Monday, November 13, 2006

Is the ALA out of touch?

Imagine this scenario. You are a library staff member charged with monitoring the library's public internet computers. A known "problem patron" comes in and begins an internet session. This patron is known to have been "on the edge" of violating library policy in the past. While walking past him and shelving some material, you notice he is looking at pornographic images depicting people you believe to be under the age of 18. You nervously go to the phone and dial 911 to call the police. Noticing your nervousness, the offender ends his session and quickly leaves. The police arrive and ask for the computer user's name, address and session history. Do you give it to them?

The people of Kankakee - who pay our salaries, financed our new building and keep our doors open by patronizing our resources - would demand, I suspect, that we give the police what they want to get the creep off the street. That is certainly what our staff would do. I wonder though, would the American Library Association say the same?

This scenario is similar to the one depicted recently in a WBBM Chicago TV report called "Library Confidential". The report sparked a discussion in a library staff supervisors' meeting about what we should do if such thing were to happen on our library (which I might add NEVER has!) We concluded first that such viewing of child pornography is an egregious violation of library policy, and would result in the banning of the offender from the internet computers and most likely the library itself. However we were not sure if Illinois law requires us to demand a court order before turning over the name and viewing history of the internet user. The Illinois library law reads:

75 ILCS 70/1) (from Ch. 81, par. 1201)
Sec. 1. (a) The registration and circulation records of a library are confidential information. Except pursuant to a court order, no person shall publish or make any information contained in such records available to the public.

That doesn't seem to cover the history on computers. But what does the American Library Association have to say on the matter? Though the ALA demands that libraries follow all applicable law, it states in its privacy guidelines "General monitoring by staff of patron content or use of library materials and resources in any format is inappropriate in all instances with the exception of observation for the purposes of protecting library property." Our library monitors internet activity constantly. In fact we have positioned the computers purposefully so that staff can observer user activity. The ALA suggests a hands-off approach. "Libraries may address the concerns of unwilling viewers in a number of different ways, including the strategic placement of workstations and the use of devices such as privacy screens or recessed monitors." Using those methods I fear we'd quickly become the Kankakee Public Peepshow.

The ALA privacy guidelines has this to say about cooperating with the police: "Neither libraries, their resources, nor their staff should be used in any scheme to elicit and catch criminal behavior." I suppose I can agree that we should not engage in "sting" operations that would "elicit" criminal behavior. But what does "elicit and catch" mean? Does that mean the ALA would demand we not hand over the computer history of the suspected sex offender?

I fear the ALA has become hopelessly out of touch with the concerns of real communities that finance public libraries. I don't understand why it would be acceptable to ask a loud patron to lower her voice, but the ALA would not have us ask a patron viewing shocking pornography on a publicly viewable screen to stop.

If we follow the ALA philosophy - what we don't see we don't have to be responsible for - we will be buried in proposed filtering legislation that none of us want.

More information: ALA Privacy Page

Steve Bertrand
Assistant Director
Kankakee Public Library


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am an enthusiastic patron of public libraries and blog about them. Despite being a firm advocate of freedom of expression, the publicly viewable porn problem is potentially a serious one. The question is, why does every computer in a library need to be in a place where the screen could be seen? It is a thorny issue, especially considering that the filtering technologies tend to harvest the good with the bad.

December 15, 2006 1:41 PM  
Blogger SafeLibraries┬« said...

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June 02, 2007 7:10 AM  

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