeable. They're not." (

    Some of those terms are important. Godwin defines pornography as "material that presents sexual content of some sort, the the intent of being arousing." By itself, pornography is not illegal. If it were, every advertiser and movie-maker in America would be out of a job. 

    Obscenity is pornography that meets all parts of a three part test (defined by the Supreme Court in 1973 in the Miller v. California case): (1) "there must be a state statute in place that describes with specificity the particular sexual (or excretory) acts that cannot be depicted;" (2) the depiction of the sexual acts must be 'patently offensive,' and "appeal to the prurient interest,' as judged by a reasonable man applying the standards of the community;" and (3) the material must lack "serious" literary, artistic, scientific, political, or other social value. 

    Child pornography. As Godwin states bluntly, "This is material that is illegal regardless of whether it is obscene.... Under federal law, 'child pornography' is any visual material that depicts a child either engaging in explicit sexual acts or posing in a 'lewd and lascivious' manner, when the manufacture of such material involves the actual use of a real child." 

    Child sexual abuse. It's illegal, whether or not there's a picture. 

    Indecency. To date, this term has been restricted solely to broadcasting and so-called "dial-a-porn" services, "both currently under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission. In those contexts, 'indecency' normally means 'patently offensive' sexual content or profane language." Outside of these narrow areas, however, "indecency" has no legal meaning. 

    Nonetheless, many people believe they "know it when they see it." They just don't agree with each other on a consistent basis. 

    Disagreements notwithstanding, when parents do decide that something is indecent, they tend to steer their own children away from it. The library community isn't eager to put itself between parents and their children. In fact, we would very much like both of them to feel comfortable in our buildings and before our terminals -- providing, that is, that we don't have to sacrifice the fundamental principles upon which libraries are based. 

    The national debate: the Communications Decency Act

    What kinds of standards should govern communications over the Internet? Nationally, the issue has been debated around the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Under this Act, "any person who knowingly sends or displays materials over the Internet to minors that could be interpreted as 'indecent' or 'patently offensive by contemporary community standards' could be imprisoned for up to two years and fined up to $250,000." ( "Indecency" is a far broader description of speech than "obscenity." 

    Signed as part of the Communications Act, in February, 1996, the CDA was challenged almost immediately, primarily by the American Library Association. But it was not alone. Other plaintiffs include America Online, Inc.; American Booksellers Association, Inc.; American Society of Newspaper Editors; Apple Computer, Inc.; Association of American Publishers, Inc.; Association of Publishers, Editors and Writers; Commercial Internet Exchange; Compuserve Incorporated; Families Against Internet Censorship; Magazine Publishers of America, Inc. and the Society of Professional Journalists, Ltd. 

    The America Library Associate contended that "The Internet is a unique new communications medium that deserves free speech protection, at least as broad as that enjoyed by the print medium in our democracy." 

    In the words of Judith Krug, director of the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom, "Should the Supreme Court find this Act to be constitutional, it will become illegal to use communication over the Internet that is now perfectly legal to print, fax or even broadcast. In other words, we will be able to sing it, say it, copy it, draw it, and mail it, but we will not be able to put it on-line." The full text of her comments is available at ( 

    The case was decided by the Supreme Court on June 26, 1997. In brief, the CDA was ruled unconstitutional. As reported in a UPI story by Michael Kirland, "The 7-2 majority opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens says, `Notwithstanding the legitimacy and importance of the congressional goal of protecting children from harmful materials, we agree with (the lower court that struck down the law) that the statute abridges "the freedom of speech' protected by the First Amendment."' 

    "Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, agreed in part and dissented in part to the judgment." 

    The full text of the decision is available at

    Immediately following this decision, the American Library Association adopted a Statement on Library Use of Filtering Software ( that says in part, "The use in libraries of software filters which block Constitutionally protected speech is inconsistent with the United States Constitution and federal law and may lead to legal exposure for the library and its governing authorities. The American Library Association affirms that the use of filtering software abridges the Library Bill of Rights." 

    So that stakes out the position of the American Library Association. But the topic does deserve further discussion both within and without the profession. 

    Software filtering

    Many librarians have decided -- or as in Boston, had it decided for them -- that they will use filtering software. These are programs (running on World Wide Web workstations) that seek to block access to some sites. How they accomplish this varies. 

