The New York Times
Tuesday, April 20, 1999

Librarian Seeks Evidence of Complaints about Internet Misuse

by Pamela Mendels, mendels@nytimes.com

As computers with Internet access have become common in public libraries around the country, librarians have struggled with the issue of whether or not to restrict the types of material patrons can view. But there has been little hard evidence to support claims that allowing unfettered access to sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate material causes problems for librarians or patrons.

David Burt, a librarian in Lake Oswego, Oregon, is trying to change this. He is contacting libraries nationwide and asking them, under state freedom of information laws, to turn over records of complaints they have received about patrons, especially children, viewing inappropriate material at library computers.

Burt, who runs a Web site called Filtering Facts, supports the use of software filters on library computers to block pornography. He is convinced, contrary to what many library leaders say, that inappropriate Internet use in libraries is a widespread problem, and he is determined to gather as much documentation of it as possible.

"I want to keep letting people know about the problem", Burt said.

Last November, Burt and a small group of volunteers began contacting 613 libraries and requesting records of complaints about Internet use. Almost half -- 293 libraries -- failed to respond to his inquiry. Of those that did answer, 89 reported incidents involving complaints of inappropriate computer use, and 216 reported either no incidents or a lack of records.

About 15 libraries wrote back to Burt and formally declined to release the information, in most cases citing laws that exist in 45 states to protect library patron privacy.

The St. Louis Public Library was among those that balked at Burt's request. Officials there said that they have little if any problem with inappropriate computer use. The reason they are loath to assist Burt, they say, is that his request could violate the Missouri privacy law.

"You have the tension between the right of Burt to conduct legitimate research and the rights afforded by state law to patrons of libraries", said John Fox Arnold, a lawyer for the library.

But Burt says the real reason is that library officials in St. Louis and around the country are trying to hide the extent of the problem.

Burt, whose pro-filtering stance puts him at odds with the official position of the American Library Association, the major professional association for librarians, is not ready to give up his fight. He has enlisted the help of a lawyer from the Center for Law and Policy at the American Family Association, a Christian group that backs filtering.

To continue his project, Burt, who wrote a report based on the first crop of responses, is zeroing in on three of the larger library systems among those that formally declined to release records: the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library and the library systems for St. Louis and Denver.

Acting on Burt's behalf, the lawyer, Michael J. DePrimo, wrote the three systems last month demanding release of the records, and saying that if patron privacy were a concern, identifying details from the records could be eliminated before they were turned over.

In St. Louis, the answer was still no. The reason, said Arnold, the St. Louis library lawyer, is that in his reading of Missouri law, it is illegal for even a portion of a record regarding a library user to be disclosed, unless the person gives permission or the library receives a court order requiring that the information be handed over.

Arnold says the law is strong to give maximum assurance to patrons that their use of library materials is confidential. "The libraries in this part of the country take that very seriously", he said.

Glen E. Holt, executive director of the St. Louis Public Library, said he believes the amount of inappropriate computer use in libraries in general, and the St. Louis system in particular, is "infinitesimal" compared to the total amount of time patrons spend online. "I am not trying to hide anything", he said.

Burt dismisses these arguments as smokescreens. He said that officials at the St. Louis library and other libraries do not want to disclose information that might lend weight to the argument for using filters.

"There's no privacy issue here. The names can be redacted", Burt said. "I think it's clearly that they don't want the library to be embarrassed by incidents of children accessing pornography in libraries."

Burt said he is pursuing his project not to create a scientific survey but to gather case studies, of which several hundred are described in his report. And he believes that by documenting such incidents as the decision by the public library in Orange County, Fla., to install filters after some patrons spent hours using terminals to view graphic sexual images, he has shown that there is a problem.


Some say that filters are so crude that they block access to a range of legitimate material like health information.

Burt said he votes Democratic more than Republican, and his liberal positions on issues like gay rights and abortion put him at odds with some of his pro-filtering supporters. But he said he feels strongly that libraries should not be places where children can access pornographic material.

Officials at the American Library Association counter that filters are still so crude that they often block access to a range of legitimate material like health information. They believe it is the role of the parent, not the library, to determine what is appropriate viewing for their children.

Burt still has not heard from officials at the Indianapolis-Marion public library. Laura G. Johnson, associate director for public services at the library, said library lawyers are reviewing the request and trying to figure out if releasing reports would violate Indiana privacy laws. Privacy is the issue, she said, not the nature of Burt's research. Johnson also said her library system already filters Internet content, so officials have received few complaints.

Burt's efforts have won him a victory in Denver. Rick J. Ashton, city librarian for Denver, said Friday that he had just been told by his lawyers that under Colorado law, Burt is entitled to the material, as long as names and identifying details are eliminated first.

But Ashton added that he believes the Denver records will not help Burt's cause. In the last three-and-a-half years, Ashton said, the library, with 22 branches, has received 8 to 10 written complaints about viewing of sexually explicit material on library computers.

"My opinion is that's not a big problem", he said.


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