Filtering the Internet in American Public Libraries: Sliding Down the Slippery Slope by Jeannette Allis Bastian
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Filtering the Internet in American Public Libraries: Sliding Down the Slippery Slope by Jeannette Bastian
The use of filters to block those Internet sites that some public libraries and/or communities deem undesirable has caused an uproar within the profession as various viewpoints vie for ascendancy. The author examines positions taken by the American Library Association and others and reviews the choices and consequences of various filtering products. She concludes that libraries must retain responsibility for their offerings but also protect First Amendment rights.


Information, The Public Library, and the Internet
Filtering, The Librarians, and the Public
Filtering and the American Library Association


Libraries in the United States have been collectively battling against censorship ever since the American Library Association (ALA) issued its first Library Bill of Rights in 1939, a document proclaiming the Association's basic policy on intellectual freedom. With the moral and professional support of ALA and its Bill of Rights, libraries have generally been successful in defending their collections against censorship and in asserting their right to provide unrestricted access to information as well as equal and fair service to all users [ 1 ]. Now, sixty years and several versions later, the ALA Bill of Rights is still providing support to libraries engaged in this continuous struggle but the battleground has shifted from print to electronic information, from the book to the Internet. And while the pressure of book censorship has decreased, the ambiguous and amorphous nature of the Internet presents an even more difficult challenge to those who would defend freedom of information principles [ 2 ]. Can and should the Internet be censored by filtering is a question bedeviling thousands of public librarians who have rushed to embrace this seemingly limitless and economical information source only to find that it includes a distinctly dark and dirty side.

Public access to the Internet is now available in over fifty percent of the public libraries in the United States [ 3 ]. Through the Internet, clients of these libraries, adults and children, can potentially access all the information that the Internet offers - a rich, expanding and unmediated universe . This means that each of these libraries, and the thousands that will acquire Internet access over the next few years is faced with a new professional dilemma, namely, whether to provide totally open access to the Internet thereby fully supporting intellectual freedom principles and first amendment rights as described in the ALA Library Bill of Rights, or to limit access to the Internet by filtering out and effectively censoring undesirable information.

Tension and ambivalence between the censorship versus consumership model of the public library have existed since that institution's inception in the latter part of the nineteenth century. From the early days of the public library, librarians sought on the one hand to elevate public thought, and on the other, to meet public demand [ 4 ]. The role of the librarian as arbiter of good reading and social values versus that of mass market distributor is a thread that continues to run through the professional literature [ 5 ] and determine library practice [ 6 ]. In recognition of the continuously changing nuances inherent in intellectual freedom issues, ALA has not only revised its Bill of Rights six times, but periodically issues "footnotes" or "Interpretations" which have defined intellectual freedom principles in specific settings (i.e. electronic services, school media) [ 7 ]. The Internet represents only the latest of these nuances, but may prove to be one of the most challenging.

When the Supreme Court declared the Communications Decency Act unconstitutional on June 26, 1997, it foiled attempts to limit Internet access in the name of protecting citizens by declaring that "the interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship [ 8 ]." On July 2, 1997, the ALA Council reacted enthusiastically to the Supreme Court decision by adopting a resolution affirming that "the use of filtering software by libraries to block access to constitutionally protected speech violates the Library Bill of Rights [ 9 ]." This resolution supported its recent Interpretation, "Access to Electronic Information, Services and Networks," issued in January 1996 which affirmed that "users should not be restricted or denied access for expressing or receiving constitutionally protected speech [ 10 ]." However, this did not resolve the problem for public libraries who must answer to boards, to parents and to their constituencies. Even though public libraries have constitutional support as well as professional sanction for open Internet access, each public library must still wrestle with this dilemma in the context of its own community as well as in the context of responsible library practice. As the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom itself has recognized,

Everywhere, public libraries are finding themselves at a crossroads, thanks to the wide array of information and imagery available on the World Wide Web. As debate over access to sexual material on the Internet heats up and more public libraries offer Internet access, librarians are forced to grapple with the meaning of intellectual freedom in cyberspace and its application to libraries [ 11 ].

