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Sex in the Library

By Annalee Newitz

When I was a freshman in high school, one of my world-weary senior friends introduced me to the pleasures of our local university library. It was several stories high, packed with rack after unadorned steel rack of books. And more glorious still, it had computers with a catalog database named Melvyl on them.

Oh, Melvyl, how long I have adored you! In those first giddy months of my acquaintance with the university library, I used its computers to find books on a rather predictable topic for a teenager: sex. I considered the subject to be the absolute height of campy hilarity, but I also desperately and seriously wanted to know more about it. Oddly, the first book I sought out had to do with child porn: it was a collection of Lewis Carroll's erotic photographs of naked young girls.

Standing in the air-conditioned stacks at UC-Irvine, I pulled the tiny volume from a shelf and beheld the colorized images of nude preadolescents with my own eyes. I'm not sure what drove me to seek out this book in particular, but I think I'd heard somewhere that the famous children's author and his work were not as innocent as one might think. Seeing Carroll's sexuality for myself was like a rite of passage--as far as I was concerned, I now had access to all the censored parts of Alice in Wonderland.

And that wasn't all. With the help of Melvyl, who continues to serve patrons of the UC libraries to this day, I could find books on any topic I desired. I spent the next three years visiting the university library whenever I could, researching everything from then-President Reagan's weapons programs to the history of homosexuality.

My access to knowledge made me fearless. Everything, no matter how disturbing or obscure, had its place in the Melvyl catalog. You could read about things and comprehend them, rather than shrinking in horror from ill-conceived fantasies. And that's why I'm so concerned about the Supreme Court's ruling last week. In a troublingly vague 6-3 decision that upholds the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), the court ruled that libraries receiving certain kinds of federal funding must install software on their computers that censors websites deemed "harmful to minors." Numerous studies have demonstrated that censorware is highly inaccurate--none of the available programs are able, for example, to distinguish between Dick Armey's website and a Big Fat Donkey Dick website. The software will therefore block users from viewing both sites.

In an era when budget cuts have forced libraries to scale back purchases on books and periodicals, censoring library patrons' access to the web seems only about half a step away from censoring books outright. Catalogs such as Melvyl, which are now accessed via the web, could conceivably be blocked by censorware set up to filter for certain words like "sex" or phrases that could be construed as hate speech (so you might not be able to view pages containing references to Randall Kennedy's excellent scholarly work Nigger: The Strange History of a Troublesome Word).

Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that it's unlikely that any librarian would condone blocking an online card catalog. But the problem, according to Bankston, is that "overzealous librarians" might set up their blocking software to censor Melvyl without realizing what they'd done. In cases like this, where a blocked site is clearly not harmful to minors, the CIPA ruling allows for the idea that librarians can unblock sites for adults and possibly for minors. "But they aren't required to do it," Bankston explains. "Moreover, there may be libraries that won't mention to patrons that they can request that the librarian unblock sites."

So, conceivably, a person in a local public library searching Melvyl via the web for books about 19th-century pornography might have her search results censored. It's a great victory for conservatives: blocking access to "naughty" websites could also block access to "naughty" books.

"I think there will be multiple challenges to this law," says Bankston. "Maybe there will be problems with librarians not unblocking sites or hassling patrons about unblocking. Or maybe it simply won't be technically feasible to flip a switch and turn off the filtering software on one particular computer, especially if you have a large, distributed setup of terminals."

In the meantime, all the curious young people who want to learn about the world from books may find that Melvyl and other systems like it are no longer their faithful friends. Perverted by censorware, the library will no longer lead us boldly into free thought, but instead to fear and ignorance.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who wonders what terrible fate may have met that book of Lewis Carroll's photographs.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the July 3-9, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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