Canadian libraries have begun to offer Internet access to the public, but with that access comes the problem of children accessing offensive material on library terminals.
And librarians are increasingly being asked to decide whether or not to use filtering software on public computers that children can use to surf the Net.
The Vancouver public library's main branch has opted to use filtering software that blocks questionable material from being downloaded onto the terminals in its children's section.
The library chose to install the program after the vast majority of parents attending library-sponsored Internet seminars expressed concern over offensive material, said Brian Campbell, the library's systems and planning director.
But Campbell points out that the library's board is still hammering out a concrete policy about filtering, and the current situation is not satisfactory. Children are still free to roam the entire library, and surf from the "adult" terminals that have no filtering software at all.
Campbell himself isn't altogether satisfied with what the software does.
"Librarians aren't very excited about filtering", he said, adding that parents, rather than librarians, should play a role in what their children see on library Internet terminals.
A prominent professor of library studies echoes the sentiment.
"If libraries start installing this software, they are taking the responsibility away from parents", said Alvin Schrader, director of the school of library and information studies at the University of Alberta.
The issue of libraries giving children access to information is nothing new, Schrader said, but the Internet presents entirely new challenges that are outside the scope of conventional library policies.
"Traditionally, libraries have had selection policies to acquire materials", he said. "But with the Internet, it's quite a different situation. You're not selecting anymore."
Most filtering programs have a list of questionable sites to which they block access. But the lists are guarded as commercial secrets, and surfers often have no idea they're missing out on some Web sites, said Schrader.
Schrader gives the example of a researcher searching for information on breast cancer. Some packages block the word "breast" automatically.
"It's not as if you get a message back saying this information was unavailable", Schrader said. "It would be as if there was no information on breast cancer in the whole world."
It's an issue that has taken some prominence in the Canadian librarian community. Schrader spoke out against filtering software at the Canadian Library Association's recent conference, urging librarians to let parents make decisions about their children's access.
Barbara Herd took notes at Schrader's speech, and keeps them in a pile on her desk at the Ottawa public library.
As the director of branch and youth services, Herd has looked into what the software does, and she's not convinced her library should install it on their computers.
"I have very mixed feelings about it", she said.
Ottawa library's board is also trying to come up with a policy about Internet access, Herd said, but for now, the library's browsers do not use filtering.
The filtering will probably stay on Vancouver's library terminal, unless parents object to the software.
"But unfortunately", Campbell said, "there just hasn't been a ground swell against it."