A Librarian Comments on Blocking Software

By Dr. Fred Stielow stielow@sebridge.org

Dr. Stielow recently sent this message to a librarian's mailing list in New York state.

The reforwarded message on approaching the Internet Filter debate was well thought out and quite useful. I guess that I should rear my head in New York as a former IFRT chair and IFC chair, who may have too little patience with what is going on within our own ranks. I'll defend anyone's rights to speak, but this is a specious debate--one with little intellectual, but unfortunately a growing lot of political and social control merit. I just have a hard time going beyond the facts.

Fact 1. All filtering programs block constitutionally protected speech and materials of undeniable importance to even the most rigid censor. Their use is not benign. In addition to violating basic library principles and constitutional mandates, it even calls for considerable time [i.e., money and staffing] on the librarians part to approach redressing the unacceptable behaviour--the glitch is that it is very hard to find out what is blocked, and there are now limits on the number of changes that can be made.

Fact 2. No current or likely future filtering program works to block objectionable materials sufficiently to allow for reasonable [i.e., legally defensible] guarantees for their use in a public forum like the library. The scientific research is already in on the failure of all current producst. Moreover, filters are the "emperor's new clothes" of the 1990s. They sound like such a good idea, but common sense can be applied. How much time, effort, money, and staff expertese far beyond that available to the filtering companies, for example, did IBM invest to win a chess game? Would anyone like to tackle a common human language for complexity comparisons--let alone all forms of languages, with their abilities to change over time in a way that chess rules avoid? Does anyone want to throw in the development of scanning heuristics to deal with photographs that at least until now have eluded search engine decoding?

Fact 3. Yet, there is an alternative that should not be overlooked and it is in keeping with established collection development. Librarians are almost as poor as censors as the filtering sofware, but we are good at finding sites and can concretize these into value-added sites for children. In New York, check out what Dick Anglin has put up on Children's Search engines at Ramapo-Catskill, or tie into our own Electronic Kids site on the Virtual Library at midhudson.org. By the end of the week, we'll even expand our Parents Only button to include an explanation of the first two points.

I know that truth is often not an adequate defense in political struggles, like that on the installation of parental control software in libraries. But, don't we have a responsibility to try to deal with the facts and raise the debate to a higher plane. If parents want to work with us to help "protect" and educate their children, then give us the support and resources to proactively build electronic pathfinders--not the introduction of insuficient products that will cost more time and money to correct.


Dr. Fred Stielow
Executive Director
Mid-Hudson Library System
Poughkeepsie, NY 12601