This paper will consider several facets of this issue as it relates to public libraries, since it is in the "designated limited public forum" [ 12 ] of the public library that this battle is joined. It will consider the role of the Internet within the framework of the library and in relationship to standard accepted library principles and procedures. It will explore the concepts of filters, what they are, what they do and how they work, and it will discuss the ALA Bill of Rights as it relates to filtering. At the core of this dilemma, however, as for so many library issues, is the relationship between information and the library. If, as has been argued, the Internet is only a new information media that does not affect basic library principles, then filters and access must be examined in light of accommodation to those principles, if however, the Internet presents a fundamentally different type of information source, then the basic principles themselves must be examined and weighed for applicability.

Information, The Public Library, and the Internet

A piece of information in a library is mediated on many levels before it reaches the library's clientele. That is, it goes through some sort of intermediary, third party process before reaching its intended goal. This process may be as non-judgmental as proofreading, or it may involve the more critical process of editing, peer review and approval of some sort. Mediation occurs initially through the production process itself, through the publishing or packaging of the information. The information is further mediated when the library selects a particular package of information and then proceeds to process, catalog and classify it. The library then makes choices in shelving and displaying it. Finally it may be mediated through its use by a reference librarian. At all stages of this mediation, the information is evaluated, analyzed and authenticated. Human intervention makes the decision about whether this piece of information will be in the library and how it will be made available.

Information accessed on the Internet, on the other hand, may be mediated through many of the layers described above or may only be mediated insofar as the information is keyed into the Web site. A Web site can be carefully constructed with reliable authenticated information and with links that have also been scrutinized and selected. The Internet Public Library is an example of such a Web site. Or a Web site can be information that has been thrown together at the whim of one individual and only reflects that individual's point of view or grasp of the facts. Equally it can be a commercial vendor selling a product, a hate group pushing propaganda, or a display of graphic pornography. The Web is a level playing field and all information has equal weight. Internet access only offers a conduit, a gateway to this vast array of information, it does not select, evaluate or authenticate it. No human intervention, other than manipulating the technical process, is needed in order for the information to be made available or for the client to access any of the information offered.

A major concern for libraries is whether those well-developed library procedures of selection and mediation of information that lie at the heart of the profession can and should be applied in the Internet environment, or whether the librarian must abdicate those responsibilities in the name of access. Another is whether the library has the same responsibilities towards the potential information that may be received via the Internet that it assumes over all the other materials in its collection. Finally, how does the public library reconcile its role as a government institution while at the same time promoting as well as safeguarding community standards in an Internet environment? All these concerns coalesce around the question of filtering.

It is the effort to manage the information on the Internet in a way that satisfies both public as well as professional values, that has driven public libraries to explore the efficacy of filtering programs. They are finding a wealth of confusion and controversy as vendors push their products and anti- and pro-filtering activists assemble on either side of the intellectual freedom banner. It is clear, however, that professional solutions must be found, and must be found quickly, if public libraries are to retain that reputation of community integrity that continues to keep them viable. In spite of the court decisions, public libraries must resolve these issues within each community. As the Director of the Cleveland Public Library expresses it, " The very real issues arising from pornography on the Internet are not going to be resolved by the courts; they are going to be resolved by public libraries and public library users [ 13 ]."


The perceived need for information filtering is an inevitable consequence of the information explosion. Whether for good or for evil, the selecting or deselecting of information is necessary given each individual's ability to absorb and to discriminate. In a 1994 issue of Online, two professors at the University of Michigan's Cognitive Science and Machine Intelligence Laboratory described an effort to created an automated filter for Usenet newsgroup postings in order to provide greater user satisfaction. They suggest that,

Filters are ubiquitous - we don't realize how often we apply them to everyday experience. Our waking hours are a continual filtering process, filled with thousands of relevance judgments ... It seems logical then, to expect that applying filters to dynamic resources would make them more usable and more useful. In theory, an automated process that combines advanced information tools with high-speed computing should mitigate the problems of high volume and low quality [ 14 ].

