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Internet Access

August 17, 2001

One of the weightier issues that public libraries must balance on that razor edge called the middle path is Internet access for children.

It’s easy to say, “children shouldn’t see bad things” or “children shouldn’t be allowed to see bad things,” the second being a slightly more reasonable proposition, if no more practical.

However, one can make many such propositions. I happen to believe children shouldn’t be allowed to drive cars fast. And in fact, we don’t allow it. But we permit children to drive cars that can go very fast very quickly. This strikes me as much more dangerous than Internet access, but we teach children the rules and let them drive. Most follow them.

My observation is that children are much more interested in driving fast than they are in looking at “bad” content on the Internet. They have other things to do on the Internet, but since many parents can’t imagine what those things are, they tend to fear the “dark side.”

It’s a thorny issue. A public library accomodates different people of different ages in a free society that balances personal rights and personal responsibilities. How do we take care of growing children who have to learn to make choices of many kinds? We educate them. We guide them. We set good examples.

I believe far more children are hurt by any of the following — cars, bicycles, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, school sports, or events in the hallowed Family Home — than can possibly be injured by using the Internet. However, for most parents, statistics for the general population don’t matter at all. What matters are their own children … and right now!

An irate parent called us recently upset not about a particular incident but about the possibility of one. The parent falsely accused us of “doing nothing.” I’m not sure what we were expected “to do,” but we do not “do nothing.” We are concerned about this issue in ways this parent could not imagine.

We also watch out for many more children than this parent imagines. A letter to the editor was threatened calling for removal of the Internet from the library. It has not appeared, and so I raise the issue here.

We’ve had high-capacity Internet access for almost two years, and we’ve watched and adapted. For example, we have never permitted sexually explicit images to be displayed on the library’s computers. However, we do not try to prevent every incident of such display. In other words, we do not employ content filters.

Filters are tedious to maintain and quite fallible. Also, censorship is seductive, and many filtering products have embarrassing records in this regard. I monitor the usage of our computers in several ways. Two people currently have suspended privileges, and we’ve spoken with half a dozen others in the last two years.

Incidences such as these make up a miniscule percentage of the total use of the Internet here. We are aware of the potential for problems, as we are in other aspects of the library operation. We will continue monitoring this part of the library’s services.

We must balance each individual’s right to privacy with the reasonable right of other library users not to have rude things forced on them. The library is public space, i.e. shared.

The demonization of the Internet is predictable. We have done this with every new technology — automobiles, telephones, televisions — even as we embrace them.

The issue in the public library is not technology but civil behavior. We expect every library user, young and old, to behave politely and honor the rights of fellow citizens. The issue is good manners.

We would like to encourage good manners, and good use of the library, through education, guidance, and good examples.

The library now has a web page — currently only within the library — that will guide people of all ages in using online resources. It includes a basic set of Kids’ Internet resources. The library buys good Internet information such as magazine indexes with full text, including indexes designed specifically for primary and middle school students.

This web page will evolve with use. We are developing more guidance for Internet users in the form of simple workshops. The library’s migration to a new Internet-capable catalog system this fall will let us participate in the Colorado Virtual Library and SWIFT, an interlibrary loan system that you will soon be able to use from home.

The Internet has entered our culture in the same way cars, phones, and TVs have. Stay tuned.

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