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« Really about race? | Main | Our neighbors to the north »

Nov 13, 2009


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Brandon Burgess

Did she inform the library staff? If so, what happened?


I'm with Justice Stewart on this one: how do I know if what that mom saw is "really" pornographic? Maybe she has a low threshold and would find many car ads (with blondes draped across the windshield) pornographic as well.

The steps that the library takes are thoughtful and appropriate. Enough of this crap; it's like bringing up gay marriage in an otherwise serious discussion. It's a distraction from what's really the issue.

Ed Cone

Yes, she informed staff, but she felt they didn't take the issue very seriously.

I can promise you that library director Sandy Neerman is taking it very seriously, as she should.

Account Deleted

Again, Sue, I completely disagree. It is not appropriate, IMHO, for the state to provide access to porn in a public facility to the detriment of families and children.

I understand Ed's deference to artwork, but this issue highlights the deep divisions we have as a nation over the definition of morality.

On another level, I also have an issue with the library being used as a place for visual entertainment as opposed to a place where knowledge can prosper.

Ed Cone

It's not just artwork -- although a library where serious works of art are off limits seems problematic to me -- it's also the ability to look up topics that may involve sexual or controversial topics in an appropriate manner, or images used for an anatomy class, etc.

I don't understand what it is Sue is calling "crap," though -- of course a public facility has obligations to its users that this situation raises.


I agree with JS, but can also see where porn could be "in the eye of the beholder" and this muddies the argument. I don't envy the job of the librarian when they are turned into web cops, but it is up to the rest of us to institute our own shame culture and report anyone who is using library equipment to view porn.
I'm no prude, but there should be places you can take the kids that you don't have to worry about this. When families stop going to the library there will be no saving them.


Sorry that we disagree, Jeff, but that's par. I visited the library a lot as a kid to read Dr. Seuss books. No knowledge prospered; it was purely entertainment. Although I'm not conflating someone visiting adult sites with Dr. Seuss, what is entertainment isn't for you or me to decide. If people who visited the library were there singularly for knowledge prospering, we'd probably have to close them all. Or redefine what you think 'knowledge prospering' is.

Brandon Burgess

Anyone can read Dr. Suess. From what I understand, it is unlawful for children to be shown pornography. I'm not in favor of filters, but the man should be warned, and if it happens again, banned.

Account Deleted

Sue: It is good that reasonable people can disagree amicably. Maybe on this issue my perspective as a first-time parent going through all the great stages of childhood with my son is what colors my perspective.

I would submit that Dr. Seuss books are very educational. My son has mild speech delay and at age four has exhibited great progress in his syntax and usage as a result of reading Dr. Seuss for the last year or so. Lines from Green Eggs and Ham were among the first complete sentences he uttered.

The bit about knowledge prospering was expressed as my personal preference and not something I would advocate as policy. I have passed the point of thinking my view of morality is applicable to anyone external to my consciousness.

Ed Cone

Libraries serve many purposes.

I don't think it's controversial, or un-First Amendmenty, to expect that children not be exposed to pornography at a public library.

How to realize that modest goal is the subject at hand.


Common sense would be a good approach. When I was a kid, magazines my parents didn't want me to look at were on the shelves of every drug store in town. I looked, and did not turn into Larry Flynt.

Perhaps some day technology will allow parents to specify the kind of content they wish to be filtered from their children's eyes. That would require the software to key on the identity of each user, not a difficult challenge.

I understand the position that the state should not "provide access to porn in a public facility". However, there are at least two problems with that. First, because filtering software is not perfect, and may never be, the only certain way to keep library patrons from accessing porn is to make the internet unavailable to library patrons. Second, a library that blocks sites it believes contain porn is liable to be subject to legal action from people who disagree or who wish other sites labeled as obscene. Many people would consider photos of mangled bodies on a battlefield to be obscene. At what age should a child view the photographic evidence of Auschwitz, et al? Is there a one-size-fits-all answer?


Fines for porn viewing, perhaps?
Of course, we can't forget all the times that a seemingly innocent web address turns out to be....


If the goal really is to protect children, keep adults with tender sensibilities from being offended and not infringe on access, put all the computers in cubicles with users sitting with backs against a wall and screens visible only to the user. No cost and quickly implemented. The only reason I can think of that people won't like that is if their objective is to impose their morality on other adults.

(BTW, when people talk about filtering, are they talking about something that attempts to block images that can be seen by passers-by or of blocking text content one would have to lean over the user's shoulder to comprehend?)

Michele Forrest

People look at porn online all the time at the downtown library. (Paid for by taxpayers.) That's not a secret. And Sonny's still in jail waiting to be tried for (allegedly) looking at kiddie porn. Thank the Lord that woman's kids didn't walk by his computer, huh? My two cents: Filter.

