Internet Filters: Censorship or Just Good Sense?

a literature review by Jenny Ryan

This paper was originally written in November 2003 to fulfill the requirements of Foundations of Library and Information Studies (LIS 501) at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta. It was put into HTML format to fulfill the requirements of the Capping Exercise (LIS 600) in March 2005.

A Close Examination of the Literature
  • The Positive Side of Filtering
  • The Negative Side of Filtering
  • Alternatives: Can Both Sides Agree?

  • My Reflections
    Works Cited
    Search Strategy


    The Internet plays a vital role in North American libraries.  It is increasingly being used for independent research, reference work, and to connect people and organizations all around the world.  However, while the Internet can be a beneficial tool, it is also seen by many as a tool which is dangerous, immoral, and uncontrolled.  There are numerous government officials, advocacy groups, private citizens, and members of the library community who feel that librarians should be doing more to block sites, regulate use, and monitor online activity in order to protect the rights of library users; they see Internet filters as another form of collection management.  However, there are just as many advocacy groups, private citizens, and librarians who feel that Internet regulation, in the form of Internet filtering and blocking software, is an invasion of privacy, one which constitutes nothing more than censorship.

    By examining the library literature published on these themes, I will attempt to address the many questions that arise when thinking about Internet regulation in public libraries.  The main area of concern is with Internet filtering products, and the debate surrounding their function---are they, or are they not, tools for censorship?  Should librarians be embracing filtering software or fighting hard to keep them out of the library? This debate is timely, urgent, and relevant to librarians today.  The Internet is not going away, and librarians are grappling with how to incorporate it into library use. 

    In my review of the literature, I hope to give an overview of both sides of the debate, presenting literature that argues for the adoption of filters in all public libraries, as well as literature that argues filters are fundamentally contrary to the role of librarianship in North American society.  I intend to give equal, unbiased views of both sides of the argument, but expect to be able to conclude that, while the Internet is a new tool the likes of which a library has never seen, it should be treated just like any other reference material in the library; any regulation of its use would mean a shift in the practice in librarianship, one that would move librarians out of the realm of open access to information to one which permits individual agendas to compromise the freedoms and rights of others.

    A Close Examination of the Literature

    Mapping It Out 

    There is an enormous amount of literature dealing with the question of filtering Internet access in the library. The issue is being examined by school librarians, children’s librarians, librarians in academic and special libraries, and by public library administrators. I chose to examine literature which deals primarily with how the issues apply to public libraries in North America. While children are often discussed in the literature, I have not placed much focus on that aspect of the debate as I have tried to keep my review of the literature as broad as possible.  

    I will begin with an examination of literature outlining the tradition of open access within the field of librarianship.  I will attempt to explain how filters work, and then present the “pro-filter” literature.  This literature shows how librarians are using filters for collection management.  It also indicates many librarians see filters as helping to fulfill what they see as the library’s mandate of responsible service.  I will then review the “anti-filter” literature, showing that librarians are concerned because filters are not technologically complex enough to replace the role and function of a librarian.  There is also the concern that, beyond their technical ineffectiveness, filters are fundamentally contrary to librarianship, as they destroy the library patron’s right to privacy, and encourage librarians to censor their collection.  I will conclude by describing how both sides of the debate often embrace alternatives to the filter, alternatives which can lead to even more debate.

    Librarians: Opposition to Censorship

    In order to appreciate the context of the debate, I feel it is important to examine the relationship between librarians and censorship theory in North America during the last 50 years. 

    Schrader, in “Why You Can’t ‘Censorproof’ Your Library: What Research Tells Us”, writes “[t]he basic social mission …of public librarians is to facilitate access to information and cultural records” (22).  Stated in 1997, these words reflect literature from earlier in the century.  In 1953, Asheim published his now well-known essay, “Not Censorship But Selection”, in which he urges librarians to recognize the difference between selecting (looking for values and virtues in materials) and censoring (finding only objectionable features and weaknesses in materials) (64). Asheim also argues “the librarian is interfering with the freedom to read whenever he fails to make some book available” (65).[1]  Forty-three years later, Asheim published “Means and Ends in Librarianship”, in which he revisits this issue, framing it within the electronic age in an attempt to re-examine censorship in a modern world. His resulting sentiments, however, are much the same as they were in 1953.

