Speaking notes for Hilary Bates Neary, Thursday, February 19, 1998,
in a presentation to the Burlington Public Library Board,

Ms Chair, trustees of the Burlington Public Library Board: I thank you for receiving our delegation from the Ontario Library Association and our presentation on the recent challenge to your providing Internet access to the Burlington community. Our delegation consists of:

All of these associations work together in the Ontario Library Association, represented here tonight by:

The nature of our delegation indicates how seriously we take the challenges being faced by the Burlington Public Library Board in its provision of Internet services to the people of this community. All types of libraries in the province are aware of the difficulties and shortcomings of the Internet, but are also aware of the importance of this resource to the present and future provision of information to the world. The competitiveness of our country and the economic future of our children are dependent on the availability and use to which we are putting and will put this important resource.

For decades the Ontario Library Association has taken positions and issued statements on the importance of public access to information. Only last year, our membership, representing all libraries in Ontario, unanimously reaffirmed its support of these concepts through its endorsement of the Association's Statement on the Intellectual Rights of the Individual. These fundamental rights are affirmed daily in thousands of libraries across this province as over 10,000 library staff assist millions of citizens of all ages in finding information and reading materials to suit their diverse needs. The Burlington Public Library is one place where these rights have been contested in recent years, and where this Board has demonstrated firm leadership to its fellow citizens, to its staff, and to the wider library community.

Libraries play an important role in nurturing democracy in our society. One of the propositions of the OLA Statement on the Intellectual Rights of the Individual states "that free traffic in ideas and opinions is essential to the health and growth of a free society and that the freedom to read, listen, and view is fundamental to such free traffic". As educative institutions, libraries support this important aspect of democratic life by collecting and making available in a variety of formats materials which reflect the diversity of human thought and the variety of human experience. Library boards and staff are often called upon to defend the right of patrons to use such materials for their chosen purpose. Libraries also provide both programming on contemporary issues and places where community groups can meet to debate these issues, thus participating as informed citizens in civic life. Diversity of opinion is a strength of democratic societies, and its expression is an important part of political debate.

This Association commends the Burlington Public Library Board for making policies regarding both collections and Internet access which reflect your commitment to the intellectual rights of patrons. We can see that this board has also listened carefully to those who contest these policies. You have directed your staff to meet with these patrons, to look into solutions to their complaints, to evaluate products which filter certain types of material on the Internet, and devices which screen monitors from the view of passers-by. Your staff is also to be commended for having carried out these directions most thoroughly and for consulting widely with other libraries to explore how they have coped with similar events. Tonight you are receiving their report and recommendations. When deciding on these recommendations, the Ontario Library Association encourages you not to impose restrictions on the intellectual freedom of many of your patrons in order to protect a few of your patrons from disturbing images or challenging ideas.

Library staff deal on a daily basis with a diversity of human behaviour. Libraries, schools, and other public institutions where large numbers of people congregate are places where measures of gentle social control enable work to go on. Yet pranks do happen. They are part of the human comedy and the human tragedy. The event which triggered this re-examination of the Burlington Public Library's Internet access policy and procedures would three years ago have been the equivalent of an adolescent boy displaying a Playboy centerfold on a library bulletin board or inserting it into a volume of the Canadian Encyclopedia for an unsuspecting user to find. The board and staff of this library can find ways of making acceptable social behaviour the choice of patrons without drastically curtailing their access to the Internet. It is important to separate the principle of open access to information from issues of inappropriate behaviour, and for providing patrons of any age with models of social responsibility. But the larger need must prevail.

Children are a very important group of patrons at the Burlington Public Library: a generous percentage of your programs and collections are designed to nurture their minds and cultivate their skills for life-long learning. Here they can learn to read, hear, view, and evaluate recorded knowledge, expressions of creativity and thought. Here they can meet to debate with others, can learn to judge the ideas which others express and those which they contemplate themselves. Parents, teachers, librarians, fellow citizens, trustees - we are responsible for raising the next generation of children to be inquiring and responsible members of our community. We will do it best by nurturing their judgement and expanding their knowledge of the world, not by erecting barriers to their intellectual rights.

On behalf of our members we thank you for this brief opportunity to meet with you. We commend and encourage you and your staff in your work and in your governance of the Burlington Public Library.

Hilary Bates Neary
Interim Chair OLA Task Force on Intellectual Freedom