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ALA Banned Books Week

September 27–October 4, 2008 is ALA’s annual Banned Books Week.
I think that this is one of ALA’s great achievements since 1982 – keeping an eye on the freedom to read and pointing to the edges when we risk losing that freedom.
I have a suggestion. The freedom to read doesn’t just involve books. Yes, some forces tried to ban novels when they appeared in the 1800’s. We accept that’s a bad idea now although many libraries banned books that I wanted to read as a kid (Hardy Boys, OK!) Graphic novels got their cache when one won a Pulitzer Prize. (Maus) Anyway, the freedom to read is much broader than books and I am not suggesting in any way that ALA change the banned books week. It still serves a high purpose.
However, this year, when we see continual attacks on many types of libraries, we see an attack on research, discovery and reading. These are fundamental to progress. Consider:
1. Special libraries telling me they can’t get to the basic sites they need for research because they’re banned on their system wide intranet. (I actually didn’t do business with one company because of this since I figured their decisions were not well informed enough.)
2. School libraries where they can’t use the basics of the Internet – many sites and whole tools are banned. Are these kids better off for being less well equipped than others? By pushing some simple tools like blogs and MySpace underground (and you can’t block it) are we enabling our kids to learn in a good environment.
3. Public libraries that are being order to filter not just kids PC’s but adult computers too. Who will be the first to sue a library for violating end user rights? When will we get that precedent? I suspect it’ll be soon.
4. For all their lofty talk about academic freedom, are universities and colleges really sincere when they throttle some sites and tools under the guise of protecting bandwidth?
5. Adult, voting soldiers restricted in their access to the web. Defend our freedoms with our life, but don’t expect to exercise that right as an adult?
Anyway, maybe we can start a new “Banned Websites Week” and collect the funny, sad and scary examples that everyone shares over coffee at conferences.
I once helped publish a database called “Canadian Business and Current Affairs” which was blocked by many school filters. ‘Affairs’ can’t discriminate public, government or current affairs with the adulterous ones. I loved a client from long ago that once blocked access to itself and all of it’s own websites. You see, they were in ‘Middlesex’ County. I guess any kind of sex is bad. I’ve got more. Every article or e-mail that contained the word ‘specialist’ at one site was blocked. You see, cialis, is in the middle of that word. I won’t show too many more since I will be filtered and blocked for many of you. It’s fun to share our war stories though.
This issue came to mind as I watched all of the tut tutting in the media this month about the blocking of certain websites and searches in China during the Olympics. The media was appalled and breathlessly held this up as an example of the lack of basic freedoms in China. Interestingly, simultaneously the US Congress and legislatures all over North America were passing or considering legislation to require filters and blocks on all kinds of content in public institutions like libraries, schools, universities, hospitals, colleges, clubs, and more. This was despite the proofs that no filter works well. How interested were the media in that? ALA has some work to here. Freedom to read is more than just books.
Just a thought. I think it might be a fun project to try for a year.

Posted on: August 19, 2008, 4:30 pm Category: Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. mwcgrad97 said

    As regards point #3, Loudoun County Public Library in Virginia was sued back in 1997/1998 for requiring filters on all public computers. See and others. Basically, the judge ruled that the Internet is like an encyclopedia and filtering is like cutting out certain articles. Adults were then given a choice between having filtered or non-filtered access, and parents decide for their kids who are under 18.

  2. Excellent comparison between the Filtering done by the Chinese govt. and some of the things that different groups here in the U.S. want. I once did a presentation for elementary school teachers about good web sites that their student might use in class related projects and was shocked to be told that they couldn’t get to these sites. The network was locked down to a handful of “authorized” web sites by the state.
    I’m not completely stupid. I understand that there are some sites out there that are not suitable for children. Tell me, though, when do we stop thinking for our kids and start teaching them to think for themselves when it comes to selecting appropriate content?

  3. I have fought long and hard in a variety of library settings to keep filters out, and have added many book and periodical titles to their collections that are widely banned. Yet there are things that we would not add to our libraries’ holdings, even for entertainment value, that we readily make excuses for when some patrons spend valuable computer time accessing them (mud wrestling, endless YouTubing, etc.), time that could otherwise be used for other patrons’ more substantial informational needs, an essential service for which libraries exist. Clearly, “Freedom to read is more than just books,” but is it license to wastefully expend community and staff resources, however tricky it may be to define what is and is not a waste of such resources? Is it not our task as professionals to debate this fundamental issue and the consequences, positive and negative, of those parameters we may or may not wish to draw?
    It’s great to fight fitering. Thanks. It is a slippery slope to put anyone in charge, even library staff, of how other adults spend their free time though. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone else deciding that my hobby or personal interest was a waste of time. It’s pretty arrogant and quite judgmental! I’d be personally angry and offended if anyone decided to restrict me and my computer use – librarian, PC, government, etc. It matters not who owns the PC especially if it’s the government or other publicy financed institution that purports to bridge the whole digital divide. It’s quite a different thing to build a library collection than to try to restrict or manage user rights and behaviours. It’s a real stretch to base this on assumptions about valuable computer time. Computer time isn’t valuable at all. Libraries are just under-resourced to meet the public demand. That’s the real debate. Fund libraries properly.

  4. Really love this, Stephen–brilliant idea. Shelf Check will be on board.

  5. My kids attend a middle school where “Wikipedia” is BLOCKED. Wikipedia!! Now, really, we all know Wikipedia isn’t a scholarly source, but many entries cite links to scholarly sources. It can be a good STARTING place for research, the same way the library is a good STARTING place for research, and it doesn’t take too painfully long to explain to a child that you don’t just list the name of the library as a source for a paper. My daughter writes rather extensively on a social networking site for kids her age and had a story she was writing which was set on a farm “edited” repeatedly because she tried to use the word “hoe.” She finally had to give up and use “rake.” (They all figure out the tricks for getting around filters sooner or later anyway.)
    It is WAY too tempting to get lazy and use technology to close doors on people, effectively telling them what they may and may not think, rather than using advances in electronic communication to open new doors and help show them HOW to think – with an open, rational mind.