Are librarians prudes?

The popular stereotype (pornographic at least) would tell you that librarians are repressed nymphomaniacs desperately trying to maintain decorum. Its a nice thought. . .

I’ve been wanting to write about sex in libraries for ages and something happened this week that drove it to the forefront. Little do you know but this week witnessed an annual cultural moment that *concerns* many librarians. .

I’ve never thought much of the Swimsuit Edition one way or another. There are certainly more revealing photographs in various popular magazines all the time. Granted, I live in the South where the grocery store puts modesty guards over Allure, Cosmopolitan, and even Shape magazines as well. I was surprised this week to notice about 15 other library students most of whom currently work in libraries grappling with the question of the Swimsuit Edition.

The first shocker is that it is a question at all. The original poster asked about it with disdain and some assumption that certainly librarians needed to lock away these shocking, disgusting images of . . . the female body! The responses varied but most gave a level-headed reply that it was handled like any other issue of Sports Illustrated (put on the browsing shelves and almost immediately stolen.) Other librarians pointed out that young adults are savvy and know exactly where to find the sex books in libraries already and that hiding these things away just makes something natural an issue to snicker over.

The thing that bothers me about this exchange isn’t the conclusions that the future librarians came to. No one advocated banning the Swimsuit Edition or was even particularly offended by it (except perhaps the person who originally asked the question.) But librarians are particularly susceptible to societal pressures and many have convinced themselves that the risk of someone seeing something pornographic at a library is absolutely terrifying. I’ve seen dozens of intelligent conversations on offering digital information to patrons devolve into “how do we stop them from looking at porn?!” hysteria.

Of course there are several practical reasons why openly viewing pornography in a library should be prevented. And unfortunately, common sense and social etiquette of patrons does not necessarily pick up the slack. However, I’m not sure that I’m convinced that sex is the most pressing issue facing libraries today and I wonder if it is a waste of resources worry about it so extensively.

This issue touches on the development of library collections (what books and periodicals appear in the library), the training of reference staff (which questions are appropriate to answer), and access to electronic resources (requirements to use an internet terminal and whether or not that internet access is filtered.)

So, I propose an experiment! I intend to visit the public library in my medium-sized Southern city and attempt access at several websites. I suspect that the filtering software will stop me from viewing many informative sites and blogs that are not pornographic but are about sex or pornography. Conversely, I suspect that it will allow me access to sites that perhaps should be filtered but are smaller. How do I know this? A preliminary experience with the filtering software allows my site (maybe it shouldn’t, I post filthy stories and pictures – it is almost certainly pornographic) but does not allow access to (that site has always intentionally been non-pornographic and is a source of business information.)

I have a list of sites that I want to test this theory with but I’d like more suggestions. Post links as a comment and I’ll include them in the “study”.