by Carmela Fragomeni, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Internet has made the world a smaller place. Information can be found at the click of a mouse - but it's not suited for all, especially children. The Burlington library is wrestling with how to keep sexually explicit material from the eyes of children.
The image on the computer screen was disturbing:
A nude man, with a crown of thorns on his head, presumably depicting Christ. In front of him, a nude woman, and the words 'Jesus Loves Me' at the top of the screen.
It wasn't the positive learning experience Al MacIntosh expected for his two young sons at the library. Although the MacIntoshes were not using the computer and the Internet, the three other boys huddled around it, attracted their attention.
On another occasion, a Burlington woman used the Internet at the same branch and was ecstatic. Through the net, she landed a job, a job so specialized, it wouldn't have been found in any want ads.
Ever since the Net first became available to the Tansley Woods branch 16 months ago, and at other branches since, many school projects have been greatly enhanced as inquisitive young minds explore the information a click of the mouse away. And that is the paradox of the Internet. With the good, it brings the bad and the ugly. Experiences such as the MacIntosh's shortly after the new Tansley Woods branch opened in Sept. 1996, are cases in point.
The problem for libraries, is how to control the unwanted without limiting access.
In this technological world full of technological whiz kids and hackers, it's a next to impossible task, librarians say.
Few matters upset loving parents more than having their young children subjected to pornographic material, in a public library no less.
But if the only plausible solution seems limiting Internet access, the issue becomes equally upsetting to believers of this amazing fountain of information. For them, it smacks of censorship.
"How reasonable is it to distort the world to satisfy your own view?" asks David Jones, a computer science professor at McMaster University, and advocate of universal access.
"Once a group of parents want to control what others can see, I think that crosses the line."
For Jones, the benefits of the Internet far outweight the negatives. The knowledge, the educational tools, and the research possibilities are endless. By its nature, using the Internet requires and improves literacy skills.
Parents, such as the MacIntoshes acknowledge this, and use the Net at home, where they can control what their children see. They want to protect their children against pornography when they visit the library. Taking steps to ensure that, however, is construed by some as limiting access to the Net.
It's a dilemma the Burlington Public Library board will confront at its regular meeting tonight.
Parent David Auger is scheduled to ask for some controls to guard young children against exposure to pornography on library terminals.
Auger was at the Tansley Woods branch with his five-year-old daughter Jenna earlier this month, when he noticed her staring at something behind him.
He turned around to see a computer screen with a semi-nude and provocative-looking Penthouse model. A youth had been at the computer a few moments earlier and the screen saver that blacks out the screen hadn't engaged.
The debate about intellectual freedom, freedom of access to information, and about censorship shot to the forefront again in the community. Another debate, in December 1995, saw residents petition the library to remove the book Lethal Marriage, the story about murderer Paul Bernardo and his wife Karla Homolka. Their victims included 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy of Burlington.
The library weathered the storm, and did not remove the book, although it reduced the number of copies available for lending.
Library officials, and city council's representatives on the library, Mayor Rob MacIsaac and Councillor John Taylor, have had only one or two calls.
But it was raised in at least one Catholic church last Sunday. And two Burlington residents who coincidentally go by the name of David Auger, but are no relation, say they've had a number of calls from residents supporting Auger's efforts.
For Auger, the issue has nothing to do with intellection freedom, censorship, or limiting access to the Net or to information.
But it has everything to do with protecting young children.
"There are certain bylaws in the city to protect children from adult magazines in stores. The magazines have to be displayed at a certain height (five feet from the floor) and in a certain manner (covered in plan wrappers). I don't understand why there can't be some kind of similar control at the library."
"I'm staying away from the debate on whether this is pornography or not, or if there should be access to this kind of thing in a public library", Auger says.
"But the library can't just bring it (the Internet) in and then just abdicate any responsibility."
The Mac professor, David Jones, sees it differently. He worries any steps taken to satisfy Auger might restrict access to information, which he says goes against the grain of what public libraries are all about.
"Libraries facilitate our access to information, and play an important role in universal access for everyone, for people who can't afford a computer or modem access, or don't know enough about the Net."
"You don't have to be rich and you don't have to be a computer expert to access it", he said. Jones intends to present his view at tonight's meeting.
He says he's not trying to diminish Auger's concern over his daughter's exposure to a nude picture and he believes there are ways to address the concern while stopping short of censorship.
Among them, having computers in full view near the librarians desk, so that if a group of 12-year-old boys are huddled around, the librarian can ask if they need help. That alone, might embarrass them, Jones said.
"I wouldn't have a problem with that. I wouldn't call that censorship."
While the library board will hear about the Internet concerns publicly for the first time, officials have been working for some time behind the scenes, trying to find a workable solution. The issues of access and privacy are complex.
"We do understand why he (Auger) is concerned, and we're still searching for the answers", says Burlington chief librarian Wendy Schick.
This is not a new dilemma for Schick and the library board.
Steps were taken after MacIntosh's experience.
Filters were tried, but they cut out too much useful information.
"You'd have to ban such words as 'girl', 'friend', and 'couple' - some sites use very ordinary language", said Schick. All kinds of helpful research is gone, including information on breast cancer, for example.
Internet use guidelines were established, and the computers were moved to more open areas of the Tansley Woods branch. Two are on the librarian's information desk. But that still didn't protect Jenna Auger from the Penthouse nude.
Schick keeps researching what other libraries are trying. Last weekend, several staff and board members attended the Ontario Library Conference in Toronto. But there was nothing they hadn't heard before.
"We're still juggling, trying to provide the most good and trying to control the risk aspect as best we can."
For Auger and MacIntosh, coincidentally both police officers outside of Burlington, the protection of young children is paramount. Everything else should flow from there.
"This is not about censorship", says Auger, a Metro Toronto policeman. "It's about our children. My requests are not unreasonable."
"If it affects the child, the city and government have some responsibility to monitor it", says MacIntosh, with the Peel police force.
The dilemma is not unique to the Burlington Public Library either. It's an issue all across North America, says Jones.
In Hamilton, the library is testing out privacy screens as a last resort.
The screen allows only one person to sit around a computer at a time, which according to chief librarian Ken Roberts, reduces opportunities for a group of young teenage boys, as in the situation MacIntosh encountered at Tansley.
But Hamilton's Concession branch manager Jean Lyall admits you can see the screen, depending where you are.
Says Burlington's chief librarian Wendy Schick: "If we had a solution, we would be using it."
Burlington's Public Library Board will hear from concerned resident David Auger tonight at 5:30pm at Central Library.
Auger will ask for controls to ensure young children are not exposed to pornography on computer screens accessing the Internet.
His five-year-old daughter saw a Penthouse model on a screen while at the Tansley Woods library branch.
David Jones, a McMaster University computer science professor, will address the board, asking it to steer clear of censorship or restrictions. Jones is also president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a non-profit organization devoted to protecting freedom of expression and the right to privacy in cyberspace.
Current library Internet Access Policy states that the library "is not responsible for enforcing any restrictions which a parent or guardian may place on a minor's use of this resource."
Internet guidelines available throughout the library and its branches, state misuse or abuse is not acceptable, and offenders may be required to leave the library.
Chat lines and e-mail are not permitted at the library terminals.