    On the face of it, the idea seems reasonable enough. If we can't choose what comes in, then we'll set up some rules to keep out those websites that do not meet our collection standards. 

    But the issue is more complex than it first appears. It's important to understand how software filters work. There are three basic strategies. 

    The first is to build a list of forbidden sites, URL by URL. Clearly, this approach can block some of the better-known and/or more egregious sites. But again, thousands of sites are popping up every day in this country. It's impossible to look at all of them, even if you buy (as some filtering software companies offer) regular updates. By itself, this approach is doomed to failure. But it can be combined with either or both of the other two. 

    A second approach is to take advantage of the same sort of technology used by World Wide Web search engines: before the web page is loaded, scan it for certain words or phrases. In some cases, this works very well. Triple-X rated sites often load up the code of their pages with as many sexually suggestive words as possible; this makes them easier to find. Programs using this "scan" approach can indeed block more blatantly sexual Websites, even if they just appeared today. 

    There are two problems with this approach, however. First, as with search engines, the retrieval is too broad. See below for examples. Second, the list of words Web pages are scanned for is not public knowledge, not even for the purchasers of the product. That's a "proprietary secret" of the various programs. Investing in such software is like handing a pair of scissors to folks who tell you they'll improve your encyclopedia through pruning -- but won't tell you just what, exactly, they plan to snip. 

    The third approach has the greatest potential: voluntary ratings. Several organizations have proposed rating standards. The most intriguing combination is offered by the Platform for Internet Content ( and the Recreational Software Advisory Council ( The PIC standards allow an Internet browser to be "aware" of content labeling. The RSACi content system allows web publishers to label the content of their pages, according to a checklist rating content by its level of violence, sex, and language. 

    The idea is this: a site might have some material that is perfectly appropriate for the general public. For instance, Playboy might have an interview with Bill Clinton. But other pages at its site -- photographs of the current Playmate, for instance -- could be rated as containing "full frontal nudity." In combination with rating-compliant Web browsers, this approach would seem to provide maximum flexibility. Browsers could be set to allow access only to those sites that fell within certain ratings. 

    The problem here is twofold, however. First, there are over 30 million pages on the World Wide Web; fewer than 200,000 of them are rated. If libraries were to restrict World Wide Web offerings to rated sites, over 93% of Internet content would be eliminated. 

    Second, there are inherent difficulties with the RSCACi descriptors. While they may apply well to video games, they do not apply so clearly to text-based material. For instance, a news report of a rape could be rated as "sex crimes," a report of an event in Somalia might be considered "wanton, gratuitous violence," and the quote of a convicted felon might be rated "crude, vulgar language." In short, the ratings allow for no distinction between the Denver Post and a web site consisting of a skinhead refutation of the Holocaust with an extensive pornographic gallery. 

    No current "ratings" system has yet attained the systematic comprehensiveness of common library cataloging. 

    A fine overview of the key players in the filtering software market, as well as a clear exposition of the issues, can be found in the September, 1996 issue of Internet World. []) 

    The following products were reviewed (I have also provided their Internet addresses): 

    Another good source of information about filtering software is Peacefire ( It is maintained by high school students. As it happens, this site is blocked by Cyber Patrol. You do have to wonder why. At Peacefire I found not only a cogent analysis of some of the problems inherent in filtering software, but also a flair for Web design and a fine awareness of the larger social and philosophic context. Ironically, these are precisely the minds proposed legislation and software are supposed to "protect." 

    Conclusions? The use of filtering software may be perfectly appropriate for computers at home, and even terminals placed in the children's area, just as we use deliberately scaled down reference tools. But no filtering software currently in use is appropriate for use by those patrons who stray beyond our kid's books. 

    Three reasons not to use filtering software on public WWW workstations

    1. It accidentally blocks access to innocuous and useful sites.



      Filtering software might prevent the display of a web site about the thirtieth SuperBowl (XXX, in Roman numerals). Or suppose you're looking for information about breast cancer. But "breast" is one of the words on the "blocking" database. Or the word might be "couple" -- and you find that the White House site ( is now off-limits because of the phrase "First Couple." Such restrictions constitute an intolerable crippling of a powerful research tool. 

