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Editorial: Lebanon Public Libraries make the sound and principled decision to reject internet filters

  • The Lebanon Public Library on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019, in Lebanon, N.H. Library officials are discussing a potential library renovation. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Published: 10/26/2019 10:10:12 PM
Modified: 10/26/2019 10:10:09 PM

The decision by the Lebanon Public Libraries to refrain from installing internet content filters will surely disappoint some members of the community worried about the potential for children to access pornography on library computers. Nonetheless, the conclusion is sound, and the process used to reach it thoughtful.

A task force formed by the city’s Library Board of Trustees examined the question of installing filters after concerns were raised in 2018 that two middle-school-aged children might have viewed pornography at the downtown Lebanon library. The panel concluded that while filters certainly exist, “they are expensive and don’t work,” according to Amy Lappin, deputy director of the Lebanon Public Libraries and task force chairwoman.

Or as the American Library Association puts it, “Content filters are unreliable because computer code and algorithms are still unable to adequately interpret, assess, and categorize the complexities of human communication, whether expressed in text or in image.” The result, said Lappin, is that the software either fails to block inappropriate content or restricts access to legitimate information.

“As a steward of taxpayer funds,” Library Director Sean Fleming told staff writer Tim Camerato, “I don’t want to use funds in a way that would be ineffective in addressing the concerns the community may have.”

So what’s the answer? Lappin says city libraries “intend to up our education game,” including hosting an internet security event for parents next month. That seems to us a better approach than filters, and it also aligns with ALA guidance, which says that internet safety, for both children and adults, “is best addressed through educational programs that teach people how to find and evaluate information.” That advice also reflects the reality that, when it comes to children, pornography is far from the only internet content that parents and the community at large need to worry about.

It also strikes us that when an individual accesses inappropriate content on a library computer, the correct response is to address that behavior on an individual basis, rather than restricting access more broadly. Lebanon already has a policy on the books that bars the display of “obscene or objectionable material” on library computers, which appears to cover that base.

None of the seven public libraries that the task force consulted use filtering software, and Fleming said he knows of none that do. This is not surprising, because besides the expense and technical limitations, filtering infringes on core library values as well as First Amendment and privacy rights that both adults and minors enjoy.

Intellectual freedom and the quest for knowledge are at the heart of the mission of public libraries. Restricting access to the internet cannot be consistent with that mission, any more than deciding who can check out which books to read.

The internet has created what appear to be a host of new problems in many realms of life. The answer to those difficulties is not to abandon sound principles, but to learn to apply them to rapidly changing conditions. This, we believe, the Lebanon Public Libraries, and many others, have resolved to do.




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