May 29, 1995 in Nation/World

Internet To Put Porn In Library? Spokane Public Library Faces Tough Issue Of Computer Access

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane Public Library users can see masterpieces from the Louvre, the Library of Congress or the Sistine Chapel this fall - all for free.

With a click of a computer mouse, they could hear segments of a John F. Kennedy speech. Or research financial data of every major company in the Northwest.

With $40,000 in federal money, the city library is opening an electronic door to the World Wide Web, the part of the Internet that features pictures, sound recordings, even videos.

But as the door opens, library directors confront a new problem. The tax-supported technology can also give library users a palette of X-rated photos or videos.

And it can lead people to material prepared by the nation’s most rabid racists and hate-mongers.

“This new technology is a big breakthrough and gives us incredibly more information,” said Spokane Library Board President Joyce Jones. “But all breakthroughs come with drawbacks.”

Because the technology retrieves documents from around the globe, libraries are running smack into the issue of who should control access, said Spokane County Library District Director Mike Wirt.

“Libraries, and to some extent schools, everywhere are dealing with this problem,” Wirt said.

The county libraries do not offer Internet access and won’t unless the district buys a new computer system and network, he said.

City Library Executive Director Daniel Walters, the major proponent of the new technology, insisted the library can walk a line between establishing guidelines and becoming Internet police.

“This is a new area. And that’s why we need to move cautiously,” he said, noting that lurid or racist material amounts to just “1 percent of what’s on the Internet.”

Community interest has been mild, largely because most library users know little about the Internet.

Those who do, like Alan Collins, suggest the library can do little more than remind users and parents that the new systems have to be used responsibly.

“It would be an administrative nightmare for the library to try to keep people from reaching those anti-social or pornographic materials,” said Collins, executive director of Cox Cable Spokane and the father of two young children.

“Ultimately, they can’t. And people can reach those materials in many other ways already,” he said.

The library plans to install 10 computers with access to the World Wide Web at the main branch. Neighborhood branches will get about 10 more in a few months.

To board member Ned Barnes, a Spokane attorney, the need for some user guidelines is obvious. “We can’t police users by standing over their shoulders. But how we do this is definitely an issue the board needs to discuss,” he said.

Among the ideas the staff and board will examine:

Limiting use of the Internet to people who’ve taken an introductory session that explains the computer system’s “proper use” policy, which still is being developed.

People violating the policy could lose their city library card.

Preventing users from printing material without the help of library staff. The library likely won’t let users download files or data.

Limiting use to one hour per session.

Requiring that children get parental approval before using the Internet terminals.

The board could, as an extreme solution, disable the viewing options of the Internet computers. That would stop anyone from viewing graphics or art on the computer.

Barnes says that may be too restrictive: “That could be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Barnes and other board members said they’re sure most of the community will support the technology.

But they’ll move cautiously out of respect for community standards.

Barnes said the board “believes in the vision we have, of a library moving into the 21st century.”

“I feel strongly this should be made available to our users. Libraries are becoming a hell of a lot more than books,” he said.


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