    3. It intentionally blocks access to sites that don't have anything to do with pornography, but do raise issues of intellectual freedom.



      The CYBERsitter program -- to name just one (although each has similar problems) -- blocks sites that mention drugs or alcohol, or host "hate speech." This means that users would not be able to locate sites about drug rehabilitation programs, or historical information relating to the Holocaust. Either might be a legitimate topic for a school paper. It also blocks access to the web site of the National Organization for Women, or to any sites critical of the program. If a librarian -- or any government employee -- were to exhibit such overt, overbroad and sweepingly ill-defined biases, he or she would be justly accused of censorship. The fact that filtering software comes from the private sector doesn't absolve librarians from the decision to use it in a public setting. 

    5. It doesn't work.



      This is perhaps the strongest reason to oppose the public use of filtering software. If the purpose of purchasing such software is to block access to pornographic sites, none of the currently available programs has proved to be effective. Some pornographic sites come up when you search for relatively innocent words. At my library, searches for "fox anatomy," and "killer bee" (both for grade school assignments) pulled up some eye-opening and even jaw-dropping graphics at the reference desk. You can't block everything, and clearly some sites are sly as foxes. 

      In the first part of 1997, Jeff Bobicki, a Colorado computer consultant, loaded and extensively tested each of the more popular filtering programs. He shared his findings with Colorado librarians. In all cases, he found it relatively easy to go directly to hard-core pornographic sites. In some cases, the flaw was in the software. In others, the sites were optimized to "fly under the radar" of filtering software.

    Pornography has persisted throughout the entirety of human history. Thus far, nothing has stamped it out. That isn't likely to change. 

    As a nation, we are often quick to seek technological solutions to technological problems. But the right answer to the abuse of Internet workstations is not technological. It is human. Values -- and specifically, the question of what is acceptable behavior and what is not -- is a dialog that occurs first between parent and child. If children violate the values they have learned, responsibility for that rests not only with the parent, but with the child. (And some testing of values is a part of the process of maturation.) 

    While librarians do strive to find authoritative or representative resources from various perspectives, the primary job of librarianship is access, not endorsement. To restrict access to certain avenues of human expression, however offensive they may be to some, is institutional arrogance, the imposition of governmental preference on private possibility. To a free people, such a restriction is unacceptable. 

    Other strategies: terminal placement, glare screens, and "time outs"

    Software filtering is the "solution" (to complaints about "objectionable material on the Internet") that has gotten the most press. But there are other approaches for libraries seeking to balance the management of Internet access with concerns about the occasionally risqué content it includes. 

    Based on the longstanding library value of patron confidentiality, libraries might seek to prevent anyone but the person sitting in front of the workstation to see what is on the screen. The simplest solution is workstation placement. Polarized, glare-reduction screens may also be helpful. 

    Another suggestion is that World Wide Web workstations should, after some logical interval without mouse or keyboard activity, return to the library's home screen. So if a patron posted an "objectionable" image, then walked away, the screen would erase itself, returning to a library page. 

    Safe use, child friendly sites, and public awareness

    Most parents try to assure that their children have "street smarts." We tell our children not to climb into a stranger's car, for instance. Similar rules apply for the "information highway." All library websites should include information about "Child Safety on the Information Highway." A widely cited and excellent link is

    But this is still a mostly negative response to the World Wide Web. By far the most active, positive, and genuinely utilitarian approach is this: build child-friendly sites. Actively seek to link to or develop web pages that provide interesting, educational, and useful information. There are many starting points. Some samples include: 

    All of these focus on the real value of the World Wide Web: a "trip to the library" without ever having to get out of your pajamas. This is a tool parents and their children should know about. 

    Yet another important, and often-overlooked strategy is simple public awareness. After libraries have decided to provide Internet access, adopted the necessary policies (see below), developed a thoughtful set of links to child-focused sites, including a section on child safety, and spent some time reviewing rating standards and applying where appropriate, they should mount a public information campaign. Use brochures, newspaper articles, public programs, and demonstrations to tell people how to get connected to their local library. Tell them how to navigate the library's web pages. Emphasize the links that parents and children should know about. Like most library services, Internet access is a phenomenal bargain: a starting point for exploration that saves time. 