From an individual perspective, the filtering of information can be a positive action that eases access and use and merely extends technologically the natural and often unconscious processing of information. When applied to the limited public forum of the public library, however, filtering acquires a new meaning whose negative connotations that are made abundantly clear in the use of the word 'blocking' as a synonym. In this new configuration, filtering is reactive rather than proactive, designed to prevent access to certain information rather than assisting in its use. Filtering becomes a censorship tool.

There are several different methods of filtering/blocking; keyword blocking, host or site blocking, and protocol blocking. Keyword blocking indiscriminately targets words or strings of words to be blocked with the absurd consequences often quoted by anti-filtering advocates. Thus in keyword blocking, items on breast cancer, chicken breasts, and Essex county are blocked out and cannot be accessed. Most filtering companies use keywords to generate a site list which is then inspected and evaluated.

Host blocking means that specific Internet sites are selected for blocking. This could include the entire site or only files on that site. Host blocking has resulted in the filtering out of sites dealing with women's issues, for example the entire site of NOW, the National Organization for Women and other feminist sites, as well as sites on environmental issues. The two major problems with host blocking as identified by Karen Schneider, Director of The Internet Filter Assessment Project (TIFAP) are first and most importantly, that the decisions on which sites to block are being made by vendors and not librarians so that "however skilled the selectors may be in their original professions, like opticians pinch-hitting for shoe clerks, their new duties do not suit them well," and second, that host blocking is reactive rather than proactive and the site has to exist and be identified before it can be blocked. Schneider points out that "The explosive growth of the Internet can only mean that filters are always behind the curve in identifying sites to block [ 15 ]."

Protocol filtering means blocking entire domains such as Usenet and FTP and is a type of blocking that is heavily promoted for home and school use. This 'search and destroy' tactic only results in throwing away both the good and the bad. FTP capabilities could theoretically enable retrieval of material from blocked sites, while Usenet hosts a variety of pornographic chat groups.

Commercial filtering products are rapidly proliferating and expanding and currently approximately eighteen [ 16 ] different types of filtering programs are on the market. CyberPatrol, which offers blocks in twelve categories including violence/profanity, sexual acts, and intolerance is one of the more popular software products according to Library Journal. CyberPatrol claims to block 18,000 sites and partners with America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy. A Library Journal survey showed that CyberPatrol had more than eighty school and public library customers in May 1997 [ 17 ]. A program popular in public libraries is SurfWatch which claims over fifty library customers and is the best selling filter nationally. SurfWatch blocks over 25,000 sites in four categories which include gambling, sexually explicit material, drugs/alcohol/tobacco and hate/violence. Other filters which work more or less along the same lines include CyberSitter, NetNanny, SafeSurf, and WebSENSE. All these filters have their own Web sites to promote their products and most have test software that can be downloaded. Most are server based with the exception of NetNanny which is client based. All these vendors determine the blocking language and make the decisions about which sites to be blocked, however, each offers a password that can turn the system off and each offers various capabilities for custom configuration of categories.

The Web sites for these commercial filters are generally targeted to parents concerned about their children's Internet viewing. Although the vendors will not reveal their lists of blocked sites to their clients, they unashamedly describe the types of sites that they block as well as type of information. The aptly named CYBERsitter, for example, proudly describes its services as,

Working secretly in the background, CYBERsitter analyzes all Internet activity. Whenever it detects activity the parent has elected to restrict, it takes over and blocks the activity before it takes place. If desired, CYBERsitter will maintain a complete history of all Internet activity, including attempts to access blocked material [ 18 ].

CYBERsitter can be installed either on a home PC or on a network. Their newest product, CYBERsitter 97 can filter by phrases or sites as well as offering optional blocks to FTP and all chat and newsgroups. It claims to block any site that is not suitable for children including topics on adult or sexual issues, illegal activities, bigotry, racism, drugs, and pornography.

Net Nanny offers similar services but stresses that the control is in the parent's or purchaser's hands. Their advertising Web site takes a softer we-are-all-in-this-together approach as they hail the informational benefits of the Internet 'community' then point out that "like any 'community' it has its darker side ... This is where Net Nanny steps in, by acting as an invisible monitor between the Internet and your family. It operates quietly in the background, carefully screening out user defined sites, 'Words', 'Phrases', and content that you have determined is inappropriate [ 19 ]."

