Category Archives: Technology

Digital Delights

Are Libraries Still Relevant?

How Future-Ready Libraries Overcame Physical Limitations to Serve Those Sheltering in Place

Estimated reading time for this article: 3 mins

By James Johnson

I recently completed a research paper examining the varied COVID-19 pandemic responses of North American libraries. Of the three major types reviewed (public, academic, school), a consensus was achieved: future-ready librarians, relying on prior years of commitment to digital resource acquisition from capable predecessors, were successful in pivoting to a new, remote mode of service.

In January of 2020 both the United States of America and Canada reported their first cases of the virus SARS-CoV-2. This synchronous infection caused most Canadian provinces and American states to declare emergency measures around mid-March of 2020, respectively. Libraries were ordered to shut in Ontario on March 17th 2020, by the Premier Doug Ford. Similarly, just across the border in New York at the same time, public libraries were shuttering for their part in stemming the corona virus tide

As the economy ground to a halt, so too did our cultural outlets. Concerts, museums, archives, galleries, and of course, libraries all closed. How these institutions responded to abrupt closures is indicated by their seamless ability to function in an entirely digital environment. Those who had prepared, dedicated and curated the components required to facilitate the inevitability of remote-access were incredibly successful.

The Toronto Public Library (TPL) system, an oft cited luminary here on Library Tech Files, provided even more digital resources than in pre-pandemic years, including 2.4 million more e-books than the previous year, an increase of 32%

Not only did TPL open its digital stacks to more Torontonians than ever before, other digital services number in the dozens. It’s sometimes overlooked that libraries are not simply vessels for passive entertainment. Research and education resources are jewels in the TPL services catalogue. Powerful research tools like Ancestry Library Edition were made available for at-home use. Wasting away at home because your job closed? Courses from Lydia, Sage, and Gale are freely available for skill development and enhancement.

I often hear from reluctant readers that news and current events can be hard to come by. Print papers are scooped up by early-risers, soaring subscription prices and soft-paywalls act as significant discouraging barriers. Whenever I hear this argument, at least from Torontonians, I direct them to PressReader, an app that lets users read a vast selection of magazines and newspapers of the day, both locally and globally. All you need is a library card. Everyday, I have the National Post and Toronto Star downloaded to my mobile device via my preference settings in the app. Of course these apps aren’t truly free, our collective citizenry pays for these services through taxes. By that standard, consider it your obligation to utilize them.

Not every library system has the resources or budget to come close to what TPL offers. I get that. I’ve seen the numbers. Every library has its limitations and If one day soon I find myself uprooted to a new, smaller township, I hope to view it as an opportunity to advocate and encourage development of the library-community engagement in an effort to increase the sorts of services I value.

Digital services will continue to develop and prove themselves valuable assets to the library and information user. How your library prepares for future use will determine the continuity of success and user engagement. Libraries have demonstrated that they are community resource organizers and not only relevant today, but perhaps more so than ever.

If you reside in Ontario, consult the ministry’s index for your library’s website and details.

Censorship: Filters and Firewalls; Does Porn Have a Place in Libraries?

Estimated reading time of article: 4 mins

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

By James Johnson

This news piece found its way across my desk last week. It describes a potentially disturbing event that can occur (with varying degrees of frequency) in our public libraries. That is to say, what is classified as obscene material under the Canadian Criminal Code of Canada (CCC), accessed through information commons inside the public sphere – porn in the library. Specifically section 163, subsection (2a).

In plain terms – a person is guilty of an offence if they wilfully expose obscene material to public view.

Like most every law in Canada, there is no black and white. It’s all grey. And it’s up to the courts to determine what the definitions are in practicum. But I’m not particularly interested in the determinants of legal proceedings or precedents in the future. I want to know how these policies affect information seekers now.

In the case of Kingston Frontenac Public Library, they have made it clear their policy will remain the same; that is, patrons can use the internet to access pornography on the library computers. There is a recommendation on their policy page to consider that other users sharing the same space with them may not share the same penchant for porn perusing, and this consideration should be exercised prior to viewing such materials. It should also be noted that KFPL is a proponent of Ontario Library Association’s “Statement on Intellectual Freedom” and therefore apply no internet content filters on their networks.

That can’t be entirely true though. All libraries apply firewall and filters to some degree. These assist in blocking malicious software and internal/external unauthorized data collection. And rightly so! All admins and their networks have a right to protected data.

But what about public libraries that have chosen the opposite position? This library has updated its policy to include terms like “refrain from displaying”, and “reasonably considered offensive”. Like a page out of our own Criminal Code! Could the defendant please define “reasonably offensive” and their interpretation of such a claim? Indeed it is another of those grey areas.

But why not add filters that could block obscene materials? If we have filters that are sophisticated enough to stem the flow of malware, surely we can devise one for porn! But what is obscene? Is a video of a nude woman squeezing her bare breasts obscene? Perhaps it is catalogued as an educational clip of home breast cancer inspection techniques for women? Is that obscene? Can an algorithm effectively determine human morality? And is porn considered freedom of speech and expression, where limiting access to such material could be a violation of a person’s rights and freedoms allotted to them through our sacred Charter?  These are the questions we need to be asking.

Cory Doctorow’s excellent piece in The Guardian provides the evidence that filters fail time and time again. He discusses a UK internet filter so terribly inefficient; one which blocks rape-crisis centre websites, and (ironically) sites that help people fight their porn addictions.

Thankfully the library that has added “offensive material” access as prohibitive in their policy has not undertaken any new filter applications. They’re on the side of “if someone complains, we’ll ask the black sheep to knock it off.” My concern is who gets to decide what’s offensive? It’s very grey. And I’m sure before long, after someone undoubtedly gets offended, the issue will resemble a NIMBY-esque sequence of dialogues. Discourse nonetheless.

This is such a difficult issue to write about, especially as a library student and father. Like many issues of great relevance, there will be many opinions. I’m convinced where my opinion lies. I subscribe to a specific western set of moralities that stem from Judeo-Christian values, for which my country was built upon. For better or worse. Certainly without my consent, but entirely to my benefit. A framework for which one can form their own moral base. That is the luxury of my personal freedom, paid for with personal responsibility and generational sacrifice. I will not have this luxury at work and must follow my employers own interpretation of these values. No small feat, but I’m happy to offset that responsibility with a thoughtful, strong policy from the organization.

In their report to Parliament, Casavant and Robertson state:

“The use of new technologies such as the Internet has created unique challenges and problems: computer pornography is an increasing concern, especially because dissemination of such material cannot generally be controlled. There are also issues regarding the potential liability of the owners or managers of computer networks, such as universities. Although criminal charges have been laid regarding the distribution or possession of pornography on the Internet, to date there has been little judicial guidance on the issues involved.”

The issues of intent and dissemination will remain as the figures of contention in the libraries v. patrons battle over pornography’s place in the library, though caution should be considered when choosing a side. Controlling and censoring information, especially controversial information, is a characteristic of despotism not democracy. Indulging perversion in the name of inclusion should not be the alternative.

On a lighter note, Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year.