Sex, Kids, and the Public Library

Article excerpt

NEW ISSUES OF CENSORSHIP AND SELECTION RAISED BY THE INTERNET SPEAK TO THE VERY ROLE OF THE PUBLIC LIBRARY

"Sex at the library. News at eleven." Television, talk shows, and newspapers are shouting the message in community after community across the country from Orange County to Boston, from Oklahoma City to Medina, Ohio, from Houston to New York.

They say that public libraries are no longer safe havens for children. They say that ALA has libraries peddling pornography. They say that librarians are unresponsive to the public's concern. They say that something must be done.

The problem is a knotty one. How does a library provide free and open access to the 34 million sites now available worldwide through the Internet without inflaming parents and others in the community concerned about children viewing pictures that most believe are pornographic? It is one thing to fight the Communications Decency Act in court for its obvious legal failings and quite another to confront a room full of enraged parents and elected officials armed with pictures printed off the Internet in a public library.

The legal aspects of pornography on the Internet are outside the purview of this article. I believe that the current position of ALA in its suit challenging the Communications Decency Act is appropriate. What I fear, however, is that we may win in court and lose in the court of public opinion. The very real issues arising from pornography on the Internet are not going to be resolved by the courts; they are going to be resolved by public libraries and public library users. How they are resolved will determine whether public libraries continue to be the most respected (perhaps the only respected) public institution in the country.

In spite of the official ALA position outlined in the Library Bill of Rights and its interpretation on electronic information (AL, Mar. 1996, insert) that there should be free and open access to all library materials for everyone, regardless of age, including material on the Internet, libraries across the country are experimenting with some mechanism for limiting children's access, at least to the seamier sites. Some are using the technological solution of filtering software; others have sought legal sanction by requiring parental approval for children to use the Internet; still others rely on behavioral responses such as making the computer screen public, making the computer screen private, or asking users to desist when viewing offensive images.

The problem with all of the solutions currently available is that none of them work all that well, and many of them are creating additional, unanticipated problems. Current filtering software screens out some material we want left in and leaves in material we want screened out, and suggests to the public that the problem is solved when it is not. Even so, and whatever the official position of ALA on this subject, there is no question in my mind that were filtering software available that reliably filtered out the "adults only" sites without screening out information on sexually transmitted diseases and breast cancer, libraries would leap at the chance to install it.

As for the parental-approval approach, it doesn't take children without their parents' permission long to borrow someone else's card. And having to monitor screens may put library staff in an awkward position.

In the absence of a technological silver bullet, we are struggling to solve a radically new problem with old paradigms. With the Internet we are now offering the public material we have not, and in some instances would not, select. What does censorship mean in this context? What is our real responsibility to children? What is the purpose of the public library - from the public's point of view?

Intellectual freedom is a bedrock issue for libraries. Most of us at one time or another have been called upon to defend a selection decision and are proud of our ability to defend the retention of Judy Blume, J. …