Libraries wrestle with good, bad on Internet; How to deal with pornography debated

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A1

Nationwide, libraries have struggled with how to deal with the power of the Internet, the massive computer network that provides an unbounded flow of images and information.

The Internet contains the most useful wisdom right alongside pornography, and librarians are stuck with the decision: Do you have to accept the bad with the good?

That debate has divided one of America’s most thoughtful professions, and has extended to the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

“It’s a no-win situation,” said librarian Mary-Ellen Toth. “Whatever you do, somebody’s going to get mad.”

There is one fact everyone agrees on: anyone in Lucas County can have access to the most extreme, degrading forms of pornography, simply by walking up to a library computer hooked up to the Internet.

Library policy forbids patrons from going to “sexually explicit” Web sites. If caught, they are asked to go to another site. If they persist, they can be asked to leave the building. But staffers and patrons know they don’t catch everyone.

“Twice last week, I saw kids looking at naked women,” said Amber Woodruff, 18, who checks her e-mail at the downtown library every day.

The library doesn’t keep records of how many times users have been disciplined for bringing up porn on the machines. But informal polling of the librarians who oversee the terminals suggest the number is in the hundreds at the downtown branch alone.

Thousands of other libraries have to deal with the same problem, and are engaged in the same debate. Some have resolved it by banning the Internet from their libraries. Some have installed software on their machines to try to stop access to pornography.

Toledo has relied on the watchful eye, and the promise of guilt.

When Internet connections appeared in the county’s libraries in the fall of 1996, officials expected there might be problems. They made two key decisions: to station a librarian next to the computers at all times, and to place the machines in a prominent place, visible to nearly all patrons. In the downtown branch, they’re in the center court, immediately visible to anyone walking in the building.

The librarian is there to watch for anyone engaged in illicit behavior.

“They’re usually easy to spot,” said librarian Jill Gregg. “They look shifty and try to block the computer screen.”

And the placement, officials said, is an attempt to make potential porn viewers too embarrassed to click down the wrong path.

“It’s human nature,” said David Noel, the library’s coordinator for marketing and development. “We put [computers] where we did in hopes people would think twice before pulling up something inappropriate.”

Some librarians, however, think that trying to supervise or embarrass patrons isn’t the library’s job.

“I don’t think we are here to be censors,” said librarian Amy Hartman. “I support the First Amendment.”

Likewise, Ms. Toth defends the freedom of speech and press.

“We have a lot of books here that some people take offense to,” Ms. Toth said. “We let people read those. I have a real problem with being a police officer and saying what people can and cannot look at. That’s not my job.”

But librarians are attuned to the fact they usually don’t put copies of Hustler and Penthouse on their magazine racks, and that libraries are one of the few places some parents feel safe leaving their kids.

“This is a public place,” said librarian Lisa Hoenig. “If someone wants to look at pornography, they can buy a computer, subscribe to the Internet, and do it at home.”

One of the most common solutions for other libraries has been to let technology solve its own problems, via filtering software. These programs, with names like NetNanny and CyberWatch, are installed on terminals and flash a message on the screen denying access whenever a user tries to look at something considered naughty – the electronic equivalent of a wagging finger and a “tsk-tsk.”

But these programs, dubbed “censorware” by opponents, are notoriously ham-fisted and block access to thousands of legitimate sites. In its fervor to block any site with the word “breast,” for example, one program blocks out web sites mentioning breast cancer or hosting recipes for chicken paprikash.

Some organizations, most of them left-of-center politically, have protested the programs, noting they often block sites with safe sex or AIDS information, pages from gay rights advocates, and some environmental sites.

Mr. Noel said the library decided against using filtering software be cause of their scattershot accuracy and the legal liability the library could face if a parent was upset by porn sneaking through to their child.

But the Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library system has been swayed in the other direction.

On Friday, officials in Dayton installed filtering software on every Internet terminal, with one caveat – by typing in a code from their library cards, adults can get around the software and view whatever they please, as can children with a signed form from their parents. Library policy there will not allow viewing indecent material, but there won’t be any technology standing in a patron’s way.

Library director John Wallach said the move is an “answer to parental concerns.”

“As we became more aware of the problems, we realized we had to take some action,” he said.

He said there are changes under way for Internet terminals that are in a semiprivate room, away from the public – with the tacit acknowledgement that their users are likely looking at things they might feel uncomfortable sharing with the general public.

Those Internet terminals will be put in full public view when the library finishes a renovation project.

But decisions like Dayton’s and Toledo’s might not be up to local authorities for much longer. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.) has introduced a bill that would eliminate some forms of communications funding for schools and library systems that don’t install filtering software on its Internet terminals.

The bill was approved by the Senate’s commerce committee on March 12, and it may be difficult in an election year for politicians to go against it and risk appearing pro-pornography.

National library associations are lobbying hard against the bill, including the American Library Association, which has taken a hard- line stance against filtering. But, if it passes, Mr. Noel said the Toledo library would have no choice but to follow the guidelines, even though they might ban valuable information.

“Libraries have a very strong record of following the law,” he said.

Nationwide, they have a strong record of defending First Amendment rights. The American Library Association was one of the lead plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case last year that over turned the Communications Decency Act, which was aimed at banning all Internet porn.

But, unlike Boston’s library, which for a time banned all Internet access under pressure from the city’s mayor, staffers with the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library system are quick to praise the Internet and the knowledge it gives patrons.

“It’s just such a terrific resource,” Mr. Noel said. “Most families still don’t have computers, and for a lot of people, this is the only way they can reach the Internet.”