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Austin Peay library staff relies on knowledge and diligence, not software, to protect patrons

April 22, 2002

Concern about "what's out there" on the Web has driven many public libraries to install "filter" software with the goal of protecting young library patrons from objectionable material.

Others are challenging the use of such software as an unconstitutional restriction of information and a roadblock to research.

Filters have no place in a university library, says Deborah Fetch, director of library and media services at Austin Peay State University's Woodward Library. "Using filters is a form of censorship that can damage legitimate research and information-gathering.

"At their simplest level, the software works by filtering out keywords," she explains. "For example, a filter might eliminate Web sites that contain the words 'sex,' 'breast' and 'pussy cats.' In doing so, it not only prevents library users from linking to pornography but it also keeps them from finding information on sex education, breast cancer and felines."

Fetch says computers cannot be relied on to make these distinctions: "There is too much semantic ambiguity. It takes human beings to distinguish the nuances of language, to understand the context and to know, for example, if a site about witches was created by a scholar of the Salem trials or by someone advocating satanic worship.

"Librarians have been making these types of decisions for years, and the advent of the Internet has made their jobs much more important.

"Anyone can put anything out on the Web. It appears to be credible but needs to be evaluated carefully. At the Austin Peay library, we do a thorough review of Web sites before adding them to our catalog so students know that if they link to them from there, they will retrieve high-quality information," she says.

Austin Peay does not filter the Internet at its library - a practice Fetch says all colleges should follow: "Filtering is not appropriate for college libraries. Our students are adults, not minors, and they conduct research on various topics. There are legitimate reasons why they might need access to sites that filters block, and as educators, we need to teach students how to use information wisely, not control what they use.

"Citizens in other countries are not as fortunate as we are. They don't have easy access to the information we do. Especially during National Library Week, we all need to recognize the important part libraries play in our democracy. Libraries with free and open access to information support that democracy, and software such as Internet filters only hinder it."