Dan Kleinman

"That's because, after extensive review of the options and periodic reevaluations of the technology, the filtering software has been found inadequate -- it blocks stuff that a library should let through, and misses some stuff that it shouldn't."

This is either accidentally false or intentionally false. See ACLU v. Gonzales, E.D. Pa., March 2007 [ACLU expert and court agreed Internet filters are about 95% effective and no longer block out breast cancer and other health-related information—so effective that COPA [Children's Online Protection Act], was found unconstitutional]



Mr. Kleinman, internet filtering software profiteer, he's good.


Internet filters are both expensive and inaccurate. In addition, whose taste, values and morals should we subject all of Greensboro's library patrons to? I agree that anyone viewing porn on a public library computer should be warned that it's inappropriate if anyone else can see it but I hesitate to decide for everyone what porn is.

Typical: today, was searching ecommerce templates for a client. Found one that fit the layout he wanted but it was of a "sexy lingerie" store, replete with sexy lingerie models (link upon request & payment :) Templates are supposed to be changed to the pics you want for your store; they're built to do that. Was I browsing porn? No. Could someone looking over my shoulder have thought so? Perhaps.

This isn't an easy Q&A. I reject blanket prohibitions and would go for the not-easy-to-enforce individual option.

Michele Forrest

When grown men whose sensibilities are decidedly un-tender tell me that people are looking at porn online at the library, I pretty much assume it's actually porn.

And when a guy gets arrested for looking at child porn online at the library, and there's physical evidence of the crime, I pretty assume it's actually child porn.

The "sexy lingerie" argument is a red herring. People are looking at porn online at the library every day. Taxpayers are paying for it. That's wrong. The computers are in public areas where folks who don't want to see it, or children who should not see it, sometimes can't avoid seeing it. Also wrong.


Ed Cone

I don't think it's as simple as just saying "filter," for the reasons discussed in the post.

But let's say the filtering software is now good enough to consider implementation. The question of what to filter is a good one.

Child porn is too easy -- it's illegal in one's own home, so of course we wouldn't allow it in a library.

Nudity of any sort seems overly broad to me. I've used the examples of Botticelli, anatomy illustrations, etc.

So...What are our community standards? What should we allow, and on which computers? Who decides?

These are all sincere questions, not, "this is all so hard so lets not seriously consider doing anything" questions.


Text or images or both?


I think the libraries ought to look at the layout of the computer areas and go for a more open layout - less partitions, more openness. The more visible the computer screen is to everyone at the library, the less likely people will be looking at inappropriate materials.

A. Bulluck

Filter hate groups like Stormfront, Army of God, MoveOn.org, etc.

Ed Cone

GO -- I agree that social engineering/community involvement is a key factor here. And maybe kids-only computers, with filters, are part of the solution.


Why has the complaining mom not been identified, here or in the paper?

Account Deleted

from the article: "Under the library’s policy for using its computers, anyone caught breaking the rules is told to stop.

If that warning is ignored, the penalty is a one-day ban, then a 30-day ban for the next infraction, and finally, a trespassing charge."

This seems like a good policy to me and I agree with Ed's comment that "social engineering/community involvement is a key factor here."

Freedom comes with responsibility and here it seems parents need to take the responsibility to be aware of their surroundings and teach the same to their children.

Again, I would err on the side of liberty with the community taking it upon itself to self-monitor.


It occurred to me while sucking up leaves that if everyone had a home and a computer, they wouldn't need to go to the library to view objectionable material. It seems like a worthy goal.

Ed Cone

I did not identify the mom because she did not wish to be identified in a public forum. I did read her email, which included specifics of the situation, and seemed credible enough to me.

If this was about one email from a person who chose not to use her name in public, the impact might be fairly limited.

But given the stats -- 89 people caught viewing porn in the first half of this year at the central branch alone -- there does seem to be room for improvement.


I can see that it is a personal decision for you, Ed. The N&R however has, through JR, articulated circumstances under which it keeps people anonymous. This does not seem to fit any as I remember them.

Michele Forrest

Roch, the newspaper doesn't report the names of sexual assault victims. Perhaps the extends to the eye-assaults, as well.

Michele Forrest

"It occurred to me while sucking up leaves that if everyone had a home and a computer, they wouldn't need to go to the library to view objectionable material. It seems like a worthy goal."

I heart Fec.


more people buy porn than protest it

revenues from porn exceeded the 3 major networks combined last year

utah leads the nation in "adult" bulging bandwith per 1000 with 5+. idaho is last. states that carried mccain/palin lead the nation, which means that republican stink tanks take it seriously.

the fact that more people watch pornication than MSNBC, Fox News and Benny Hinn combined is a good sign.