    Also in 1953, the Library News Bulletin published “The Freedom to Read” in which it is stated that “[i]t is in the public interest for … librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those which are unorthodox or unpopular. … There is no place in our society for extra-legal efforts to coerce the taste of others … It is the responsibility of … librarians … to contest encroachments upon that freedom” (109-110).  Published in the same issue of the Library News Bulletin is “Librarians, Guardians of Freedom”, which reiterates the ideas put forth by both Asheim and the anonymous author of “The Freedom to Read”: “The right of free speech has been so long asserted that it should need no defense from anyone … The responsibility of each librarian is great to insure our freedom to read, to know, and to decide” (109).

    The American Library Association (ALA) first adopted their “Library Bill of Rights” in June 1948. Amended at least three times since then, it declares librarians have a responsibility to ensure the library rights of their users, including the responsibility to fight censorship where and whenever it threatens those rights. In 1996, the ALA published “Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights”.  This document reaffirms the anti-censorship sentiments presented in the original “Bill of Rights”.

    The Canadian Library Association (CLA) first published their “Statement on Intellectual Freedom” in November 1985.  Declaring that all Canadians have the fundamental right to access all information, it places the responsibility for this in the hands of librarians. [2]

    What are Filters? How Do They Work?

    The website describes Internet filtering software as working in various ways—some by comparing requested sites with URLs previously identified as “bad”, others by blocking incoming data if it contains undesirable keywords, file types, etc. This site also emphasizes that no filter is 100% effective, nor are they always adjustable to a librarian’s desires or needs. 

    I chose to use this website to describe filtering functions because, while it appears to be supported by a number of software vendors, it does seem unbiased in its presentation of the material; faults as well as successes are represented. Much of the writing on the subject of Internet filters in public libraries includes a brief description about how filters work, however those who are arguing for the use of filters present the technology as highly effective (Auld 38-42; Banks 50-54), while those arguing against filters describe them as faulty (Schrader, “Internet Filters: Library Access Issues in a Cyberspace World”; Willems 55-58).  One such author is Schuyler, who, in a 1997 article, “It’s Not About Porn, Stupid!” presents an idealized description of filters.  In 2001, however, Schuyler writes that filters do not work as well as he thought they would.  In this article, “Filters Revisited”, he reveals that the filtering system he touted in 1997 “failed to protect against unsuitable sites from 20-90 percent of the time” (47).

    The Positive Side of Filtering

    Internet filters have a number of champions in the library community.  Those who are in favour of filtering software in public libraries do not see filters as a censorship tool; they instead explain the positive role that filters can have on collection management, as well as demonstrate how filters can contribute to overall customer satisfaction.

    Filters in Collection Management 

    Schuyler, in “Filters: It’s Not About Porn, Stupid!”, Manley in “The Manley Arts: Good Fences Make Good Libraries”, and Burt, in “In Defense of Filtering”, are examples of the advocates of Internet filtering who argue that filtering software cannot be a form of censorship, because filters are simply collection management tools. Schuyler writes that filters can be seen as a way to keep control of “terminal resources”, contributing to the professional and ordered atmosphere at the reference desk (32). Burt compares filters that block sites from a preset list to librarians who purchase vendor-selected materials like full-text magazines on CD-ROMs, and both he and Manley compare pornography filters to libraries’ exclusion of magazines like Hustler. Burt (much like Schuyler), feels that filters and nonselection constitute the same thing, arguing that “[t]o simply ‘select’ the entire Internet is to abandon the traditional selection role of librarians. … We must reject this rigid Internet access model, and proclaim our selection rights in cyberspace” (4).

