Over the last several days, a report amending Vancouver Public Library’s “Public Internet Use Policy” to restrict patrons’ browsing rights has been the subject of much discussion in professional circles here in British Columbia and beyond. To many, myself included, this report - and the policy it articulates - represent a grave tactical error for VPL from a service-delivery standpoint and a brazen affront to intellectual freedom in the broader philosophical context of librarianship. Selected critiques follow - they are by no means exhaustive.
WHAT DOES THE POLICY SAY?
This is unclear. As written, the policy contains no definitions, no stated rationale, no enforcement mechanism, and no guidelines as to interpretation. The crux of it, however, is that VPL users are advised that they are no longer permitted to view “explicit sexual images” on library terminals (not moving pictures?) and that staff now possess the blanket power to designate any browsing activity, indeed any computer-related activity, “inappropriate” and restrict or revoke library priveleges accordingly. The notion of what constitutes “inappropriate” content is also not defined, apparently deliberately.
WEASEL WORDS AND PUBLIC MORALITY:
There are a number of words which appear repeatedly throughout the policy which should be immediately worrisome to us and which give us a clear indicator of what this document is really about - as my colleague Catelynne has pointed out, these mostly revolve around making moral value judgements about the content and/or information users are accessing in the library. Content is variously described as “inappropriate” (which appears an astonishing 21 times in the document), “explicit”, “overtly sexualized”, and “unacceptable” (including the delightfully mysterious phrase “Unacceptable Images” which sounds like it could be the name of a Pythonesque government ministry).
What do these terms have in common? Two things.
First, they are all tied up with moral judgements about the information patrons are accessing. Moral, not ethical – the distinction is important. Ethical judgements are, at their best, pragmatic – concerned with how we should behave in order to optimise human life. They’re about how people live, not who people are, and this is the premise from which all good library policies flow. Library policy is concerned with shared space, after all, and mitigating friction between users comes with the territory. It’s no great thing to say, as many libraries do, “if we receive complaints about what you’re looking at on the computer, we reserve the right to come talk to you and communicate these principles around shared space and work out a compromise that leaves you feeling validated in using the library”.
Moral judgements, however - like the ones which form the crux of this policy - are ontological statements about the nature of reality. Indeed the very words “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” redirect automatically to Wikipedia’s article on “Morality”. Moral precepts are held to be fixed, innate, immutable, concerned with an external conception of what is inherently “good” or “bad” in the human character. This is territory where libraries have no right to tread - and doing so invites disaster. Once a library willingly gets into value judgements as to the moral rightness or wrongness of the content contained in its information resources - and VPL acknowledges outright that “Vancouver Public Library considers Internet resources an extension of our material collections for library users and one of the richest resources available to the public” - it has set itself up as an arbiter of public morality, and that is not just dangerous. It is wrong. Making value judgements about people’s sexuality, or even tangentially seeming to do so, should be assiduously avoided. I’m surprised a library as well-resourced as VPL would fall into this incredibly stupid rhetorical trap, the more so since they explicitly link their provision of internet resources to their collection development policies, which permitting a quite natural “what goes for one goes for the other” conflation in users’ minds. This is a whirlwind no library wants to reap.
There is a clear pragmatic case for avoiding moralism in library policy, as well. The political context of the 21st century has seen the idea of the “slippery slope” – ordinarily a logical fallacy – become a daily reality for many libraries. In the United States, extreme right-wing groups have a history of going through library statutes and policy with a fine-toothed comb, looking for inconsistencies which allow them to attack library funding, more vigourously pursue book challenges, and increase other attempts to censor or control libraries’ collection development policies. Ironically, when a library invokes a supposed right to dictate morality, it vastly undermines whatever moral authority it possesses.
And the second thing these terms have in common?
None of them – “unacceptable”, “inappropriate”, “explicit”, “sexual”, or “sexualize” - is defined at any point in this document or elsewhere in VPL’s internet policy. To carry this to an absurd conclusion, if I knew or suspected that a patron had a shoe fetish and repeatedly observed the patron viewing images of shoes on the public terminals, I could meaningfully invoke this policy saying that because the patron’s psyche has “sexualized” the images they have become “inappropriate” (and perhaps even “explicit”, heaven forbid!)