Bess Internet Filtering Service specifically targeted to schools is server-based and resides on a school district's network hub. Since the filtering service is not located on individual workstations, students are unable to break through the filter. N2H2, Bess' parent company offers a 'filtering philosophy' on its Web page which consists of their criteria in selecting material to be blocked. Some of the general categories of 'blockable' sites include

Nudity: The absence of clothing or exposing any and all parts of the human genitalia. Exceptions: "classical" nudity (Michelangelo), swimsuit models. Sex: Description or depictions of all sexual acts and any erotic material. Violence: Graphic descriptions of all graphically violent acts including murder, rape, torture, and/or serious injury. Drug Use: Usage or encouraging usage of any recreational drugs, including tobacco and alcohol advertising. Exceptions: material with valid educational use (e.g. drug abuse statistics). Tastlessness: Excretory functions, tasteless humor, graphic medical photos outside of medical context and some extreme forms of body modification (cutting, branding, genital piercing). Chat Sites: On-line chatting (might appear under High Risk category as well). High Risk: Sites with lack of editorial control which then may fall into one of the other blockable categories [ 20 ].

Between CYBERsitter, Net Nanny, and Bess, public librarians have a plethora of frightening filtering choices before them. The vision of the slippery slope that this type of filtering presents is well characterized by cyber-journalist and anti-censorship activist Declan McCullough who writes "all this proves is that anyone setting themselves up as a kind of digital moral compass quickly finds themselves plunged into a kind of virtual Bermuda Triangle, where vertigo reigns and you hope to hell you pop out the other side still on course. Technology is never a substitute for conscience [ 21 ]."

However, a new and more library-like filtering offering, The Library Channel (TLC), which is still in a test mode, has recently appeared on the horizon. Developed in Ohio at the request of the director of a public library, the Library Channel, an interface which functions in a Windows environment, claims to be a "visual Dewey Decimal system" that offers "an organizational structure to sort, search and access Internet information, just as libraries currently provide an organizational structure with different physical sections and cataloging systems [ 22 ]." Produced by the parent company vImpact, which specializes in customized multimedia software, The Library Channel works in a proactive way. Rather than blocking sites, it allows the librarians to select the sites they want and to create their own links. A library could offer patrons access to both the Internet and The Library Channel that the library has custom-designed. It could also give access only to The Library Channel and could prevent patrons from following Web links as well as blocking certain sites. The Library Channel is a software product that claims to provide librarians "with a patron friendly interface and the administrative tools required to catalog cyberspace," in addition "subscribing libraries also participate in The Internet Collection, which gives access to thousands of library selected Internet sites ... TLC will provide an organizational structure to sort, search and access Internet information, just as libraries currently provide an organizational structure with different physical sections and cataloging systems such as Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress Index [ 23 ]."

As benign as this sounds, however, it does not resolve the essential issue of Internet censorship, it merely allows librarians to select rather than deselect, creating the comfortable illusion that librarians have choices in an Internet environment. The central dilemma of intellectual freedom is not addressed but has not disappeared. The methodology of The Library Channel begs the question of whether the librarian, by disallowing the accessing of readily accessible information is, in effect, not only a censor, but depriving clients of those First Amendment rights of access as well as equal and fair use. In addition, by claiming to organize the Internet a la Dewey or LC, the critical issue of whether the Internet is manageable in traditional library terms is raised but not resolved. Although this issue is beyond the scope of this paper, it seems that, given the many non-traditional features of the Internet, it is highly questionable whether an organizing system that does not accommodate space, time and mutability will be appropriate to 'organize' the Internet. Additionally, given the hundreds, perhaps thousands of new sites that appear daily on the Web, how can any public library afford the manpower needed to keep the library's Internet offering up-to-date?

