Public librarians find themselves at a crossroads, thanks to the wide array of information available on the World Wide Web. Controversy clouds the role librarians should play in society and what are considered constitutionally appropriate library resources.
In communities across the country, the political and moral climate is becoming more conservative. Debate is heating up over allowing access to sexual material on the Net, particularly by minors. As more public libraries offer connections to the Internet, librarians must grapple with the concepts of intellectual freedom and censorship and worry about protecting themselves from the threat of criminal liability.
Already, President Clinton signed into law the Communications Decency Act, making it a felony punishable by fine and jail time to make available sexually offensive material which may be accessible to children. In June, a special three-judge appellate panel named to hear the case, ruled the act an unconstitutional violation of free speech. The court's ruling has been appealed to the Supreme Court.
The American Library Association (ALA) believes that a public library's mission is to provide patrons equal access to all library resources, and that library policies and procedures should not deny minors equal access. Equal access increasingly means allowing children to navigate the Web on their local library computer terminals.
Today, 45 percent of U.S. public libraries offer connections to the Internet, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Sciences (NCLIS). This is a 113 percent increase since 1994, when a similar NCLIS survey found 21 percent of public libraries connected. Preliminary survey analysis indicates that this number could exceed 60 percent by 1997.
While libraries can select specific books for their collections, they cannot do the same with Web sites. The Internet comes as a whole collection. Yet citizens who pay taxes for this access feel that libraries are responsible for holding this resource up to community standards. So, public librarians have come up with a
variety of creative solutions that address the political concerns of offering Internet access.
In Michigan, Bev Papai, director of the Farmington Hills Community Library, purchased privacy screens to fit over the monitors of the Adult Department computers. (Computers in the children's room use filtering software.) The screens limit the observation of images on the computer monitors. Papai is pleased with the privacy screens, which make the monitor appear black from an angle, making it difficult for any passerby to see what the user is viewing. Only when a person stands directly behind the monitor is the screen visible.
Some libraries use filtering software to circumvent complaints about children accessing inappropriate material on the Web. Several software companies have created programs that claim to police the Net, preventing access to graphic pornography. Cyber Patrol, SurfWatch and Net Nanny are among the more popular ones available. These programs filter out material the programs' publishers view as offensive by using a database of banned sites. Any request to visit a specific site is compared against the database. If there is a match, the computer blocks the user and fails the access.
The database also may contain a list of words that could lead a user to an objectionable site if entered into a search engine, or as part of a Uniform Resource Locator (URL). Some of these software tools can restrict access to only those sites rated acceptable by the Recreational Software Advisory Council and SafeSurf, two Internet rating groups.
The programs work because search engines look at HTML tags describing origins of a home page in order to create abstracts of the sites. Pornographic Web pages usually advertise their addresses by using sexual terms in these tags. Filtering software can prevent much of the descriptive word searching used to locate this material.
However, these types of filtering programs