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Public Libraries Gone Wild

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Was I seeing things or did I really read the following paragraph in an article in the Washington Post entitled “Policing Porn Is Not Part of Job Description”:

“At most public libraries in the Washington area, an adult can view pornography on a library computer more or less unfettered. Montgomery [County] asks customers to be considerate of others when viewing Web sites. If others are put off, librarians will provide the viewer of the offending material with a ‘privacy screen.'”

Nope, I wasn’t seeing things. Holy cow! Talk about some accommodating librarians. I already knew — er, that is, I’ve read — that the American Library Association’s (ALA) recommended policies on dealing with the viewing of pornography were lax, but this is ridiculous. Privacy screens? Well then, how about a box of Kleenex for that messy, porn-consuming library patron after he gets the “information” he was seeking? And how about a cigarette for afterwards?

Okay, my bad. Now I’m sinking into the realm of absurdity. Everybody knows public libraries are smoke-free environments. If somebody wants to do something filthy and immoral like smoking tobacco, he’ll have to go somewhere else. But wile away the hours looking at femalebodyparts.com? No problem. Your public library is there to serve!

It’s not your father’s public library, that’s for sure. When I was coming up it seemed like most librarians were stodgy, frumpish women with names like “Mildred,” who wore their hair up in buns and went around admonishing people not to talk too loud. Now, they don’t even admonish people for using government property to look at pictures of naked women, but instead hand out privacy screens and, on occasion, give stern lectures on First Amendment rights to those who complain too vociferously about such astonishing accommodation.

Which leads us to the actual main topic of the Washington Post article, and guess what? All that stuff about libidinous library lotharios and the lenient librarians who enable them was merely incidental to the real outrage. Here’s how the article began:

“Two uniformed men strolled into the main room of the Little Falls library in Bethesda one day last week and demanded the attention of all patrons using the computers. Then they made their announcement: The viewing of Internet pornography was forbidden. The men looked stern and wore baseball caps emblazoned with the words “Homeland Security”.

Are you beginning to get the picture? Those “stern looking” men are the bad guys in this library, not the cyberspace sensualists. The article continued:

“The bizarre scene unfolded… leaving some residents confused and forcing county officials to explain how employees assigned to protect county buildings against terrorists came to see it as their job to police the viewing of pornography.”

Notice how from the perspective of the writer of the article, what made the scene “bizarre” was the Homeland Security agents’ behavior, not that of anyone who might have been using the facilities of a public library as his own personal government-funded peep show. The article continued:

“After the two men made their announcement, one of them challenged an internet user’s choice of viewing material and asked him to step outside… A librarian intervened [my italics], and the two men went into the library’s work area to discuss the matter.”

Wow! An intrepid librarian intervened and the end result was that a couple of rogue Homeland Security officers who got their kicks pushing around innocent library patrons were banished from that lofty bastion of First Amendment freedom. Fight the power!

The article continued: “Later that afternoon, Montgomery County’s chief administrative officer, Bruce Romer, issued a statement calling the incident ‘unfortunate’ and ‘regrettable’.” You know, the behavior of the officers, not the fact that a public library got outed as a safe haven for pornography-lovers.

By now, you probably realize that the title of the Post article, “Policing Porn Is Not Part of Job Description”, wasn’t referring to the librarians’ job description, but rather that of Homeland Security agents. The essence of the article is that it’s none of their business and why don’t they go find some terrorists or other real bad guys to pick on.

So what are the official rules regarding this sort of thing at the Little Falls library? If you go to their website and look at their rules for the use of the internet, you’ll see that only “materials that are obscene or constitute child pornography” are prohibited. But the funny thing is that most garden variety pornography is not considered obscene under the law.

What that means is, if you happen to be some stodgy, uptight killjoy who gets offended by the sight of a little skin and maybe some heavy breathing from the Internet station next to yours, you‘re the one with the problem. But just because you feel icky sitting next to some guy while he indulges his carnal desires via computer isn’t a good enough reason to deprive him of his intellectual freedom.