Many of the filtering companies, as well as other Internet interfaces such as CompuServe and America Online utilize PICS, the Platform for Internet Content Selection, to filter and deselect materials. PICS, a protocol that controls reception through labeling items, is rapidly becoming the accepted labeling standard. The system itself is neutral, offering only the ability to create labels so that, in the words of one of its creators, Paul Resnick, "companies that prefer to remain value-neutral can offer selection software without providing any labels; values-oriented organizations, without writing software, can create rating services that provide labels [ 24 ]." Although PICS is being hailed as another possible answer to the filtering dilemma by librarians anxiously seeking a solution, it is only another way of rating and labeling. However, the existence of this protocol seems to offer the potential for libraries to standardize the ways in which to label commonly agreed upon sites that are not considered to be 'constitutionally protected speech.'

To assist librarians in making informed decisions about filters and in recognition that many libraries may have to make such decisions, library consultant Karen Schneider has developed The Internet Filtering Assessment Project. TIFAP is a volunteer effort supported by thirty librarians to test Internet filters. The objectives are to provide librarians with an informed picture of the choices and to identify those filters that are clearly out of step with community standards [ 25 ]. The Web site for this project also provides useful information about filtering, explains what it is and how it works, debunks the myths, offers links to other sites and to informative articles on filtering and censorship. TIFAP does not endorse filtering nor does it endorse filtering products, but attempts to offer objective assessments.

Another Web site created to provide information on filtering is maintained by librarian Carolyn Caywood at This site essentially points to a multitude of filtering sites and includes sites of the vendors, articles, and reviews as well as recommended children's sites. Although the major objective of the site is the gathering of tools and opinions to guide children's home use of the Internet, it offers a wealth of information on the filtering debate. Although both Schneider and Caywood have made their opposition to public library filtering well known through listservs and through the professional literature, both also recognize the need for education in this area so that librarians can make informed choices.

Filtering, The Librarians, and the Public

Filtering has been widely discussed in the professional library literature, but appropriately, the real public debate is being carried out on the Internet itself primarily through the World Wide Web and on various listservs. In addition to ALA's Intellectual Freedom Web site, related articles embedded within a variety of sites, and sites designed by the commercial vendors, several sites are also motivated by concerned citizens.

Peacefire is a Web Site devoted to intellectual freedom for minors. Founded in 1996 by a seventeen-year old college student who continues to maintain it, Peacefire defends the rights of youth against the censorship imposed through filtering software. Peacefire is a forum for youth, claiming over 650 subscribers, all of whom are in their teens. In addition to offering assistance and advice to youth battling censorship problems in schools, Peacefire closely monitors software filtering developments, reviews new programs, and links to other like-minded sites. Peacefire's impact on the filtering issue can be measured by the fact that Peacefire itself has now become a blocked site on some filtering programs (not surprisingly CYBERsitter for one). As a site that is both supported and maintained through a perceived need by minors to confront and defend themselves against the impositions of the adult world, "Peacefire is a revolutionary space where teenagers from all over the world can gather to form a political community, share values, fight for political rights, and support and defend on another from continuous assaults on their freedom, judgments and dignity [ 26 ]."

On the other side of the fence, Filteringfacts, a Web Site that sprang into being immediately following the U. S. Supreme Court ruling against the Communications Decency Act and in specific response to the ALA Resolution on Filtering, encourages the use of filters in public libraries and attempts to counteract many of the specific charges against blocking software launched by the American Library Association and other intellectual freedom defenders. Filteringfacts claims to be a group of librarians who are providing the facts about filtering and actively countering the one-sided viewpoint offered by ALA and the ACLU. They state that "Filtering facts is a non-profit organization that promotes the acceptability of filtering in libraries." They support this point of view by further claiming that "we believe that libraries have the right to offer the kind of Internet service they want. We do not believe that libraries are obligated to offer everything on the Internet." The librarians behind Filteringfacts lament that their point of view was not considered by ALA and that they "were censured by our colleagues and called censors … we are seeking to organize pro-filtering librarians around the country to actively counter the efforts of the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom [ 27 ]."

