St. Petersburg Times Online: Floridian

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Should Big Brother be watching?

A federal law denies funding to schools and public libraries that don't install Internet filters. Local librarians say there are other ways to protect kids.

By JEANNE MALMGREN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2002

A federal law denies funding to schools and public libraries that don't install Internet filters. Local librarians say there are other ways to protect kids.

PALM HARBOR -- In the children's section of the Palm Harbor Library, every computer terminal has a name taped to it.

Bambi. Minnie. Garfield. Elmo.

Hard to imagine X-rated material popping up on those screens.

It could happen, says a new federal law called the Children's Internet Protection Act. Young people using computers in public libraries could easily tap into pornographic Web sites, even if by mistake. The law took effect last year, caused an uproar in the normally quiet world of librarians and is under appeal in federal court. It requires schools and public libraries to install Internet filtering devices if they want to continue receiving federal funds and discounted Internet access rates.

Lois Eannel has a lower-tech solution: Put the computers where a librarian can see what's on the screen.

"I have them facing the checkout desk," she said.

Eannel is head of youth services and assistant director at the Palm Harbor Library. She's been a children's librarian for 14 years, here and in New York. Before that, she was an elementary schoolteacher for 15 years.

She knows kids. And now, like any modern librarian worth her salt, she knows computers.

"The library has become more than a book depository," she said. "We want to be a cultural center, a community center."

Like most children's librarians, Eannel is in the business of selling the idea of reading to young people. She particularly wants to capture the really young ones -- "prereaders," she calls them.

As soon as she arrived at Palm Harbor 2 1/2 years ago, Eannel installed a play area with puzzle tables, dollhouses, Legos, a puppet theater and room to roll around on the floor.

Every Tuesday she turns into an entertainer for toddler story time. She plans events such as Beatrix Potter celebrations and the library's upcoming Harry Potter Day. Last year, while visiting elementary schools to promote summer reading, she dressed up as a cowgirl named Lasso Lois.

"We want them to come in the library because they want to, not because they have to," she said.

Most of the older kids, of course, are computer-savvy. And they need to do online research for school reports. In the afternoons, Bambi and Minnie get a workout.

Next to the computers are typed rules:

Parents should monitor their children's Internet activity. The library cannot be held responsible for Internet content. Please remember that these computer terminals are in public areas shared by young patrons. Inappropriate Web sites and graphics may not be displayed.

Those simple guidelines work much better than an expensive filter, Eannel said.

"For the most part, filters are not 100 percent effective. They may not pick up all the Web sites that are pornographic. And they eliminate others that aren't."

An example would be sites related to breast cancer.

"Say a child needs to do some research on breast cancer for school," Eannel said. "As soon as she types in the word "breast,' a lot of material would be blocked automatically."

This week, as libraries around the country celebrate National Library Week, many are waiting anxiously for a panel of federal judges to rule on an appeal of the law, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association. The law took effect in April 2001, but many libraries are waiting for a final ruling before deciding what to do. It would be censorship, those groups say, to require public libraries to install anything on computers that might interrupt the free flow of information.

Many people do not own personal computers, the ALA's lawyers argued in court. Those people's only access to the Internet is at their public library. To restrict what they can view on those computers is to strangle free speech, the lawyers argued.

"I really hope that the court upholds the librarians' side of this because we are fighting for everybody's freedom," said Kathleen de la Pena McCook, a professor of library and information science at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

McCook estimates that 25 percent of public libraries nationwide already use filters. She said that librarians have a tough job.

"We are the ones who make information available to people. And we have a delicate balancing act in evaluating information."

Unfortunately, she acknowledged, sometimes the job includes policing people who might be viewing porn on a library computer.

"Librarians do have to have a pretty strong stomach sometimes," she said.

Usually, though, it's not a pervert who brings up X-rated material on a library computer screen, said librarian Maryjane Hyatt. It's the unwitting, inexperienced computer user.

"One time we had an older lady in here," said Hyatt, head of youth services at the St. Pete Beach Library. "She was looking up something on the Internet and these other sites kept popping up, one on top of the other, more and more windows on the screen. They weren't foldout raunchy, but they were more, um, direct than usual. The lady looked at one of the pictures, kind of confused, and said, "Well, I never thought of doing that!"'

Hyatt, like Eannel, spends most of her working days trying to turn kids on to reading. Her corner of the St. Pete Beach library includes child-sized tables and chairs, soft puppets and a colorful mural of sea creatures. Hyatt hosts game nights, teen nights, arts and crafts sessions and, of course, story time for preschoolers.

"Sooner or later, I'm going to get them in here," said Hyatt, with a smile. "And all my programs are book-based. I'm a book pusher."

There's only one computer in the children's section at the St. Pete Beach Library, and it's not hooked up to the Internet; it offers only games.

About 20 yards away, over in the adult section of the library, are four computers with Internet access. Anyone who wants to surf the Web has to have a library card and sign up a day in advance.

"Because we're a resort town, we also have a visitor's card," said Hyatt. "It's $10 a year."

The computers sit in a high-traffic area of the library, next to the magazines.

"Someone's always walking by there, so it would be hard (to look at pornography on the computer)," said Hyatt.

In her 20-year career, Hyatt has worked at public libraries in Palm Harbor, Bradenton and Cape Cod, Mass. A library, she said, "is a public place. Like the bus station." Even before computers, people sometimes misbehaved in the library.

Hyatt remembers calling police when a man hid in the far reaches of the book stacks and exposed himself to a young patron. Sometimes street people want to set up camp inside the library on a hot day. Once, when closing a library for the night, Hyatt found a baby someone had left nestled among floor cushions.

But those instances are few and far between. Normally, she said, the library is what it's always been, a hushed refuge where people come to find information.

Of course, computers have replaced many of the time-honored library systems: looking up a book in the card catalog, doing research, checking out books and other materials. Computers also have introduced the thorny problem of censorship.

As the debate over the Children's Internet Protection Act continues, librarians still do what they've always done -- "push books," as Hyatt put it.

Just after she said that, an older woman leaning on a cane walked into the children's section at the St. Pete Beach Library, trailing her grandson.

"Could you tell us where we'd find some dinosaur books?" the woman asked.

"Oh, I have a whole shelf of those," said Hyatt, smiling broadly.

She led the way.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.