And anyway, how big of a problem is this, really? Leslie Burger, president-elect of the ALA, said, in what was obviously meant to be a reassuring way, that “libraries are not the hotbed of looking at porn sites.” In other words, no big deal, rarely happens, don’t sweat it.

Really? They seem to be hotbed enough that somebody decided the best way to deal with it is to pass out privacy screens to lecherous patrons. What’s next, privacy rooms with soundproof walls and locks on the doors for those lusty citizens who just can’t find any other place to exercise their constitutional rights?

Last paragraph in the Post article: “Still, Montgomery [County] plans to train its Homeland Security officers ‘so they fully understand library policy and its consistency with residents’ First Amendment rights under the Constitution’, Romer said in his statement.”

Great. The terrorists may not have won, but the porn fetishists certainly have.

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About gstrange

  • “Privacy screens? Well then, how about a box of Kleenex for that messy, porn-consuming library patron after he gets the “information” he was seeking? And how about a cigarette for afterwards?”

    LOL…make it like a peep-show booth…and of course, we shouldn’t expel drunken homeless people from downloading kiddie-porn while crapping in the pants…because, you know, ALL of the public is welcome!

  • Dave Nalle

    From your description it sounds like the WaPo had this article exactly right. What the hell does it have to do with homeland security if people are viewing porn in the library. Stopping that is more a job for the thought police than homeland security.


  • Wow! You’ve got it right, Greg Strange. Based on what you said, I think you’ll enjoy http://www.SafeLibraries.org/ and our site.

  • Dishonest demagoguery from beginning to end, this piece leaves no distortion unturned in its attempt to paint a lurid picture of an imaginary problem.

    When alarmist voices like this take control of people’s access to the Internet, the results are never limited to screening out pornography. It doesn’t take long before sites that discuss women’s health issues are also screened out. Apparently, pictures of how to do a breast cancer self-examination are difficult to distinguish from lascivious porno, in some people’s minds. From there it’s a short step to blocking sites with unpopular political opinions.

    A few years back, there was an infamous incident on AOL when a women’s support group had to change the name of their chat room to “Hooter Cancer Survivors” because the moral crusaders in AOL’s management had decided to block the word “breast” from the titles of chat rooms. I’ll happily hand out privacy screens to library patrons myself, if it will prevent most citizens from having to endure more lunacy of the AOL stripe.

  • Dishonest demagoguery? I believe what it’s actually called is the satirization of an absurd situation. And make no mistake, people freely looking at pornography in government-funded public buildings is absurd.

    I wondered how long it would take for somebody to throw out the old breast exam nonsense as an argument against filters on library Internet computers. Of course, my article didn’t call for filters, but let me address the breast exam issue anyway. If the library is the only place a woman can get access to the Internet and it has filters which block her ability to find out how to do a self-exam for breast cancer, here’s what she can do: look in a book or call her doctor. Problem solved. Or rather, it wasn’t a problem to begin with.

    One other note. My commentary wasn’t arguing that it’s Homeland Security’s job to police library porn-watching. It was satirizing the fact that, from the point of view of the Washington Post article, the only thing bizarre was the actions of the Homeland Security agents and not the fact that public libraries are being used as government-funded peep shows.

  • zingzing

    greg strange: “people freely looking at pornography in government-funded public buildings is absurd.”

    yes it is. and comedic! wouldn’t you love to see that? come on now… who’s really going to sit there and whip it out in a library? why are you looking at their computer?

    it’s a free country, and public is public, and public consumption of pornography is #1, your right, and #2, really fucking funny.

    we should all have so much fun.

  • Bookboy


    Have you read any of the books and magazines the library provides? It would not take you too long to find something that I think you would consider “porn”. Doesn’t it bother you when the government decides what you should read?