An active and often acrimonious e-mail debate that began shortly after the July 1997 ALA decision on filtering has spread from the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom listserv to a number of others including PUBLIB (public libraries) and LIBADMIN (library administration). Many of the writers are the same, presumably hoping to attract wider audiences. Likewise, many of the players on the Web are the same as those arguing with each other on the listservs. The debate tends to be extreme and personal - for or against filtering/censorship with very little compromise, while those who offer compromise are denounced by both sides as traitors. Significantly, the listserv debate is carried on by a relatively small group. The many other list members may be too shy to participate or may be quietly going about their library business and making their own intellectual freedom decisions. This filtering debate is characteristic of some of the difficulties inherent in listservs: the lack of any mechanism for consensus means that issues are never resolved and fade only when the major participants become exhausted or move on to something else; the fact that many of the 'lurkers' never become active participants in the debate makes it impossible to assess what its impact of the debate has really been. Nonetheless, the listservs have a positive role to play in articulating the issues and giving its members both food for thought and a forum for expression.

The concerns of librarians reflect the concerns of the public. When the Mayor of Boston demanded that the Boston Public Library install blocking software, parents of school-age children praised the move as they similarly did in the San Francisco Public Library and Orange County, Florida [ 28 ]. Following objections from ALA and the ACLU, the Boston Public Library eventually compromised with the "Boston Solution" whereby the library installed two Internet versions, one unfiltered for adults and one filtered for children. Commenting on this, journalist Ellen Goodman points out that "… for the moment, we seem doomed to some technological arms race. We fight the side effects of escalating technology with escalating technological defenses. Libraries today are no longer book museums but community information centers. So they will remain at the center of a struggle to maintain freedom of speech and protect children [ 29 ]." Goodman, who, as a nationally syndicated columnist, undoubtedly speaks for a substantial segment of the public, only endorses the "Boston solution" as a temporary child protection measure. She implies that, in the name of intellectual freedom, libraries will have to come up with something better.

Filtering and the American Library Association

The American Library Association through its Office of Intellectual Freedom is a major player in the filtering debate. ALA's long history as a champion of intellectual freedom and First Amendment rights makes it a voice that commands a hearing. At its 1996 Midwinter Meeting, ALA membership unanimously approved a new Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, "Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks." The Interpretation affirms the rights of the users, including minors, to access electronic information and states that "users should not be restricted or denied access for expressing or receiving constitutionally protected speech." While the statement admits the problems inherent in global connections in terms of selection, accuracy and authentication of information, it is left to the user to make the decision regarding the information itself,

Providing connections to global information, services and networks is not the same as selecting and purchasing material for a library collection. Determining the accuracy or authenticity of electronic information may present special problems. Some information accessed electronically may not meet a library's selection or collection development policy. It is, therefore, left to each user (italics mine) to determine what is appropriate. Parents and legal guardians who are concerned about their children's use of electronic resources should provide guidance to their own children [ 30 ].

While ALA has always maintained that it is not in loco parentis, its refusal to take any responsibility for information on the Internet leaves public librarians stranded with no real tangible guidelines to help them provide electronic services. By leaving decisions on appropriateness up to the user, ALA leads the way towards abdication of one of the core professional responsibilities of the librarian, namely the selection and mediation process that distinguishes a public library from an information warehouse. In the context of this Interpretation, the Resolution on Filtering comes as no surprise. It, likewise, offers only an absolute statement with no guidelines and no room to maneuver. In spite of the fact that ALA has recognized the dilemma for public libraries, it only repeatedly asserts its 'all or nothing' agenda. While ALA may be perfectly correct in taking a hard line and refusing to even contemplate that 'slippery slope,' public libraries can take no comfort in the rhetoric unless it comes with suggestions and solutions for realistic operation.

To its credit, ALA is attempting to provide some direction to librarians. On July 7, 1997, the Office for Intellectual Freedom listserv issued a statement on the use of filtering software. This statement, prepared by the Intellectual Freedom Committee, supports the Resolution on Filtering and explains some of the problems associated with filtering software. It also offers suggestions to librarians for promoting access to the Internet without compromising adherence to the Resolution. Many of these solutions have already been advocated in the literature and include establishing policies and guidelines for Internet use; educating the staff, boards, parents, users and the community about the Internet and the wealth of information it offers; designing Web pages that point to sites that have been reviewed by library staff; using privacy screens to protect user's confidentiality. All these suggestions, though valuable and helpful in mitigating the impact of the Internet, do not address the central dilemma for public librarians, namely that some of the information on the Internet is unacceptable by any standard, including that of the U. S. Supreme Court's and how can this material be kept out of the library.