    Filters Mean Responsible Service

    Much of the literature argues that, beyond collection management, filters help to fulfill the librarian’s role as a responsible public service provider.  Burt argues that “[l]ibrarians have always made global judgments for their users about what materials are appropriate for their libraries” (3), and all they are doing with filters is making resources more compatible with their mission statements. Auld, a self-proclaimed freedom of information activist, explains he is encouraged by the filters on his library’s Internet terminals; “[o]ur filter …enables us to meet a major operational objective: the creation of a positive and vibrant atmosphere” (39).  Manley’s one-page musing on Internet filters concludes with this simple argument; “[p]eople who did not buy Madonna’s masterpiece [SEX] were not called censors. They were called librarians who were doing what librarians do—making choices” (446).  To Manley, Auld, and Banks, filters which exclude pornography are doing more than just excluding objectionable material—they are protecting children from disturbing and damaging images which have no place in the public library.

    The Negative Side of Filtering

    The literature indicates that resistance to filters can be expressed in two ways. One is to argue that filters are technologically faulty, thus incapable of replacing librarians. The other is a much more philosophical debate: due to their erosion of privacy rights and their similarity to more traditional censorship practices, filters are fundamentally contrary to the traditional role of librarian.

    Filters are Technologically Incapable of Replacing Librarians

    Much of the literature argues that Internet filters are not sophisticated enough to replace the many skills librarians are trained to use when indexing their collections.  Most authors concentrate on the ineffectiveness of the filters, which do not perform the way they are purported to. Like  Schuyler when he changed his mind (see above), many librarians are concerned with what they feel to be dangerously clumsy and ineffective software, which, for example, can block out medical information when filtering out pornography (“Censorship in a Box”; Willems 56).  Schrader, in “Internet Filters: Library Access Issues in a Cyberspace World”, blames this clumsiness on the software’s inability to recognize nuance and subtlety in language, and reminds readers that Retrieval theory and Reader Response theory—concepts software will never grasp--are essential to librarianship.  There is also a concern that vendor biases affect what filters are letting through (Schrader, “Internet Filters”; “Censorship in A Box”). 

    Some librarians see filters as inevitable, but will only accept them once the technology is improved (Schuyler 46; Willems 57). 

    Filters are Fundamentally Contrary to Librarianship

    Pinnell-Stephens’ “Lester Asheim in Cyberspace: A Tribute to Sound Reasoning” is short and to the point, but it is also part of the literature that argues placing filtering software in public libraries is fundamentally contrary to librarianship in North America.  Like Pinnell-Stephens and Schrader (“Internet Filters”), many writers are arguing that their rejection of filters goes beyond the vendor’s biases, or the software’s ability to distinguish between a medical breast and a pornographic one. Instead, they argue that filters are fundamentally contrary to librarianship, going against the traditions and codes established throughout the history of the field.   

    There are those strong believers in the “freedom to read”, who argue that filters invade privacy.[3]  Willems explains, “One feature [of filters] that is particularly odious to me is the ‘logging’ feature. Some systems maintain a sign-up sheet … and systems operators can determine exactly who uses what sites” (56).

    The issue of privacy can come up even when filters are not in place. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (“Censorship in a Box”), counsels against the “tap on the shoulder” policy many libraries have put in place instead of a filter.  This is “more intrusive and unconstitutional than computer programmes”. (They advocate the use of privacy screens.)

    Even those who admit to using these “tap on the shoulder”-type alternatives to filters, such as a sign-up sheet (Aftab, Herb, and Klipsch 30), or position their Internet terminals in plain view of the reference desk (Ryan), concede that there is a compromise of privacy rights. Librarian Steve L. Herb expresses it well: “It’s my sad lament that the very thing that brings all this information into the libraries may be the very thing that kills our ability to ever use them privately again” ( Aftab, Herb, and Klipsch 32).

    Many of the arguments on both sides boil down to this: are filters really tools of the censorship that librarians have been opposed to for years?[4]  The ACLU (“Censorship in a Box”), Pinnell-Stephens, the ALA  (“Access to Electronic Information”; “Library Bill of Rights”) and the CLA (“Statement on Intellectual Freedom”) all put forward the suggestion that filters can be used to censor.  The paradox in the literature is that not everyone who argues against filtering will go as far as saying that filters constitute censorship (Willems 55-58; Schuyler, “Filters Revisited” 46-49) nor do those who are obviously anti-censorship discount the use of filters (Auld 38-42). 

    Alternatives: Can Both Sides Agree?

