Ever since public libraries started providing free internet access, the issue of patrons being exposed to “inappropriate content” has been raised repeatedly.  It’s come up in the news again this week, not because something new has happened, but because there’s yet another resurgence of interest in this issue.

As a public librarian, I confess to feeling conflicted on the issue of library patrons looking at pornography on public computers.  Yes, I feel that adults should have the right to have free access to information.  I also feel that filtering software doesn’t always work the way we’d like, and I understand the arguments against using filtering software that might overzealously filter out things like “breast cancer” and “Superbowl XXX,” to give two often-quoted examples.


As a young adult librarian who wants to protect my patrons from all kinds of creepiness, I was personally delighted when our library system installed filtering software on our computers (to clarify, the filters are automatic on all of our terminals, but on the adult floor the patrons have the option to turn the filter off and view the “questionable” content if they want to).  I was happy to have the filters installed to prevent older kids or adults from directing younger children to pornographic web sites in the Children’s Room (and yes, before the filtering software was installed I witnessed this happening multiple times).  I was also happy to have filter warnings that popped up on the adult computers so that if someone inadvertently went to a pornographic website they would be warned and could have the option to back away and choose a different site before their corneas melted and they had to go home to take a long hot shower.  As a specific pre-filter example, I’ll tell you about the time a young teenager came to the library to do some research about animals and naively typed in a web address that he thought might work.  Well, it turns out that “animals dot com” was actually a bestiality website.  So … um … yeah.  That was a pretty traumatic experience for everyone concerned.

So in terms of my patrons, I wouldn’t want them to be exposed to pornography unless they specifically chose to be exposed to it, and were of a consenting age.  They shouldn’t have to see it, and they shouldn’t have to listen to it.  That’s my opinion.  I also feel that *I* shouldn’t have to see it or listen to it.  Is that wrong?  Am I being overly sensitive or unreasonable?  Let me tell you about a few of my own experiences with men and with pornography that I’ve experienced as a public librarian.

When I was a librarian trainee over a decade ago, we had a regular library visitor whom we privately referred to as the “Gay Porn King.”  That’s because several times a week he would call one of us over because his computer terminal had frozen and needed to be restarted.  And every single time, the monitor would be filled with the image of a penis that took up most of the screen.  And I mean, EVERY SINGLE TIME, okay? And don’t ask me if it was the same one or different ones each time.  My focus was on trying to control my facial expression and trying not to let this idiot see how upset I was.  Because … well, I presume that’s why he kept doing it, right?  To see us flush with embarassment, to watch our professional veneers crack under pressure.  I mean, if this guy had flashed one of us on a subway platform, we could have had him arrested for indecent exposure.  But the fact that he forced each of us to look at these images over and over again AND in the process forced us to touch the keyboard that he had just touched … well, that was just part of our job.

After I graduated from library school and transferred to a new branch, I got to meet a new group of weirdos.  One of them would use the library’s computers every morning, sitting at a terminal where he could face the librarian who was sitting at the information desk several feet away … and he would start moaning aloud to himself.  At least, that’s what he did when my colleagues sat at the information desk.  Several of them warned me about him, so I was ready to start saying, “Excuse me, what was that?”  “Excuse me, can I help you?”  “Sir, are you okay?  Do you need medical assistance?” every time I heard him make a noise.  And then … nothing.  Not a peep out of him.  Perhaps I wasn’t his type.  So I never got to exact my embarassing revenge on him, even though I was DYING to do so. But still, let’s think about his motivations.  He obviously COULD control his volume level, since he was always quiet when I was at the info desk.  So I saw it as a similar mindset to the Gay Porn King — let’s see if I can get the librarian embarassed and flustered.  Let’s see if I can make her blush.  Let’s see if I can have power over her.

I think that the issue of pornography in the public library is really two issues:  Should people expect access to “inappropriate” or “controversial” content at the public library?  And what are the repercussions of having that content near other people (patrons and staff) who don’t want to see it / hear it / think about it?

The public library already provides access to material that would be deemed by many people as inappropriate or controversial.  We carry manga and other graphic novels that are recommended for “mature” audiences.  We carry R-rated movies.  We carry illustrated versions of the Kama Sutra and other sex guides.  We carry music CDs that have the “explicit lyrics” warnings on the cover.  So there definitely is precedent.  Flat-out pornography, however, is definitely a bigger issue.  Now, we DON’T subscribe to pornographic magazines, right?  I mean, if you visit your local library, you’re probably going to find copies of Time and Newsweek.  You’re not going to find copies of Hustler.  I assume that this decision was made because of the explicit content, although I’m sure that the fact that pornographic magazines would probably be stolen as soon as they hit the shelves was another motivating factor.

