Lebanon Libraries Consider Web Filter After Porn Complaint

  • Lianne Moccia, of Lebanon, N.H., talks with Chuck McAndrew, an IT Librarian, while checking out books at the Lebanon Public Library in Lebanon on April 3, 2018. Moccia was on the library board of trustees for 17 years. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Carly Geraci

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/1/2018 11:53:50 PM
Modified: 12/4/2018 5:11:10 PM

Lebanon — The city’s library officials hope to begin discussing ways to protect children accessing the Lebanon Libraries’ public computers, after it was reported that two children might have been able to view inappropriate content.

The city’s Library Board of Trustees decided on Tuesday to form a task force that will review its current internet use policy. The group is also expected to explore whether internet content filters could be an effective or useful way to curb offensive content.

“We’re trying to be responsible and looking into where we need to draw the line, and how we can draw that line,” said Trustees Chairman Francis Oscadal on Wednesday.

Librarians were alerted two weeks ago by Jim Vanier, youth center coordinator for the Carter Community Building Association, that two middle school-age children accessed pornography on a computer at the downtown Lebanon Public Library.

Vanier overheard the two students talking, but they later denied any wrongdoing when he followed up. Still, he brought forward concerns about the library’s lack of internet protections to the trustees.

The municipal libraries have an internet policy forbidding any “disruptive or inappropriate behavior,” including the display of obscene or objectionable material on public computers. The policy also encourages parents to be present and supervise children using the computers.

However, librarians have been reluctant to take further steps to limit access to the internet.

There are several reasons for that stance, said Library Director Sean Fleming, starting with the fact that content filters aren’t perfect and sometimes prohibit people from accessing scholarly or sensitive materials.

“Say you had a child who was trying to even do a school report on puberty, there are certain keywords that students might be entering into a search and then not get any results,” he said.

Amy Lappin, deputy director of the Lebanon library system, pointed out that many local schools have instituted content filters that could be troublesome for public libraries.

Schools that receive federal funds are required to install filters under the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires obscene images, child pornography and images deemed “harmful to minors” be blocked.

For instance, when Lappin’s daughter was in high school, her science class was unable to access a Dartmouth-Hitchcock diagram of the female reproductive system. And at Lebanon’s public schools, students and visitors are unable to view the website of several public radio stations because they are considered a streaming service.

“The question is ‘Can something be done without also filtering out a lot of good information?’ ” she said.

While librarians could remove filters in certain instances, requesting such action could draw privacy concerns, Fleming said. A young person researching gender identity issues or attempting to find information on safe sexual practices might not want to discuss that at the reference desk, he said.

“People want privacy when they come into the library,” Fleming said, adding there’s even an option for patrons to check out books without having to interact with staffers.

“At first blush, from the work that we’ve done, it doesn’t seem like there would be something that would address the concerns that some might have about (the public computers),” Fleming said. “There’s just not tool available that would effectively do what some members of the public would like to see done.”

Those same concerns are mirrored by the American Library Association, which warns that content filtering could threaten access to constitutionally protected speech and therefore threatens First Amendment freedoms.

“Internet safety for children and adults is best addressed through educational programs that teach people how to find and evaluate information,” the association says on its website.

The national organization also worries that filters threaten privacy by monitoring and logging patrons’ internet activity.

That’s likely why Upper Valley libraries have generally taken the same stance as Lebanon.

The city’s library trustees queried counterparts in Claremont, Hanover, Meriden, New London, Plainfield and Newport. Only the Richards Free Library in Newport had restrictions on internet use, requiring children under 14 to get signed permission from a parent or guardian to access its computers.

Still, Library Trustee Steve Taylor, who will serve on the task force, said he’s willing to search for a balance between parental concerns and maintaining open public access.

“Certainly we want the library to be a facility for the community to use, to be able to get information, especially for people who don’t have access to the internet. We think that’s very important,” he said. “I think the question at this point is how do we decide what’s appropriate and who is it that’s supposed to making those decisions.”

Aside from content filters, Taylor said, he expects the group to perform a review of the library system’s internet policy, which was last updated in 2013.

Both Fleming and City Clerk Sandi Allard said the task force will be subject to the state’s right-to-know law and will hold open meetings.

The Lebanon Library Board of Trustees will continue discussing the task force and its charge during its next meeting, which hasn’t been scheduled yet.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.


Sean Fleming is the library director for Lebanon. An earlier version of this story misspelled Fleming's name.

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