Even if we leave any discussion of morality aside (which I obviously do not concede) these omissions alone render this policy completely unfit for purpose. Policy is concerned with the meaning of words – it stands or falls on their interpretation. This is why laws contain such painfully lengthy lists of definitions, even for seemingly trivial terms. What we understand words to mean is important, especially when we are wading into fraught territory where the safety of staff is at least nominally on the line. The closest this policy ever comes is saying that patrons may be offended by “appropriate or offensive material may be legal pornography, sexually explicit images, or other offensive content or images.”
Maybe just a tad of a broad brush, there, and this handily takes us to the next issue.
SAFETY AND MORAL HYGIENE
The rhetorical tradition of invoking a non-specific notion of “safety” as a blanket justification for suppressing of non-conformity has a long, ugly history. Indeed, along with ideas of hygiene and “uncleanliness”, ill-defined threats to “community safety” are among the most leaned-on strawman for excusing or even encouraging persecution of a real or imagined “other”. So when we see “safety” given as a policy justification within the first paragraph, it should make our metaphorical ears perk up and give us pause.
In a policy context, we should look for a clear enumeration of what constitutes the threat and how the proposed policy seeks to mitigate that threat. The word root “safe” (safe, safety, unsafe) appears 15 more times in the document, but almost all of these references relate to the premise that “ensuring staff feel safe in the performance of their duties” makes it imperative to ban sexually explicit imagery on the internet. We have to wait until the fifth page until we finally get an encapsulation of what this “threat to safety” actually is:
"…not all staff are comfortable in the role of asking people to stop viewing material or do not feel safe doing so"
And then, a paragraph later:
"Some staff and VPL security coordinators have stated that it would assist them in ensuring a welcoming, safe space for all if policy stated that viewing inappropriate material was not acceptable or allowed"
I’m not in the business of telling people what should make them feel safe, and I understand that as a white male my boundaries are different and my perception of threat in the workplace is highly conditioned by that. What I think I can safely emphasise, however, is that frontline public librarianship is public-facing work. Long may it remain so! That necessarily implies, for all public workers, situations where you will have to deal with things that make you feel uncomfortable, sordid, even threatened. As other social services steadily succumb to funding and political pressure, these points of friction in libraries are increasing and will continue to increase. Part of being a professional, part of being a public servant, is being able to work with the public even when it is difficult.
I can maybe talk a bit about a few situations I have encountered around personal safety in the library, lest people think I’m heartless or unaware of the challenges library staff face. I have seen weapons pulled in the library in anger. I have had my life directly threatened, and seen the lives of other patrons directly threatened. I have seen fights in the library resulting in serious injury. I have been in tense situations where I have waited hours for a police response that never comes. I have dealt with overdoses, unexplained concussions, and sudden seizures. I’ve had to provide support as other staff attempt to deal with convicted sex offenders in the children’s area. These situations all made me feel very, very unsafe. But they were part of my job. Are we seriously advocating a vision of librarianship where we treat policy as a tool for precluding our having to deal with people who might offend us or freak us out? Libraries are for everyone, and the only person I’ve ever caught actually masturbating in the library had perfected a remarkable no-hands technique…and was using an art book, not the internet, as inspiration.
This is not to say there are not legitimate concerns with people’s comfort levels in the library, especially those of staff. The problem is that this policy seems to have started from a premise of seeing safety through the lens of moral hygiene and then working backwards to justify it from that point.
And this is where, unfortunately, we must discuss:
The stated justifications for this policy, such as they are, are truly baffling. The report actually lacks a “rationale” section, which is certainly a novelty, and so (again, as Catelynne has pointed out) you really have to trawl through the document to get at why. We’ve seen that “safety” is invoked, in the context of staff not enjoying having to confront patrons about objectionable content or behaviour at public internet terminals, and that notion of “safety” is expanded in a lengthy and profoundly troubling section on harassment which I’ll quote from at length because it bears looking at a bit more closely:
Behaviour does not need to be intentional in order to be considered harassment. Some examples of harassment listed in the policy include, but are not limited to:
“Displaying or distributing derogatory or offensive pictures, graffiti or other materials related to any of the Prohibited Grounds, including but not limited to racist, sexist, or homophobic materials;”
Unwelcome, offensive behaviour related to a Prohibited Ground, where tolerance of the behaviour is explicitly or implicitly made a term of employment or a consideration in job-related decisions;”
Further, the library has a primary responsibility to establish and maintain a work environment free of harassment. The library and staff responsible for supervision must:
“Ensure staff is provided with information about and access to policies and procedures related to harassment; and, intervene promptly and appropriately when they know, or ought reasonably to know, that harassment is occurring.”
