Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay
About Libraries and Camels
March 5, 1999
My favorite library history story is the one of a very special library
in Persia back in the first century A. D. The vizier, Abdul Kasem
Ismail (938-995), traveled the desert with 400 camels that bore his
117,000 volume library everywhere he went. The animals were trained to
walk in an order that ensured the books alphabetical arrangement.
Today most libraries have many times that number of volumes, the
Internet and no camels. From camels to the Internet - what a voyage.
Possibly the most profound change in the intellectual landscape in
centuries is the advent of the World Wide Web, the part of the Internet
that lets us navigate from one site to another. Now we have at our
fingertips a library that is many times the size of the largest
libraries the world has ever known.
Public libraries all over the world immediately welcomed this new
information machine, flaws and all, knowing how much it could improve
their service to the public. They installed computers in libraries,
and staffs became computer literate. But almost immediately the
backlash started. Abdul Kasem did not having anybody second guessing
his library. He was the Vizier. But modern American librarians serve
the most diverse public in the world and the Web is impossible to
regulate. It's a little like herding cats.
There are huge amounts of valuable information available on the Web at
the click of a key. But it also contains huge amounts of junk, and
yes, there is pornography. The possibility that a child might find
porno has caused a major public worry.
According to James LaRue, Director of the Douglas Public Library
District, who has researched the matter thoroughly, "Pornography is to
the World Wide Web as obscene phone calls are to U. S. West. It is an
annoying, but minuscule, part of the system. And just as you can hang
up the phone, you can click on 'Home'" But people get emotional about
it. And most of the concern centers around children. Congress tried
to get into the act and in 1997 passed the Communications Decency Act,
which would have threatened nearly everyone who writes or reads material
on the Internet. Fortunately, the Supreme Court unanimously declared it
unconstitutional. The justices found that in seeking to protect young
users, the law trampled on the constitutional rights of adults.
Libraries have been caught in the crosshairs of the culture wars.
LaRue has put together a booklet which discusses the roles and
responsibilities of the public librarian on the World Wide Web. He
says, "The librarian's job description is: to identify and/or create
data, particularly authoritative or trustworthy information; to gather
and organize the data; to provide public access to the data. We have
been imposing order on diverse collections of books, periodicals and
other media for over a hundred years." But here librarians are faced
with more data than anybody ever dreamed existed and it is completely
without order, which in itself causes librarians to shudder. Anybody
can put anything on it or read anything that is on it. Although sexual
content makes up just a tiny portion of Web resources, that's what puts
the libraries on the front pages.
Yes, there are filters which some people think will "protect our
children" but they are mostly ineffective. They block innocuous and
useful sites. Some of them intentionally block access to sites that
don't have anything to do with pornography, but do raise issues of
intellectual freedom. And unfortunately, pornographers can always slip
their distasteful stuff through no matter what filters are in place.
As a nation we often seek technological solutions to technological
problems. But the right answer to the abuse of Web stations is not
technological; it is human. It involves our societal values and what
we teach our kids.
Terry Pickens, Director of the Mesa County Public Library, says, "It
would not be fair to limit access to huge quantities of information
because some people misuse the medium. Therefore libraries will have to
have the cooperation of the public. We must assume that most people use
the Internet for legitimate purposes. We cannot manage for the
exception. What we can do is remind children and adults that library
computers are for research purposes. As to filters, they simply don't
Abdul Kasem Ismail had it easy. He only had 400 camels and 117,000
volumes to worry about. Today's librarians have the World Wide Web and