pornography in local libraries

A look at how libraries are dealing with adult content on computers and private devices

By Tim Clifford

A recent news tip from an anonymous source who contacted the Westside Weekly concerned a group of men who have been spotted regularly viewing pornography on the public computers at the Woodmont Library on the 26800 block of Pacific Highway S.

According to this source the group of “regulars” is known for viewing sexually graphic video and images with parents and children nearby. As this anonymous source explained it is obvious that the voyeuristic experience is what excites these men and that the more people who observe what they are viewing the better.
One story that this source related involved a “regular” sending pages and pages worth of print jobs to the library’s print station; pages and pages worth of pornographic images. Since the printing system completes a “job” in the order they are received anytime there was a lull in this regular’s clicking the print jobs for other patrons would be shuffled in between. This resulted in one angry woman complaining to the library staff that she had been forced to dig through pages of porn in order to find her papers.

At first blush the claim seemed incredible: adults viewing and printing pornography using the library’s computers in a space as open and small as Woodmont in full sight of parents and children. There surely had to be at least one rule that was being violated here, right?

Numerous libraries were contacted throughout King County and Seattle for an explanation of library policies. All of these calls were met with immediate resistance and refusal to even clarify policies. It was almost possible to hear the blushing from the other end of the phone line.

“Our computers by default are filtered. However an adult, meaning someone 18 years and older, has the option of having that filter removed. Public libraries are founded on the principle of free, open and equal access to information and so we do not censor or monitor what patrons choose to view,” explained Julie Acteson, the Interim Director for the King County Libraries.

The one caveat is child pornography which librarians and staff are mandated to immediately inform police about if they see it being viewed on any device, personal or public, in the library.

“If you understand the principles that a public library system is founded upon; we are founded on the First Amendment Rights, where people have the rights to access. We’re founded on intellectual freedom, that people have the right to explore and discover and learn what they choose to do,” she continued.

“A library has something to offend everyone. What you, what in your opinion or viewpoint or perspective may [find be offensive to you; it may not be offensive to someone else.”

The issue of pornography in libraries is nothing new and occasionally crops up for examination anytime new modes of access to explicit material become available to the masses.

“The internet access and computers have definitely made it a more visible issue, but people now come in with their own devices, their own tablets, their own laptops and we have absolutely no control what they view on those sorts of equipment,” explained Acteson.

Privacy screens or partitions are an option to fight “inadvertent viewing” that has garnered media attention for their installation in libraries in New York and San Francisco. They are also currently in use in all Seattle Public Libraries and have been a part of the Seattle Central Library since its beginning.

“We’ve upgraded them over the years; I think we have the best ones that they have out there. They aren’t perfect, I mean if you’re standing right behind somebody and looking at their computer screen you can see it but if you’re just walking by you shouldn’t,” explained Andra Addison, the Communications Director for the Seattle Public Library.

When asked how the Seattle Public Libraries respond to patrons who complain about “inadvertent viewing” Addison said “we actually trust that the majority of our patrons are using the internet access to look for jobs or for educational purposes; staying in touch with their families. We don’t monitor what people are viewing any more than we would monitor what people are reading.”

Addison went on to say that all patrons are directed to the library’s internet policies when a complaint is issued.

“Most public libraries are founded on those principles that the American Library Association prescribes to and the King County Library system has prescribed to those principles as well,” said Acteson when asked what librarians are told say to patrons complaining about lack of censorship. “An adult patron has the right to view what they want to and the right to print off what they want to. It may
be offensive to another adult, but again we’re not going to place judgment or censorship about what is appropriate for someone to view or to print.”

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