And a Toro Ultra Blow Vac, then a bottle of bourbon and a hot tub.

We're pretty crazy about you, too, Super Girl.

Brandon Burgess

From what I understand, to access a computer at the library, a library card is required. Maybe the library can issue cards for kids along with 18 and up cards. I know it isn't perfect, but I don't think anything should be blocked on the computers. I do think it is unacceptable to view porn in public and even with the 18 and up cards, those caught looking at porn should be escorted out and if it becomes a problem, the offender should be banned.

Brandon Burgess

Should've went into more detail.

I've said before that there should be a computer section for kids. This section would only allow 18 and under cards to access the filtered computers.

The 18 and up section would only be accessed by 18 and up library cards and these computers would not be filtered. Children would have hardly a reason to be near these computers.

Again, anyone looking at porn, even on the 18 and up computers will first be escorted and banned for the day. If they do it again, they are banned indefinitely.


brandon: how about anyone with only one hand on the keyboard has to go.

Ed Cone

So, anyway, to those ready to say, "filter" -- what exactly would you filter? What would you be willing for others to give up to block it? And who would you empower to make the decisions on flitering?

Ian McDowell

Having done a search for "Black Peter," meaning Saint Nicholas's blackface lackey in the Netherlands (one of "the five or seven black men" that Davis Sedaris talks about in his piece about Christmas there), I can tell you that having a filter (I was using a workplace computer) doesn't keep potentially objectionable images from coming up in thumbnail form when doing a Google image search. Sure, I probably couldn't have actually GONE to any of the sites featuring, erm, "black peter," but I still saw some of the peters in question.

I was researching a potential article (as well as a lecture/reading I'm probably going to give at Tate Street Coffee next month) while on my lunch break at work. When I replaced "Black Peter" with "Zwarte Piet," I found what I'd been originally looking for.

(For the curious, Black Peter, or Zwarte Piet, is Santa's enforcer minion in the Netherlands. He's not as sinister as Der Krampus, the lascivious child-abusing man-goat who fills a similar function in Alpine regions, but he does give bad children a thorough kicking, and in the worst cases, kidnaps them to Spain; his folklore presumably dates to the time of the Moorish occupation thereof.)

Brandon Burgess

Ed, if there were computers where only adults or children accompanied by adults were allowed, no filtering should be used.

I propose another section be established where only children can use the comps with however heavy a filter it takes to keep a majority of porno from being viewed.

I understand this still does not address the issue of people passing through the section of adult computers catching a glimpse of whatever, but it's a start. I also understand that filters can not block everything objectionable and will even block some things not remotely objectionable.

I guess my main thing is this: I don't care how heavy of a filter is used on computers as long as there are some unfiltered computers available for research.

Again, maybe something can be developed along the lines of 18 and up library cards and 18 and under library cards that will disable or enable filters when the number is keyed into the computer. I don't know the cost and I'm not sure how feasible it is as far as technology goes.

Michele Forrest

At the downtown library, there's an apparently easy fix (unless I'm missing something). On the second floor, when you come up the stairs, turn to the right and go all the way down. There's an open area on the right that's full of computer desks, already wired, and I've never seen more than 1-2 people in that area, although there's space for dozens. It's an isolated area, away from the bookstacks, walkways, etc.

It's on a different floor and at the opposite end of the library from the children's section. Why not move all the computers for adults there? And have a rule that only people over 18, or 16, or whatever, could go in that area. Problem solved.

On the other hand, a friend questions why taxpayers are providing computers for people to look up their MySpace and Facebook, and why the library computers aren't limited to searching research sources (databases, journals, etc.) and checking resources within the library system.


What Brandon said and CM sort of echos.

Ed Cone

"On the other hand, a friend questions why taxpayers are providing computers for people to look up their MySpace and Facebook, and why the library computers aren't limited to searching research sources (databases, journals, etc.) and checking resources within the library system."

By that logic, the library should only stock reference books, and maybe some novels that someone deems "classic," but not popular fiction, maybe the Wall Street Journal, but not Sports Illustrated.

And that's just stuff that's easy to analogize from the print world.

Not saying there isn't room for debate on the purposes and emphases of a library, and certainly the net adds exponentially to that conversation...but we don't filter print anywhere along the lines this person suggested. What else would we screen out?

Michele Forrest

I didn't say I agreed, I just thought it was an interesting comment, so I included it. It would be a good discussion to have. I wish he'd join us here, but he's an offline conversationalist. ;)

I am going to ask Jennifer about that little-used computer area, though.

Ed Cone

Absolutely an interesting comment, Michele -- part of a good broader conversation about libraries in the internet age. I hope my response came across as thoughtful and respectful, not dismissive. Text can be a blunt instrument sometimes.

Michele Forrest

No worries here, Ed. :)

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