As one avenue towards resolving the problem, public libraries are developing Internet Use Policies, many of which are being posted to a Web site set up specifically to collect them. The Web site also includes analyses of the policies which breaks them down into various key elements. Of the 116 policies posted by May 1997, 86% repeated the ALA position by stating that the library is not responsible for the information on the Internet, 73% state that parents are responsible for children, but only 18% cite and support the ALA Bill of Rights in the policy itself [ 31 ].


As increasing number of public libraries acquire Internet capabilities, it is clear that a solution to the filtering/censorship dilemma must be found. It is equally clear that librarians will only be satisfied with a library solution. By this is meant that librarians must be involved in the solution. The uproar over out-sourcing of books in Hawaii is a sure indicator that librarians will not allow outside vendors to do their selecting for them [ 32 ]. That applies equally to electronic information. One of the greatest criticisms of filtering software is that the vendors make the decisions on which sites to block. Outside of the censorship issue is the more critical one of the professional responsibility of the librarian to determine what goes into the library - the amorphous Internet that the librarian must cope with is one thing, but an Internet blocked by others is something else and is not acceptable.

An acceptable "library solution" might be pursued within the existing technology constructs that drive most library networks. If the library vendors that provide those networks could be persuaded to consider providing an interface (such as PICS) that would allow libraries themselves to label those pornographic and obscene sites that do not fall within constitutionally protected speech, that might be consistent with both intellectual freedom and 'community values' benchmarks. If additionally, ALA could assist in defining those constitutionally unprotected sites, perhaps setting standards for identification, libraries could keep within the bounds of First Amendment rights while at the same time proclaiming their own rights, as librarians, to make choices in the material that is accessed in the public library.

The key to resolving the dilemma of filtering the Internet lies in the ability of librarians to reassert their responsibility for the information that is in their libraries, whether it is on the Internet or in the stacks. They can only do this by fully understanding what information the Internet offers, by accepting the new information paradigms, by acknowledging the right of the majority of that information to exist and to be disseminated and by not shunning their roles as Internet information mediators, and, yes, as gatekeepers. They should follow the U. S. Supreme Court's lead and disclaim constitutionally unprotected speech by keeping it off their Internet gateway just as they keep it off their library shelves and they should try to do this within their own libraries and through their own networks.

The use of commercial filtering software as described in this paper will inhibit access, will deny fair use and will gradually lead librarians away from the principles that have glued the profession together. But if librarians also eschew responsibility for the information on the Internet then they are headed down another 'slippery slope', one on which their services will be less and less required and one from which there is no return. End of article

The Author

Jeannette Allis Bastian is the Territorial Librarian and Director of Libraries, Archives and Museums in the United States Virgin Islands. She is currently a doctoral student at the School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh and gratefully acknowledges the encouragement of Richard J. Cox for whose seminar this paper was originally prepared.


5717 Hobart St. Apt. 6
Pittsburgh, PA 15217


1. Ann Curry, 1997. The Limits of Tolerance: Censorship and Intellectual Freedom in Public Libraries. London: Scarecrow, p. 10.

2. "1996 Shows Decline in Book Challenges," Library Journal, April 1, 1997, p. 18.

3. The 1996 National Survey of Public Libraries and the Internet: Progress and Issues: Final Report, retrieved April 18, 1997 from the World Wide Web at, p. 1.

4. Dee Garrison, 1979. Apostles of Culture, The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920. New York: Free Press, p. x1v.

5. For further discussion of these issues see L. Bob Murray, 1996. "The Case for Quality Book Selection," Library Journal (June 15), p. s1-s2, a reprint of an article originally published in the September 15, 1982 issue; and Ann Curry, 1997. The Limits of Tolerance, Censorship and Intellectual Freedom in Public Libraries. London: Scarecrow Press.

6. Curry, p. 50. In this study, library directors discuss their selections polices in these widely polarized terms.

7. For a complete listing and discussion of the Interpretations see the Intellectual Freedom Manual, compiled by the Office of Intellectual Freedom (Chicago: American Library Association, 1996).

