Lester Asheim in Cyberspace: A Tribute to Sound Reasoning

Leonard Asheim in Cyberspace: applying "Not Censorship, But Selection" to the internet

by June Pinnell-Stevens

For over 50 years, "Not Censorship But Selection," (Wilson Library Bulletin, Sept. 1953) by Lester Asheim (1914–1997) has remained the definitive statement on the distinction between these two aspects of library collection development.

"The major characteristic which makes for the all-important difference seems to be this: that the selector's approach is positive, while that of the censor is negative," Asheim said. "The aim of the selector is to promote reading, not to inhibit it; to multiply the points of view which will find expression, not limit them; to be a channel for communication, not a bar against it. . . . Selection seeks to protect the right of the reader to read; censorship seeks to protect—not the right—but the reader himself from the fancied effects of his reading. The selector has faith in the intelligence of the reader; the censor has faith only in his own."

This distinction pertains to the Internet and electronic resources no less than to books. Libraries evaluate and purchase access to databases that address the needs of the users they serve. In fact, these databases often replace the periodicals and serials that librarians have selected for years. Many libraries also offer users freely available Web sites by highlighting them on the library's home page or including them as bookmarked sites. The choice of these sites is the equivalent of compiling print bibliographies or pathfinders, which libraries have provided for years to help their users find material available locally or at other libraries.

If the true process of selection were applied to the Internet as a whole, libraries would make available only those specific site they actively located, evaluated, and added to their systems from the millions and millions of sites on the Web. Libraries do not approach the Internet in this way, and providing access to the Internet is not the same as selection.

Some libraries have installed software filters on public-access computers and claim the filters do nothing more than replace the selection process used by the librarian who chooses not to purchase particular items for the library's collection. However, the library cannot actually review all the sites that are excluded, since the list of blocked sites is not made available by filtering software producers.

A few critics have compared this process to the practice of using book approval plans offered by many vendors. But in the case of filters, although the library is usually able to select categories for which the filter is activated, it may not be able to add individual sites to those that are allowed, particularly without action by the producer of the filter. The library may also find it difficult to identify sites it would like to add if the filter is already blocking them. Throughout the approval process, unlike that of applying filters, the library controls all the decisions.

Most important in this consideration is Asheim's analysis of motivation. Software filters are used to prevent users from having access to potentially objectionable material, not to seek and include potentially valuable and useful material. Furthermore, they prevent the users from making that determination themselves and seek "to protect—not the right—but the reader himself from the fancied effects of his reading." This is censorship, not selection.

Another perspective of this discussion is the legal liability that may result from the library's decision. Asheim wrote, "The real question of censorship versus selection arises when the librarian, exercising his own judgment, decides against a book which has every legal right to representation on his shelves."

This "legal right to representation" is particularly cogent to a discussion of filters. Even the producers and proponents of filters admit that all of them block access to material that is constitutionally protected. When the library knows about this problem in advance and still decides to install filters to prevent access to controversial sites, most of them legal, it is engaged in censorship, especially if it does not provide an option for unfiltered access.

When the courts examine the question of censorship, they, too, look to the institution's motivation. In recent cases that deal with access to the Internet, courts have held that preventing access to protected speech is an unlawful infringement of the user's First Amendment rights. Perhaps it is this liability—if the user of filters will place the library at risk for a lawsuit over violation of the user's constitutional rights—that is the most basic distinction between selection and censorship.

Asheim said, "Selection is democratic while censorship is authoritarian, and in our democracy we have traditionally tended to put our trust in the selector rather than in the censor." His reasoned and eloquent statement of this critical aspect of librarianship is as pertinent today as it was in 1953. Although much has changed in the intervening years, his analysis still applies, whether examining the Harry Potter books or an explicit Internet site. His challenge to every member of our profession—to assess our decisions rigorously and honestly—remains one of the most important and difficult we face.

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June Pinnell-Stephens, collection services manager, Fairbanks (Alaska) North Star Borough Public Library

Article first appeared in American Libraries, October 2002, p. 70, 72