    Alternatives to filters are presented in much of the literature. I have already shown how some librarians choose to include sign up sheets, while others recommend a permission form for Internet use in children’s departments (Aftab, Herb, and Klipsch 7). Willems suggests that the barcoding features on some filters allow for varying levels of access (57). The ACLU offers guidelines to follow instead of using filters. These include “time limits” and a “Driver’s Ed for Internet Users” (“Censorship in a Box”). Schrader presents this alternative, “I would like to see librarians … classify sexually explicit Web sites from all other sites, as the print and video worlds are divided” (“Internet Filters”). 

    Surprisingly, in the astounding amount of literature on the subject, I found very few librarians who agree with one another about the future of Internet access in libraries.

    My Reflections

    I was quite surprised to see little outright condemnation of filters as tools of censorship.  Instead, I was struck by the thought that both sides appear to be skirting the issue, attacking faulty software or emphasizing the fact that they are only doing what is “right” by the children in their communities.  However, if one reflects on the traditional literature on censorship, a small amount of which was presented at the beginning of the literature review, it becomes obvious that Internet filtering software breaks the anti-censorship rules which have been long established and well respected by librarians and their associations for years.

    Filters cannot be separated from censorship.  Those who see filters as a collection management tool are ignoring the fact that filtering software does not follow the standard rules for collection management espoused by librarians the world over.  Those who believe that filters are only protecting users are preventing those users from deciding what they would like—or would not like—to access.  Librarians who dismiss filters as imperfect, but hope for a filter to one day take on the indexing role of a librarian, or suggest alternatives such as shoulder taps or sign-up sheets, are only creating new ways to censor the collection. 

    Censoring one aspect of the Internet means censoring the whole thing.  The Internet is not a book. It is not a journal article. It has no editorial board. The Internet is what it is, and to have Internet access in the library means only one thing: there is Internet access in the library. No librarian would ever black offending words from a book, or rip entire articles from magazines. No one would glue together sections of an artist’s collection, nor would a reference librarian deny someone information on a topic that upset them personally.  So why would any librarian support carving up the Internet?

    In 1953, the Library News Bulletin published “The Freedom to Read”, which spoke about pressures to suppress information.  “The problem is not only one of actual censorship.  The shadow of fear cast by these pressures lead, we suspect, to an even larger voluntary curtailment of expression. … Such pressure toward conformity is perhaps natural to a time of uneasy change and pervading fear” (110).  Schrader argues against amateur entrepreneurs who make money by “exploiting public fear and lack of knowledge” (“Internet Filters”).  North America was afraid in 1953, and it continues to be afraid.  Censorship does nothing but feed that fear, and until librarians assist in educating the public, work together to promote critical thinking and understanding, and take on the classification of digital resources, there will be fear, there will be filters, and there will be censorship in the public library.

    Works Cited

    Aftab, Parry, Steve L. Herb and Pamela R. Klipsch. “Kids Have Rights/Parents Have Responsibilities/Librarians Have Ulcers!” Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom 49.1 (2000): 5-7, 29-37.

    “Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks: an Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.” Jan. 24 1996 ALA American Library Association. Aug. 17 2003. ALA. Oct. 25 2003 <>.

    Asheim, Lester. “Means and Ends in Librarianship.” Librarians and Information Science in the Electronic Age. Ed. Hendrick Edelman. Philidelphia: ISI, 1986. 100-111.

    “Not Censorship But Selection.” Wilson Library Bulletin 28 (1953): 63-67.  

    Auld, Hampton. “Filters Work: Get Over It.” American Libraries 34.2 (2003): 38-42.

    Banks, Michael A. “Filtering the Net in Libraries: the Case (Mostly) in Favor.” Computers In Libraries 18.3 (1998): 50-54.

    Burt, David. “In Defense of Filtering.” American Libraries 28.7 (1997): 46-48. 

    “Censorship in a Box: Why Blocking Software is Wrong for Public Libraries.” Cyber-Liberties: American Civil Liberties Union Freedom Network.1998. American Civil Liberties Union. Oct. 20 2003 <>.  

    “The Freedom to Read.” Library News Bulletin 20 (1953): 109-113. 

    “Internet Filter Feature Guide: Frequently Asked Questions.” 2002. Oct. 22 2003 <>. 

