The exterior of Centretown’s Ottawa Public Library (OPL) branch on Metcalfe Street. The OPL is tasked with finding the delicate balance between freedom of information and the protection of its visitors, and some believe the library may have upset the scales with its new network access policy. Matt Gergyek, Centretown News

Ottawa Public Library bans explicit content from library computers

By Matt Gergyek

Visitors to the Ottawa Public Library’s Main branch on Metcalfe Street will no longer be able to use library computers to view pornographic material or other explicit content “that may reasonably be considered offensive to others.”

But the new policy is raising concerns, on one hand, that it could infringe basic rights and freedoms enshrined in the Canadian Charter. Others have argued that the library has clumsily drafted a policy that will still allow porn to be publicly viewed in certain circumstances.

Previously, the city-wide policy required that library staff direct offending visitors to a more discreet area of the building if they intended to continue viewing explicit content. But the new procedure will require staff to instruct offenders to shut down or turn off any material — if it has prompted a complaint from another library patron.

Failure to follow a staff member’s instructions will result in the offending individual’s removal from the library.

The approach will be complaint-based and computer activity will be unmonitored by library staff.

A similar approach is used in public libraries in Vancouver, Gatineau and Hamilton, among other cities.

Bill Kay, a Centretown resident who visits the Metcalfe Street library for computer access “four to five times a week” said he largely agrees with the new approach.

“It’s a subjective thing … Personally, I really don’t think (pornographic material) should be allowed in a library,” Kay said.

The policy change followed a storm of criticism that hit the library in July after Ottawa resident Jennifer St. Pierre and her two young daughters stumbled upon a visitor to the Greenboro branch watching “graphic porn,” St. Pierre told CBC Ottawa. They were told that under current policies, the offender was not in the wrong.

The main section for public computer terminals at the Main library branch is on the same floor as the children’s library.

Library spokesperson Anna Basile said in an email exchange that the “changes in policy and practice will be designed to respond to external factors such as the increasing availability of content on the Internet, the evolving role of public libraries, and the need to balance individual rights in the context of our library branches as public spaces.”

But the new procedure is raising some concern with regard to freedom of information and expression for some members.

“The issue gets difficult when you bring religious people into the debate, who have an even more subjective view of what’s proper and improper,” argued Kay.

Sherri Beattie, an Ottawa-based criminal lawyer and media law professor at Carleton University, said the library may not have taken the right approach to the issue of explicit content.