8. Editorial, New York Times, June 28, 1997, p. 18.

9. A copy of ALA's Resolution on the Use of Filtering Software in Libraries appeared on the e-mail list of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, July 7, 1997.

10. "Access to Electronic Information, Services and Networks: an Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights," American Libraries, Volume 27 (March 1996), p. 30.

11. "Libraries Tackle Issues of Internet Access," Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, Volume 156, Number 2, (March 1997), p. 1 et al.

12. Mary Minow, 1997. "Filtering the First Amendment For Public Libraries: A Legal Framework," (rev. 4/24/97) retrieved from the World Wide Web on July 12, 1997, from Minow explains that traditional public forums are in only three places: streets, parks and sidewalks; however, over the years, additional places have been added. These additional places are called 'designated public forums.' and enjoy the same status as a public forum. Public libraries are considered 'limited public forums' because "libraries have opened themselves up to expressive activity - specifically the activity of RECEIVING information." See also Gordon B. Baldwin, 1996. "The Library Bill of Rights - A Critique," Library Trends Volume 45 (Summer), p. 11, who maintains that since the library is a designated rather than an open public forum it has the right to set reasonable rules for the public.

13. Marilyn Gell Mason, 1997. "Sex, Kids, and the Public Library," American Libraries, Volume 28 (June/July), p. 104.

14. Louis B. Rosenfeld and Maurita P. Holland, 1994. "Automated Filtering of Internet Postings," Online, Volume 18, Number 3 (May), pp. 27-30.

15. Karen Schneider, 1997. "TIFAP: The Internet Filter Assessment Project Preliminary Report, Phase 2," retrieved July 12, 1997 from the World Wide Web at 1.htm

16. See, data retrieved July 30, 1997.

17. Norman Oder, 1997. "Krug's Toughest Fight," Library Journal, Volume 122 (May 1), p. 41.

18. "Cybersitter keeping kids safe," retrieved from the World Wide Web July 29,1997 at

19. "Net Nanny, the Best Way to Protect Your Children and Free Speech on the Net," retrieved from the World Wide Web July 29, 1997, at

20. "N2H2's Statement of Filtering Philosophy," retrieved from the World Wide Web July 29, 1997, at

21. Declan McCullagh, 1996. "Jacking In From the 'Keys to the Kingdom' Port," Cyberwire Dispatch, retrieved from the World Wide Web July 30,1997, at

22. "The Library Channel Enables Safe Surfing at Public Libraries," retrieved from the World Wide Web July 15, 1997, at

23. "The Library Channel Forum," retrieved from the World Wide Web July 15, 1997, at

24. Paul Resnick and James Miller, 1997. "PICS: Internet Access Controls Without Censorship," retrieved July 12, 1997 from the World Wide Web, at

25. "Librarians To Test Internet Filters," Library Journal, Volume 122 (June 1, 1997), p. 13.

26. Jon Katz, 1997. "To Be Young, Cyber, and Free," Netizen (April 18-20), retrieved from the World Wide Web on July 12, 1997, at

27. "About Filtering Facts," retrieved from the World Wide Web on July 20, 1997, at

28. "Internet Blocking Software: Online Savior or Scourge?" Library Journal, Volume 122 (April 1, 1997) pp. 16-17.

29. Ellen Goodman, 1997. "Boston Library Finds One Way to Protect Kids from Cyberporn," Daily News of the Virgin Islands (July 25), p. 13.

30. "Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks: an Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights," American Libraries, Volume 27 (March 1996), insert.

31. "Table One: Summary Data For All Policies," (N=116), retrieved from the World Wide Web July 30, 1997, at

32. Norman Oder, 1997. "Outsourcing Model - Or Mistake? The Collection Development Controversy in Hawaii," Library Journal, Volume 122 (March 15), pp. 28-31. Under pressure from librarians and state legislatures, the State Library had to reverse its decision to out-source all its public library book ordering to the vendor Baker and Taylor.

Copyright © 1997, First Monday

Filtering the Internet in American Public Libraries: Sliding Down the Slippery Slope by Jeannette Allis Bastian.
First Monday, Volume 2, Number 10 - 6 October 1997

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.