    “Librarians, Guardians of Freedom.” Library News Bulletin 20 (1953): 109.

    “Library Bill of Rights.” Jan. 23 1996. ALA American Library Association. Oct. 24 2003. ALA. Oct. 25 2003 <>. 

    Library Literature 1976-1977: an Index to Library and Information Science. Ed. Cathy Rentschler. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1979. 

    Library Literature 1921-1932: a Supplement to Cannons’ Bibliography of Library Economy 1876-1920. Ed. Lucile M. Morsch. Chicago: American Library Association, 1934.

    Manley, Will. “Good Fences Make Good Libraries.” Booklist 98 (2001): 446.

    Pinnell-Stephens, June. “Lester Asheim in Cyberspace: a Tribute to Sound Reasoning.” American Libraries 33.9 (2002): 70-72.

    Schrader,Alvin M. “Internet Filters: Library Access Issues in a Cyberspace World.” 65th IFLA Council and General Conference - IFLA/FAIFE Open Session Lecture –August 25, 1999, Bangkok, Thailand. IFLAnet. Jan. 1 2003. International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. Oct. 17 2003 <>.

    “Why You Can’t ‘Censorproof’ Your Public Library: What Research Tells Us.” Public Library Quarterly 16.1 (1997): 3-29.

    Ryan, Nancy. Telephone Interview. 18 Oct. 2003. 

    Schuyler, Michael. “Filters: It’s Not About Porn, Stupid!” Computers In Libraries 17.9 (1997): 31-33.

    ---. “Filters Revisited.” Computers In Libraries 21.6 (2001): 46-49.

    “Statement on Intellectual Freedom.” Nov. 18 1985. Home page. Oct. 29 2003. CLA. Oct. 25 2003 <>.

    “Statement on Internet Access.” Feb 2000. Home page. Oct. 29 2003. CLA. Oct. 25 2003 <>.

    Willems, Harry. “Filtering the Net in Libraries: The Case (Mostly) Against.” Computers In Libraries 18.3 (1998): 55-58.

    Search Strategy

    The Beginnings

    The searching for this literature review began back in September, when I began my “historical person” paper.  My subject was Lester Eugene Asheim, and during my search on biographical information, I read both “Not Censorship But Selection”, and the Pinnell-Stephens article. 

    The next step came when I worked on my “literature searching assignment” for LIS 503, for which I chose to look for literature dealing with the relationship between Internet filters and censorship issues.  I began this project with a “Google” search, using as search terms “censorship” and “Internet” to get some background information on the subject.

    The very first “hit” was Dr. Schrader’s “Internet Filters: Library Access Issues in a Cyberspace World”, which came with an extensive bibliography, which is how I found the websites for both the ALA and the CLA.

    Otherwise, my online search did not yield much else that I found applicable to my assignment, however I found it helpful to read the personal websites and advocacy group literature; this helped me to gain an understanding of the many different positions held by members of the public.

    The LIS 503 literature searching assignment was specifically for the Library Literature Full Text database, and so I did quite a lot of searching there, and was able to use a few articles from that project for this one.

    Of course, I had to do more than just rely on the few articles I found from these previous searches.  Here is some information on my search strategy for this assignment:

    Catalogues and Databases Used

    As mentioned before, I looked in Library Literature Full Text. Using the search I did for LIS 503, I was able to use two (Auld and Burt) of the ten articles from that assignment. I also went to older print copies of the Library Literature (this was part of the 503 assignment). This is where I found the articles from the Library News Bulletin, 1953. I did some searching in the Social Science Research Network, but found the articles in this database to be quite long, as well as badly presented—they were fuzzy, making them hard to read. I also looked in the LISA database. I only used this database nearing the end of my searching, so I did not use as many articles from here as I might have had I searched this database at the start of the project.  When I was finding journal articles in the library, I did some random searching. When I had one good article from a journal, I looked to the month ahead and the month behind to see if there were any rebuttals or responses to my original source. In fact, at one point in the search I took home one whole volume of the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom and read it like a book—I found a lot of interesting material this way.  This also resulted in me finding the transcription of the panel discussion “Kids Have Rights/Parents Have Responsibilities/Librarians Have Ulcers!” by Aftab, Herb and Klipsch”.  There were quite a few articles in this source that would have been nice to include, but by the time I had gotten this far, my list of “good” material was already very long. My one complaint about the sources found in these databases and catalogues is that they are all, with the exception of a book of essays, journal articles.  This is not for lack of trying—I would have liked to include books dealing with the subject. Unfortunately, no book that I tracked down seemed as relevant to the topic as the articles, and, in order to keep to precision over recall, I went with the articles that fit my needs.

