Time to play a little game. Imagine it’s a weekday morning, a bit brisk but the sun is warm. Spring is in the air and as you walk to work (at the public library) you can’t help but look up at the blue sky and smile at the city doves overhead. In the distance you hear the faint sound of laughter and smile as a warm breeze combs through your hair. Ahhh, you think, what a delightful morning.
Yes indeed, what a delightful morning it is! There’s a spring to your step as you turn the lock to the back door and bounce up the steps to the Reference floor. You smile at your coworkers and exchange sincere, “Good morning!” messages before passing through the public computer lab to your office. You sit down, open your computer and set to work catching up on correspondences, tracking program participation, and updating the monthly program stats. You begin to hear a quiet, steady flow of people entering the library, the beeping of the computer reservation station, and the soothing clickety-click-clack-click of keys typing away next door. Occasionally a cell phone will ring or the muffled sound of music through headphones can be heard coming from the lab, but for the most part all is calm.
Around mid-morning, you decide to take a short tea break. You grab your mug, put your computer into “sleep” mode, stand up and walk out of your office. Out of habit, you glance around at the faces in the public computer lab with a friendly smile--
And then you see it.
Any semblance of a smile disappears when you notice the screen filled with close-up images of amateur hardcore pornography: a grainy video maximized across the entire monitor displaying a side view of some overly-busty woman’s gyrating butt cheeks slapping together to the rhythm of some paunch-bellied dude’s vigorous thrusts. It’s a ‘deer in the headlights’ moment where you freeze, confused, and can’t seem to tear your eyes away even though your brain is churning a million miles per hour trying to process and respond to what is taking place. You notice a baby in a stroller beside the offensive computer user; it coos a little bit and spits up on itself. You follow suit and vomit a little in your mouth.
At my library, we do not have any filters in place (except for in the Children’s Department) because they sometimes will filter out the ‘wrong’ websites. For example, if someone is trying to research the long-term psychological effects of, say, child sex slavery (a recent homework assignment for some of the high school health students), the combination of “child” and “sex” search terms may bring up some academic articles, but presumably many inappropriate websites as well. A filter may not accurately tell the difference between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sites and could block them all. Thus, in order to give the public the best access to any and all mind-enriching information, we function almost exclusively on an honor system. Each computer user has to accept the computer policy prior to beginning any computer session, and it is then their responsibility to use the computers appropriately. For the most part, staff do not ‘spy’ on computer users, but on occasion when we do notice illegal computer activity on the screen we will boot the offending user off with a warning. A second offence warrants a temporary (30 day) computer ban, and following offences may receive heftier reprimands.
The challenge, of course, is that libraries are built around free access to information-- and personal privacy. Thus, records of ‘repeat offenders’ on the computers are not kept except mentally by staff. If we are aware that someone has looked at pornography two or three times, then we can act accordingly, but with hundreds of people passing through and using the computers each day it gets increasingly complicated to remember who has had one warning versus five.
So what do you do? There you are, gaping at a disgusting and demeaning video trying to figure out how to confront the offender. Maybe half a second passes, maybe less, but it feels like an hour. Then all of a sudden the offender seems to notice you and quickly minimizes the video to reveal another window--Facebook--as an innocent cover. You think to yourself, Do you really believe that I didn’t just see that? I know you weren’t looking at Facebook! How dumb do you think I am? And at that moment the offender catches your eye in an attempt to tell if you saw their little video or not. Apparently your face is very revealing because they quickly avert their eyes and slump lower in their chair like a guilty 15-year-old.
It’s always so awkward to approach these individuals and reprimand them publicly because they often protest and sometimes revert to using derogatory language. It’s especially awkward to approach them if they are in the midst of some personal ‘heavy petting’ because, well, that’s just awkward in general! On a few occasions I’ve slipped back into my office and written brief notes that say:
Do you know it’s against library policy to look at pornography on the public computers? Not only that, but you can lose your library privileges. Please do not do it again.
I fold the note in half and drop it next to the offender’s keyboard as I walk past. I feel like making a personal connection like that-- the whole ‘I know you know that I know’ thing-- may be intimidating enough to at least make them take a break for a while. But the frustrating thing is that often people just don’t care. They’ll be back the next day watching their grainy videos and rubbing themselves ‘discretely’ in the public computer lab, no matter how many times staff talk to them, suspend their cards, or otherwise reprimand them.
There was one noteworthy incident where I was in my office when all of a sudden a loud commotion broke out in the computer lab. Some woman with an incredibly shrill voice started laying into a guy that she obviously observed engaged in inappropriate conduct:
“That’s fucking disgusting, this is a public library! I don’t want to come in here and see that shit every time I want to send an e-mail! You fucking lowlife, go hide in an ally and do that shit, don’t do it here!”
“What, I’m not doing anything,” was the man’s mumbled reply. It only sent the woman further into a frenzy.
“You most certainly are doing something! Every time I come in here you’re watching nasty ass pornography and rubbing your penis. I have my daughter with me, and she’s got to sit next to some pervert rubbing himself while I’m trying to print off my taxes. Fuckin’ sick, that’s what it is! You’ve got to be sick to be doing that shit here, fucking sick in the head.”
By this time, everyone in the computer lab had stopped typing and were obviously watching the antics. I wondered why no one at the Reference Desk had stepped in to mediate the situation, or at least get the two to quiet down. Then I realized that a fellow patron laying into this guy was probably more effective at embarrassing him than any of us librarians (who have probably warned him multiple times already) would have been. Thus, despite my natural impulse to step out of my office and quiet things down, I decided to let it run its course.
“Shut up, bitch, I’m not doing anything!”
“This is a LIBRARY! It’s posted in the rules that you can’t watch pornography in here! It’s a public place, pervert! There are kids in here, and I can’t sit by quietly while you’re grunting and rubbing yourself in front of not only my daughter, but all the people in this room!” Her voice was getting louder (if that was possible) and I could hear the man push back his chair and start putting his jacket on.
“Yeah that’s right, walk away, pretend nothing happened. I know you’ll be back in here tomorrow doing the same nasty ass shit. Fucking sick, this is a LIBRARY!”
The man mumbled something that sounded a lot like, “Fuck you, bitch,” as he exited the computer lab. The woman hollered after him, “Don’t forget to zip your fly!”
This whole incident was exceptionally loud, and after the man left it felt like a shocked quiet was suffocating the room. I almost expected everyone to start clapping after a brief pause, but no one did. Generally I get tense around direct confrontations, but this time I found myself almost ecstatic! I wanted to shout, “You go, girl! Thank you!” I knew exactly who she had been yelling at, and apparently her aggressive tone and public humiliation stint did a number on the guy, because he hasn’t been back to the library since.
So there you are, burning holes in the back of the offender’s head and contemplating your next move. Do you confront them verbally right then and there? Do you end their computer session immediately? Do you give them a warning? If I was a fellow public computer lab user, I’d probably follow the lead of the woman above (to a lesser extent) and firmly ask the offender to put that shit away!
What would you do?