I’m working in a public library today, periodically taking advantage of the wireless because I haven’t already distracted myself enough buying sticker books and Hello Kitty sunglasses for The Daughter. Anyway, it being Monday I of course checked in on some web comics, and was somewhat surprised to see that xkcd is classified as adult material.
Well…okay, I guess, if “adult” is largely defined as “not specifically targeted at kids,” and it does get naughty from time to time. But still, it’s a stick figure web comic. So, for that matter, is Order of the Stick, which is accessible, and which can also get naughty or violent. Girl Genius, still cartoony but more realistic, boasts lots of Victorian underwear and death rays and such, and is deemed appropriate for patrons’ consumption.
The point? Number one, of course, is that filters are annoying. The fact that I cannot read xkcd until I use some other network is not a particularly big deal. But it’s a good thing I wasn’t relying on the library to do any sort of research. (I have, in fact, cited xkcd in a paper.) And if one third of my web comic sample set gets filtered out, I imagine I’d bump into more roadblocks if I was doing actual research rather than just wasting time.
Number two is a more slippery question of expectations. By filtering content, the library is assuming a certain degree of responsibility over what patrons can view. It is implicitly making the value judgment* that it is more harmful to see a joke about Wikipedia editing than, say, Bangladesh DuPree stabbing somebody.
That just seems like a needlessly complicated situation. If I am told that a network is use-at-your-own risk and The Daughter comes across a goatse picture…well, then it’s on me as a parent to contextualize what she’s seen. If, on the other hand, material is presented as kid-safe, then I expect it to be seriously limited (like, say, pre-loaded toddler-friendly software on a library computer) and I’d be somewhat miffed if she came across the stabbing. This middle ground—you can access the web, on your own machine, at your own risk, except for some subset of material—is just dumb. Everybody’s going to draw the “objectionable” line in a different place. It’s a no-win situation for the library.
* Or letting the software company make that judgment, which is a whole other issue. But since the block can be overridden, a librarian can still be put on the spot.