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You Can View the Website if the Librarian Thinks You Should

It’s always a little weird to see librarians acting all unlibrarianish. Last week there was the library employee in St. Louis who left a comment on this blog that notified the world of the library card holding status of a specific person named in a news article. So much for privacy!

Now comes the result of a lawsuit against yet another public library in Missouri motivated by some pretty bizarre librarian behavior.

Someone at the Salem Public Library wanted to read about Native American religions, Wiccans, and other crazy topics that no God-fearing Salemite should ever want to know anything about, but she couldn’t get past the computer filters, which were apparently set to block “occult” sites.

The librarian wouldn’t remove the filters, so she sued. Finally, a sensible lawsuit against a librarian.

The ACLU victory statement has the best quote:

The resident had originally protested to library director Glenda Wofford about not being able to access websites about Native American religions and the Wiccan faith. While portions of the sites were unblocked, much remained censored. Wofford said she would only allow access to blocked sites if she felt patrons had a legitimate reason to view the content and added that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities. The resident’s attempts to complain about the policy to the library board of trustees were brushed off.

To which I can only reply, wow. That’s the strangest reply to a library patron I’ve heard of in a while. It’s not like the patron was trying to stream some Wiccan porn in the children’s section of the library. (If there is such a thing as Wiccan porn, I imagine it would involve a lot of slutty witch Halloween costumes.)

Outside of porn, which is blocked by law, libraries don’t usually block Internet searches. Most of them don’t even seem to want to block porn. And here this librarian wanted to block religion sites.

To have the constrained sensibilities of the library director determine what everyone can research is a little bizarre. Add to that the total lie about having an obligation to report people to the authorities. Obviously that was meant as intimidation, and by librarian standards it’s pretty intimidating.

It’s no wonder the library lost the case, because the librarian’s behavior was pretty much indefensible. The library apparently knew they didn’t have a leg to stand on because they removed the filter months before the legal judgment came.

I was curious about where such a library might be found, and was unsurprised to discover Salem is a town of fewer than 5,000 people in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t imagine that particular sort of unlibrarianish behavior happening in St. Louis or Columbia.

Are there other libraries that block non-porn sites? Or where the librarians only let patrons view websites if they feel patrons have a “legitimate reason”?

I’d never heard of this sort of librarian reaction to non-porn Internet searches before. However, plenty of libraries in effect keep their patrons from reading books on certain topics the librarians don’t like by just not buying the books. The ALA might call it censorship, others might call it selection, but either way it’s done all the time.

The website challenge by a librarian seems unlibrarianish to me, but maybe that kind of thing happens all the time to websites and books, and we just don’t find out about it.

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Comments

  1. Joe says:

    Regarding bowdlerization as a selection criteria, I think that this is a strong argument for detailed collection development policies that are agreed upon by the library board, director, and professional staff. It’s also a strong argument for large, diverse library systems and consortia: no matter how provincial your village, county, or geophagous backwoods region, you’ll still have access to pretty much anything you want.

  2. me says:

    This is what you get down in the bible belt… I bet good christian god-faring sites aren’t blocked.

  3. Bobbi Perryman says:

    As a life-long resident of the “Bible belt”, I am horrified. My library serves 11,000 rural patrons in several small towns and the first thing we tell any new hire is we NEVER comment on what a patron reads or searches for online. We don’t filter and I would fire any employee who attempted to restrict a patron’s access to information. The only things we don’t allow are pornographic images/videos, and only because the library is a public place. What a disgrace to the profession.

    • library_yeti says:

      How do you define “pornographic”? Are the more risque photos by Mapplethorpe pornography? What about Sally Mann’s controversial depictions of children?

      When I lived in the bible belt, for most of the locals the definition of “pornography” encompassed just about any kind of nudity. And we had members of the community who would come in to the library with black markers and color over the “naughty bits” of nude photos. And that was an academic library, believe it or not. I’m so glad that I don’t work in a backwater town anymore.

  4. Joey says:

    What I find more troubling than blocking websites is her “report[ing] people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities.”

    The last time I checked it is not only legal to research occultic information, but it is also in fact legal to participate in the occult or whatever otherwise-legal, occult-related activities your religious or spiritual needs dictate. I would be quite angered to find out that my librarian had been reporting my activities to any authority just because he/she found them distasteful.

    The Satanic panic in the 80s was completely fueled by misguided and ignorant fools like this. In addition, there are many legitimate academic scholars who conduct occult-related research such as James Lewis, Nevill Drury, S.J. Tambiah, and many others.

  5. library_yeti says:

    Equally as offensive as the censorship going on in this case is the use of the word “occult” for it undermines the validity of a person’s belief system and relegates it to the fringe. Historically the word has very negative connotations. Some of us would argue that some factions of even the major religions are by standard definitions occult-ish, or at least cult-like.

    As a librarian, I hope this results in a Salem (Library) witch trial.

    • Joey says:

      Occult studies is a serious field, so I’m not sure why you are acting as if it is a slur. It might be considered a slur by someone who is anti-occult, I suppose. It has had negative connotations historically because of how Christianity-friendly most of the ruling classes have been, but you may conflating occult and cult, which are very different words

    • Libraryman says:

      Well, I think Library_yeti has a point though. Occult means “obscured of hidden” Thus when she says it conjures up images of the fringe of society she is correct in that sense. However, Wicca and Native American religions are religions and they are not really hidden. To refer to them as “occult” may bring up imagery in the average person that it may not bring up in you. I think to lump all alternative religions as “occultic” in this day in age my not be an insult, but it is not accurate.

    • Libraryman says:

      excuse me “obscured OR hidden”

  6. Right on, AL. So many gems. Forgive me, but I might write about what you have said here on my own blog.

  7. in the world of the internet, this is ancient news: 2011??? that’s like 9 Apple product announcements ago. and the filter part of the story is moot since it seems like the director had no control over it as “the library’s internet service provider informed them that due to the concerns of some organizations, they were removing some blocks” – so, did the director even have access to unblock anything? or did she need to contact the ISP to unblock. But I want to know if she would really “call the ‘proper authorities’ ” and who those occult authorities are… Scully, Mulder? It’s a really odd thing for a librarian to say.

  8. Development Arrested says:

    This had to happen in a town called Salem…

  9. Erin says:

    This whole business is just totally absurd. How can this woman call herself a librarian with that attitude? A major element of our purpose as librarians is that we offer a safe space where people can search for and access information when they otherwise might not be able to. This woman is completely coundermanding our position and instead instituting rules that she invented. Imagine if we all ran our libraries like this woman — my library would include no Stephenie Meyer, E.L. James, or James Patterson; another’s library might include no Ayn Rand; another would ban vegan cookbooks. If each librarian created the policy for what patrons can and can’t access, then how can we protect patrons from that selfsame censorship?
    For what it’s worth, I’m glad that the researcher won the lawsuit. But the lawsuit should never have had to happen.

  10. Catey Sue says:

    “The ALA might call it censorship, others might call it selection, but either way it’s done all the time.” In my Library, I’d call it a limited budget. :)

  11. Mark says:

    Heh, the proper response is “show me the statutory authority for your statement…or unblock the site. And I want to be present when you inform the authorities.”