The Prohibited Grounds are from the BC Human Rights Code. They are:
Physical and Mental Disability
Place of Origin
Sex (including gender and pregnancy)
Unrelated criminal conviction
I don’t think it takes any particularly strenuous mental acrobatics to add these two sections together and realise that this adds up to carte blanche for declaring virtually anything a patron might want to read or look at offensive and therefore constituting discrimination and/or harassment. Looking at stevequayle.com? I’m vehemently left of centre; you’re discriminating by seeking information on a political perspective which does indeed offend me violently. Looking at the Bible? Maybe, let’s say, you’re reading Mark 10. What if I have a non-cis gender expression? This verse discriminates against me. What if I’m a divorcee? This verse discriminates against me - pretty much says I’m an ontological abomination. You can run with this line of reasoning forever, and that’s exactly why it does not belong in this policy without clearer enumeration of where lines are to be drawn or where a degree of equanimity in interpretation is expected from staff.
Are there problems around harassment in the workplace, or internet behaviour being used to terrify staff? Absolutely. Does this address those problems in any meaningful way? Absolutely not. A catapult is not a flyswatter and doesn’t work well as one.
Then we have a bizarre section on “technology impacts” which says:
"High resolution 19” computer monitors have been the norm for public workstations for the past 5 years and in the regular cycle are being replaced by 22” monitors. While bandwidth capacity is an issue for the library, patrons are able to stream web content. The advent of YouTube and similar adult websites means that streaming of adult movies is easily done and is more noticeable to patrons and staff. While content is more visible, most Internet users will have several browser tabs open at one time and move between them. Someone may be observed viewing inappropriate content and a different screen may be visible minutes or seconds later"
What the actual fuck is this? Forgive me for waxing sweary, but this is straight up alarmist bullshit and doesn’t deserve the time of day - it certainly doesn’t belong within a hundred yards of a library policy. Youtube is a porn site? 22” monitors cause impure thoughts in today’s youth? Tabbed browsing is a tool of the Devil? And hasn’t VPL ever heard of those privacy filters for LCD screens? They’re not cheap as chips, but they’re cheaper than a new monitor and they’re CERTAINLY cheaper than betraying the values that set you apart and give you purpose.
The closest the document comes to discussing a pragmatic rationale for the policy is in a bewildering section where VPL acknowledges up front that “the number of formal complaints via email, letter, or telephone concerning pornography or inappropriate material has historically been quite low.” The only substantive patron complaints that VPL felt the need to acknowledge - of all the 31 incidences documented over 2 years - were the following:
Patrons express a variety of reasons for objecting to others using library workstations to view offensive material. In most cases, patrons state they are offended by the material that they see and some express that they feel intimidated when they sit near someone who is viewing this material. Patrons express concern that libraries are public spaces where children and women can see screens with objectionable material.
Again, what is “offensive material”? We have no idea whatsoever. I’ve fielded a fairly high volume of patron complaints in my day and I have to say that in many or most cases what people complain about as “offensive” often boils down to “I don’t agree with this”. I have had staunch Republicans complain that the person next to them is viewing MSNBC, and Democrats complain that children shouldn’t be reading Mark Twain because of the N-word. If you contend that these types of complaints are not what this policy is intended to address, I contend that it could be interpreted to do so owing to its incautious language and moralistic approach. That is a problem.
And as I have said elsewhere, if it even needs to be said: a phrase about the hysterical sensibilities of “women and children” categorically does not belong in a policy written by a library which regularly styles itself as among the world’s best and which is situated in a political context which pays great public lip service to progressivism (but which itself is alarmingly prone to policing the sexuality of its representatives).
The only other justification we see in the policy (I’m not sure the above deserve to be invoked as justifications, but they seem to fulfil that functional role in this policy so we have to roll with it) is probably the most weaselly of all. That dubious distinction belongs, of course, to the “Review of Public Internet and Computer Usage Policy at Other Libraries” section. It reads, in part:
A review of computer use policies from 12 other BC and Canadian libraries shows that most of the libraries’ policies have statements that are clearer and more directive than VPL’s policy. These policies offer some alternatives for strengthening VPL’s policy.
