THE LOOP — Karin Hansen went to Harold Washington Library last week to fill out forms for her mother's nursing home, but the man on the computer next to her came to watch pornography.
"I'm not talking soft focus, '70s soft core here," Hansen, of Andersonville, said. "We're talking very explicit."
The man wasn't wearing headphones or using a privacy screen filter — he was recording the porn with his phone. Hansen found a security guard standing 15 feet away from her computer, but didn't find much help when she told him about her neighbor.
"He said 'Yeah, I know, but there's nothing we can do about it,'" Hansen said.
Guests use computers on the third floor of Harold Washington Library. The woman on the right is using a privacy screen filter. [DNAinfo/David Matthews]
Hansen's awkward visit highlights a thorny issue for libraries in the internet era: how to balance guests' First Amendment freedoms while maintaining public decency.
And at Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St., that conflict is pretty apparent.
"Up here in this branch there's porn 24/7," said one librarian who asked not to be named.
What websites library guests can access has been argued in courts for decades, but in Chicago, the library system has mostly decided to regulate what people can do instead of what they can watch.
"While [libraries lack] the purview to monitor internet content, we reserve the right to intervene when a patron's activities on a library computer or personal device create a disruption that results in complaints from other library patrons," Patrick Molloy, a spokesman for Chicago Public Libraries, said via email. "Further, the police are contacted if and when such disruptions violate local, state or federal laws."
Internet guidelines are posted throughout Harold Washington Library, and guests see them again when they log on one of the computers on the library's third floor. The computers aren't walled off, but each one comes with a privacy screen filter that blacks out monitors from a distance. The filters can be removed.
Librarians don't monitor guests' search history, and the only forbidden content per the library's guidelines is child pornography.
"It's not my business what they look at," another librarian at Harold Washington Library said. "Some people read dirty books."
Librarians at Harold Washington — the library's flagship branch — say they can reassign someone to a new computer if they complain about what the person next to them is looking at. In the absence of lewd behavior, that's all librarians say they can do.
Hansen is the daughter of a librarian and doesn't consider herself a prude. She respects peoples' First Amendment rights, but feels there has to be a better way to shield the unwitting public from porn in libraries. Harold Washington's public computers are on the third floor, one floor above the children's library.
"The library should be a safe place for parents and children," she said.
Jamie LaRue, director of the American Library Association's office for intellectual freedom, has a simple remedy: "remind people to behave well in public."
Just as librarians can ask guests to start using their indoor voices, they can ask them to be mindful of what they're watching on their shared computer.
"It's the power of courtesy: 'I know you have a First Amendment right, but be polite, be thoughtful,'" LaRue said.