    Years Covered

    Because I was trying to include some older literature as well as more recent literature, I chose not to isolate the years.  While I did not specify later years, however, using the words “Internet” or “filtering software” as search terms meant that most of my literature dates from the late 1990s. This could have been a mistake—perhaps focusing on the past year might have yielded more up-to-the minute arguments.

    Search Terms[5]

    The terms I used were quite similar in each database.  I always used “censorship”, as well as “public librar*”, “Internet”, “Internet filter*”, and sometimes “intellectual freedom” and “privacy”.  I also looked for “Asheim” in the Library Literature Full Text. That is how I found “Means and Ends in Librarianship”. When Boolean logic was permitted, I tended to use AND, as this is a potentially overwhelming topic, and I wanted to get as precise as I could in the search.  I had most success when I included all three keywords “public library*”, “Internet”, and “censorship” in my searches.

    Peer Reviewed or Not Peer Reviewed?

    When I began my search, I made a conscious decision to not only focus on articles taken from peer-reviewed journals. I felt that it was just as important for me to get an understanding of what ordinary, everyday librarians were thinking and feeling about this subject.  I wanted to be able to give a chance to the librarians who are actually involved in the day-to-to issue of Internet access to have their opinions examined alongside those of academics; these views have a place in a review such as this one.

    I was lucky—my group of sources is quite mixed.  A panel discussion transcript, a speech, some personal stories and some studies—not to mention the odd peer-reviewed source—made for a review that was broad, and covered many facets of the argument.


    [1] Though written in 1953, Asheim’s views have obviously taken deep root in the fundamental philosophies in librarianship—many, many articles I came across, on both sides of the issue, seem to echo his sentiments.

    [2] The CLA followed this Statement in 1997 with their “Statement on Internet Access”, which encourages libraries to offer Internet access with “the fewest possible restrictions”.  It is arguable that the CLA is making provision for the possibility of Internet filtering.

     [3] Schuyler in “Filters: It’s Not About Porn, Stupid!” argues that using filters will ensure the privacy of the user, as reference staff will not be required to “police” the terminals (32).

    [4] In “Why You Can’t ‘Censorproof’ Your Public Library”, Schrader does not mention Internet filters by name, but the connection between his arguments and the function of Internet filters is apparent. He explains that librarians often try to protect themselves from protest by making blanket decisions by avoiding and restricting material which deals with controversial subjects (20).  This is how the literature presents the keyword blocking function in most filter software. Based on Schrader’s arguments, the blanket avoidance cast over the Internet can only be seen as a censorship strategy.

     [5] While I browsed the print editions of the Library Literature Index I noticed an interesting evolution in the language used to describe the concept “censorship”.  In the 1921-32 edition, where the main heading is “Censorship” the only thing under “See Also” is “prohibited books”.  By the 1976-77 edition, included with the main heading “Censorship” is a long list of  “See Also”s, including “intellectual freedom”, “labeling of controversial materials”, “obscenity”, “pornography”, “propaganda and the library”, “reading and morals”, and includes as subheadings “bibliography”, “exhibits and displays”, “school libraries”, “history”, and “public libraries”. The evolving terms show an increasing scrutiny—in 50 years, the Index goes from “prohibited book” to include different facets of the issue, such as “pornography” and “propaganda and the library”.  I find it telling that by 1977, “pornography” and “obscenity” are evaluated separately.  As time goes on, librarians are seeing the many, many aspects of an issue such as censorship.  It is no longer acceptable to discuss things like this in black-and-white terminology, which is possibly one of the reasons that the Internet filter debate is heated, multi-sided, and has incredible currency in librarianship today.  We have been getting ready for this debate for nearly 100 years.