Greater Victoria, Edmonton and Hamilton public libraries all state that library computers and wireless may not be used to display overt or explicit sexual images. Ottawa and Richmond public libraries both note in their policy that that it is the library’s “responsibility to provide an environment that is free from sexual harassment and discourages Internet use that denies other a safe environment”
Halifax Public Library’s policy states; “There are sites on the Internet inappropriate for viewing in a public setting. Library staff reserve the right to end Internet sessions when such material is displayed.”
Like the Halifax policy, all policies reviewed referenced loss of library privileges or suspending Internet use if there is an infraction of the policy. Staff from other libraries note that inclusion of consequences for infractions help enforce the policy. Each of these libraries shares the same values of intellectual freedom as VPL, but have implemented more direct language with regards to the use of shared public computing resources and conduct in a shared space”
Hoo boy. They invoke 12 libraries - which 12? They name a few, not others. They say the thing they admire about these policies is that they “have implemented more direct language with regards to the use of shared public computing resources and conduct in a shared space”, but we’ve already seen this policy isn’t about public space (behaviour) as much as it is about public morality (proscribed content) - and the one thing this policy certainly does NOT contain is “direct language”.
This is one of the most influential library systems in the country - and we as libraries are supposed to be bastions of frank analysis and critical thinking - neglecting to even cite its own sources in a public policy document. Nor is that the only suspicious evidentiary tactic at play here, for why does the report cite only libraries which allegedly police content in this way? What of, I don’t know, Burnaby Public Library, right next door? Their policy takes as its foundational premise the notion that:
"In accord with the CLA Statement on Intellectual Freedom, the library does not control, and assumes no responsibility for, information accessed on the Internet. Library users are responsible for the sites they visit and any text or images they print.”
And yet the idea that this attitude might exist, even as a counterpoint, is never mentioned at all. In light of all this - weasel words, deliberate avoidance of definitions, sweeping statutory invocations, sloppy citations, and painful evidence of extremely limited research on alternatives, it’s hard not to get the impression that this policy started with a premise and reverse-engineered its rationale. That’s not something I want to see from a library. Even if that’s not actually the case, writing a document where someone can legitimately draw the conclusion that your research was stymied and your justification is weak is the opposite of what we look for in good policy. Poor show, sloppy work.
BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
The closest thing we’ve come to as an actual rationale for this policy is the notion that staff feel uncomfortable when required to confront patrons about viewing content they (staff) feel is objectionable. What does the policy do to address this? Nothing whatsoever. The onus is still on staff to seek out “problem users” and confront them - it’s just that now they have a couple lines of policy they can invoke. As anybody knows, pointing to a sign in a public library that’s more complex than a cellphone with a bar through it is much like farting in a drafty room - odious, but ineffective for clearing a space. Since the decision of whether to confront users is left with staff, we can only conclude that this policy is inherently unenforceable and is not intended to be enforced. What is it, then?
It’s basically the Ban of Damocles. It hovers over users’ heads at all times, providing a universal context for summary revocation of browsing privileges or even the right to use library space. This is made abundantly clear by the two new clauses actually added to the public internet policy, to wit:
"Users must not use any workstation or the public wireless network to display explicit sexual images"
And the far more worrisome:
Staff will advise users of inappropriate conduct as required and will ask that any behaviour deemed to be inappropriate cease immediately. Violations may result in loss of privileges for both the user and the card(s) used.
No warning, no negotiation, no explanation, no compromise, nothing. If I don’t like what you’re looking at on the computer, for any reason, I can deny your access to all library services at all branches. That’s what this policy really says. Don’t like this interpretation? Tighten up the language which makes it possible. That’s what policy is all about.
Oh, and another thing bears saying about policy - my very first library boss told me something that has stuck with me my entire career. “Policy is always an acknowledgement of defeat,” she said, “because it means you’ve failed to address a problem through service delivery or design.” The way you deliver service and treat your community - your patrons, both in person and in the abstract - is the first and best step for promoting good behaviour in the library. If you’re messing that up, you will have more and more behavioural problems. If you can’t correct for these through design - placement of terminals, adequate staffing, and lines of sight in this case - then you go to the policy table and try to come up with something that isn’t completely horrible. Sounds like maybe this library is having problems with all three, which is a very sad state of affairs.
A NOTE ON CULPABILITY
It’s unfortunate that an individual’s name is appended to this report, because reports like this are a product of collective effort, often with unclear origins, and have to be approved by many many people before they find their way into writing. I would strongly caution against singling out individuals for criticism over the writing of this report and instead suggest that it be treated as a collective effort embodying the corporate will of a large, influential public library system. It should be critiqued in that context.