A library policy that provides patrons with four computers with unfiltered access to the internet will remain in place.
In January, the Billings City Council asked the library board to create a policy for blocking access to obscene material on the library’s public computers. Eighty-five of the computers have filtered internet access. The four computers that are unfiltered have recessed monitors, making it difficult for passersby to see what’s on the screen.
The Billings Public Library Board voted unanimously Thursday to leave its current internet usage policy in place. Board members and library staff will meet with the city council next month to explain the board's policy.
In a memo to the library board, Library Director Bill Cochran and Assistant Director Michael Carlson said that during the 2014-15 fiscal year, more than 85,000 people used library computers to access the internet or the library's Wi-Fi service. By board directive, all computers in areas used by minors are filtered, and all users under the age of 13 have the filter applied to their sessions, even if they are using a computer in another area — unless a parent or guardian has authorized unfiltered use.
“The Billings Public Library is the only large public library in Montana that filters internet work stations at all,” the librarians wrote to the board. “We are already the most restrictive large library in the state.”
Filtering internet access at public libraries can raise First Amendment challenges, the two librarians noted, unless the library can unblock filters on request. The Billings Public Library cannot do that without spending up to $8,000 for new software and equipment, in addition to ongoing costs.
The city council’s request came during its Jan. 25 meeting after Councilman Chris Friedel, according to the meeting minutes, “referenced a recent news story describing an incident at the library" in which a library patron walked by a computer and saw obscene material being viewed by another user.
Library Board Member Roger Young said he wondered why the age is set at 13 for access to the unfiltered computers — and then he answered his own question. “Some young people are now reading books I wasn’t ready to read at that age,” he said.
Most of the people he sees at the four unfiltered computers “are looking at financial reports or tax statements,” he said, not pornographic images.
“They are people who want their private stuff to remain private,” he said.
“I don’t think we should be filtering anything,” said Board Member Bernard Rose. “It becomes a slippery slope.”
The library board is made up of six appointees from the city and three from the county. According to the meeting minutes, Cochran told the city council on Jan. 25 that the city council “does not have the authority to adopt a policy for the library; that duty lies with the Library Board."
“I think Bill and Michael have put together a very good package,” said Board Chair Stella Fong. “They can now go before the city council in July.”
Library director search
With Cochran retiring, a committee seeking candidates to succeed him is narrowing the field from five to three candidates following initial interviews. According to Fong, those finalists will appear for a meet-and-greet with the public at 5:30 p.m. June 22 in the Royal Johnson Community Room at the library. City Administrator Tina Volek will select Cochran's successor.
The board received statistics showing continued growth in the use of library materials and services.
Audio book downloads are up 28 percent over the first nine months of the previous fiscal year, with total circulation up 2 percent.
At more than 276,000, the total people in the library during the first three quarters of the fiscal year is up 14 percent, and the number of computer sessions up 16 percent.
During the current fiscal year to date, nearly 1,200 teens had used the library’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) Lab — a growth of 105 percent over the previous year.
With fewer programs being offered to children — 162 during the current year to date, and 232 during the previous year — the number of children attending those programs was down 1 percent from the previous year.