  • Response to Bookboy:

    You asked: “Have you read any of the books and magazines the library provides? It would not take you too long to find something that I think you would consider porn.”

    Well, I haven’t seen any copies of Hustler magazine on the magazine racks lately. As for books, if there’s anything pornographic in them — which I can’t recall having seen in a library book — they can at least be taken home and looked at in private instead of while sitting right next to someone in a public building.

    You also asked: “Doesn’t it bother you when the government decides what you should read?”

    Since when do you “read” pornography? Nonetheless, anyone who wants to “look at” pornography is free to do so at home to their heart’s content, but the library is a public place. It’s a pretty simple distinction I’m making here, but I wish I could say I’m surprised that so many don’t get it.

  • Jim Collins

    This article is so stupid my IQ actually dropped reading it.

  • Kids are welcome in libraries without their parents, right? And libraries are a public place, correct? And they are funded with taxpayer dollars, yes?

    So, are you people seriously supporting the “right” of perverts to view porn in a public place, in front of children, at the taxpayers’ expense?

  • Actually, RJ, in our local library, unattended children are not welcome.

  • “Actually, RJ, in our local library, unattended children are not welcome.”


    Because, where I live, teens and pre-teens often ride their bikes to the local public library…

  • I gotta agree with the fact that libraries need to be more careful about the materials they allow in their buildings, and what they do to keep innapropriate stuff out of the hands of children (or anyone for that matter!).

  • Scott Butki

    What most libraries do is have an adult section with Internet access and a children’s section with Internet access.
    There is filtering and/or monitoring of the children’s one and the kids are not supposed to be around the adults ones.
    This solves the problem for the most part.

    I happen to be typing this while on a library computer and while I’ve not tried – or thought – of looking at porn here. I do know it blocked me from checking my gmail account because it thinks I’m going to use it for the chat feature.

  • ripped page

    Hey, I am a libary employee who is sick to death of tiptoeing through the minefield of porn-peepers — It seems it is always the rights of the offensive and not the offended that are being upheld. Since when is it a right to view porn in a public space? Is the library a right or a privilege? Why do we even bother with ratings for movies if the same underaged kid can go to his or her local library and view stuff that is a million times worse over the shoulder of some supposed proponent of the 1st Amendment ? Or even better, access the porn himself? ( Yes, I did not include ‘herself’ because after all the years of working at a library, I have yet to see a woman or girl looking at porn). I don’t think that it is just children that are being victimized but women and men and ANYONE else who happens to be walking around the library. What about employees? Why do they need to be subjected to this? The people who say that filtering content is an infringement on their right to access information are probably the same people who say strippers are empowered by their sexuality and that the sexual revolution was a huge step forward for women everywhere…bulls**t! These people just want to persue their proclivities unfettered and unhindered and anyone who gets in their way is just a prude and a fascist. Fine, I can live with those labels. UGH! I could go on–I haven’t even touched on the Homeland Security aspect. oh well. This piece was right on the money, take it from me, a library employee.

  • Mr. M

    As a Teen Librarian, I consider myself a supporter of the Freedom of Information. However, I don’t believe information is free until you are considered an adult(age 18). We filter our internet access to teens and children. We do not allow myspace or other like sites. And actually, Teens are NOT welcome without a library card which indicates their parents have signed that they can visit unattended. Even then, we reserve the right to remove them from the property with the help of our off-duty police. I guarantee you that the library in this article is the exception to the rule. Viewing porn is prohibited in our library and I certainly have never heard of a library providing “screens” for privacy. The only reason we do not filter the adult computers is because this can block some legitimate sites.

    Before you start thinking the library is a great place for porn, I ask you to go there and observe the porn viewing yourself. Then, when your expectations of an auto-erotic nightmare have been quashed, list the many and varied benefits to the community that the library offers. And remember, when that porno-peeper gets caught, I’m going to be there with my officer to arrest him.