    Above, I mentioned the need to adopt a policy to govern the appropriate use of Internet resources. Such a policy is valuable in several respects. 

    First, it lays out the issues for the Library Board and staff alike. This gets people thinking and talking about them. 

    Second, it provides a checklist for planning. 

    Third, it defines a range of responses to public inquiries and complaints. 

    Following are some sample policies: 

    Here are some more general policies from the American Library Association that are also worthy of Board review:  Finally, here is a good starting point for the discussion of sexual harrassment, as presented on the World Wide Web Virtual Library:

    Before initiating Internet access for the public, it is wise to lay the issue before library staff. Make it clear that the World Wide Web is seen as a reference tool, but that it also will contain information that does not conform to usual standards for a library collection. If necessary, seek legal advice about options for staff when confronted with material they find upsetting. 

    Intellectual Freedom: What do public libraries stand for?

    Underlying the mission of every public library in the United States of America is a deep respect for the dignity of individual human inquiry. Librarians call this respect "intellectual freedom." It is not a faceless mandate from the American Library Association. It is the essential, defining characteristic of our institution, our meaning in local public life. 

    The World Wide Web is the latest in a long line of tools to satisfy the drive of humanity both to seek and to speak. Like all tools, it requires an understanding of its proper purposes, its strengths, and its limitations. 

    World Wide Web workstations will not drive out the books that still form the backbone of our services. The Web can, however, add incomparable richness and responsiveness to our ability to provide information to the public. 

    Welcome to the Information Age! 

    DORIS DAY [to Rock Hudson]: Mr. Allen, this may come as a shock to you, but there are some men who don't end every sentence with a proposition.
    Updated September 21, 1998 
    Copyright James LaRue, 1997-98 
    This document may be distributed freely provided that authorship and sponsorship are preserved in the document (author=James LaRue, sponsors=Central Colorado Library System and the Colorado State Library). 
    E-mail LaRue at

    Appendix: Who Needs Libraries Now that I'm on the 'Net?

    The World Wide Web will never take the place of libraries -- or of paper. There are at least six reasons (see Future Libraries: dreams, madness & reality, by Michael Gorman and Walt Crawford (Chicago: ALA, 1995) for a more detailed discussion). 
    • The first is legibility. About the best screen resolution is roughly 72 dots per inch. The worst resolution of ink on paper is 300 dots per inch; 1200 dots per inch is the standard. For sustained reading, paper is kinder to the eyes.

    • The second reason is linearity. The astonishing thing about the World Wide Web is the characteristic that defines it: hypertext, the ability to quickly jump from one topic (or location) to the other. But when I read a non-fiction book, I've willingly surrendered to the author's linear argument. I want to see where he starts, where he goes next, and finally, where he winds up. I'm almost as interested in how he transitions from point A to point B, as in what those points are. This orderly presentation is the contribution of the author. Further, I would submit that no better approach has been found for the thoughtful consideration of a subject: the assembling of the evidence to form a logical argument. Linearity is equally important for fiction. The story needs to be read from first page to last. The author may choose to jumble things up, but usually for a cause.

    • A third reason is portability. A paperback is cheaper, simpler, and safer to carry around than a laptop. If you drop a book into a bathtub, it won't kill you.

    • A fourth reason is that print is a surface technology. Microfilm, to take another hard-to-read format, requires a microfilm reader. A CD-ROM book takes a CD-ROM reader. But are we talking about a Windows CD-ROM (Windows 3.1? or Windows 95?), or a Macintosh CD-ROM? The Internet requires some remarkably sophisticated technology to retrieve a work: not only computer, modem, and subscription, but a complex network of telephone links. And if important works are only available in some electronic format, has the library inherited a need to preserve all the technology it takes to "read a book?" The practical problems here are enormous. The printed page needs just one working eye and one working hand. That's a remarkably accessible technology across millennia.

    • A fifth reason is copyright. It's too easy to steal somebody's writing off the Internet, and too hard, right now, to make money from it.

    • The sixth is lovability. I've watched children with computerized books. They love them the first time. After that, they're bored. Yet most children who are read to will latch onto a book with an attachment that demands that it be read night after night after night. There is deep power in the artifact of the book. Let's not be too quick to toss it out the window.
    Again: the Web is best for relatively short documents.