Now, I’m coming from a different era than the young people of today.  I would prefer if they learned about pornography the way people used to do in “olden times.”  My mother didn’t see a pornographic film until she asked my father to take her to see a double-feature in Times Square to satisfy her curiosity (they left part way through the second film, which was The Devil In Miss Jones).  When I was at the age that kids are seeing hardcore pornography online today, my best friend and I were reading letters out loud to each other from one of  her father’s issues of Penthouse Forum and laughing our heads off.  And yes, quite a few of the letters began with, “Dear Penthouse Forum.  I never believed your letters were real, but the other day …”  And I didn’t see a pornographic film until I was in my twenties, when I learned that my then-boyfriend had a box of videocassettes he’d inherited from his then-brother-in-law.  I got to see those same films that my parents had seen in Times Square decades earlier, plus a bunch of other films that led me to understand that the then-brother-in-law had some very peculiar tendencies, indeed.

Would I have been able to handle seeing pornography as a child or a teenager?  No.  Should children and teens be exposed to it today?  No.  Are they going to be exposed to it, at the library or somewhere else?  Very likely.

So … how can we protect our patrons and our staff from viewing, hearing, or otherwise having to deal with the repercussions of pornography?  The public library has several measures in place.  Unfortunately, these measures are vastly imperfect.

Privacy Screens – Each of the public internet terminals in the adult room now has a privacy screen on the monitor.  These are supposed to shield nearby patrons from seeing what you’re seeing on the screen, whether it be your Facebook page, your banking transactions, or your favorite hardcore porn website.  Unfortunately, many patrons don’t LIKE the privacy screens, either because the screen makes it harder for them to see or because they WANT other people to see what they’re looking at.  And so … the patrons remove the screens.  Every single morning, we find the screens next to the monitors, behind the monitors, or even on the floor.  Some of the privacy screens have disappeared altogether.  And so it goes.

Filtering Software – There are two problems here.  One is that the filtering software is imperfect.  There are words, and phrases, and images that will trigger the filtering software, which will then protect your eyes from these words, phrases, and images.  But then there’s some stuff that flies under the radar; the filtering software doesn’t catch it, and you’re going to see those words and images whether you’re ready for them or not.  Also … while any patrons using the terminals in the children’s room automatically have their content filtered, patrons who sign up to use terminals in the adult room will get a message saying that the filter has determined that the content is inappropriate for minors … BUT that if they click on the button saying that they are above the legal age, they can take the next step and view that inappropriate content.

So … how many 12-year-olds do you think will resist clicking that button to see what comes next?

My thoughts exactly.

And besides, even if you bring your child into the library and use Crazy Glue to attach him to his seat and make sure he never goes to visit the big bad Adult Room, the sanctity of his mind cannot be guaranteed.  Because patrons also have the option to check out wireless laptops, which can be used anywhere in the building and which DON’T have privacy screens, removable or otherwise.

So yes, the library is taking steps to protect its patrons from pornography but no, these steps are not enough.

In my ideal, imaginary world, this is what would happen:

Any and all creepy people who want to exert power over other people by touching them, harassing them, exposing themselves to them, watching / listening to / moaning at pornography in front of them should be pushed down multiple flights of stairs, shot, burned, and then dropped into one of the lowest circles of Hell where they should be stabbed with hot pokers for all of eternity.

What, too harsh?

If it helps to explain my perspective on things, I’d like to add that during the years that I attended an all-girls high school, almost everyone in my circle of friends was sexually harassed / touched / groped by strange men in public places like subway cars, arcades, and libraries.  I know from personal experience that traumatic events, especially those of a sexual nature, can have long-lasting effects on our behaviors and personalities.

Because I was molested on a crowded subway car when I was in high school, I could no longer wear a slip under dresses or skirts because the sensation of it touching my skin made me feel physically ill.  To this day, I will risk being late if I think that a subway car is too crowded and I will wait for the next train instead.

When I was in college, I went to the Mid-Manhattan library to do research for the final paper of a psychology class.  After I’d been there for over an hour, going back and forth between different floors and rooms to use different reference sources, I noticed that a man was following me.  Every time I looked up from what I was doing, he was there.  I went into full-fledged panic mode.  I wrote down his physical description in the book I was using to take notes for my paper, so that the police would find it and be able to track him down after my death.  I took my belongings, walked into the stairwell, and waited to see if he would follow me.  I don’t know what I was going to do if he showed up, but I’m pretty sure that it was going to involve screaming at him.  When he didn’t show up, the other half of the “fight or flight” instinct took over.  I walked out of the library.  I never finished the paper.  I failed the class.

If I learned nothing else, it’s that public places can be welcoming, but they can also be dangerous.  And that was BEFORE the advent of internet pornography.  I think that I want to try to protect young people because I’m their advocate, but also because I couldn’t always protect myself when I was their age.  I worry about creepy men who have always hung out in public libraries, and I worry about this new tool that they have at their disposal.

Okay, let me rethink that whole ideal, imaginary world thing.  Because you’re probably right.  I probably was too harsh.

Any and all creepy people who want to exert power over other people by touching them, harassing them, exposing themselves to them, watching / listening to / moaning at pornography in front of them should be quarantined in a separate soundproof room at the library.  Let them have their own private entrance and their own private bathroom so they won’t interact with the other patrons.  And let them fix their own damn computers when they freeze up, because I sure as hell don’t want to touch those keyboards.