WASHINGTON — Young Alx Bradley couldn't believe her eyes. A group of young boys were huddled around a computer terminal giggling and ogling at pictures of naked women — at the public library in her hometown of Gilroy, Calif.
Her protective mother quickly covered the then-11-year-old girl's eyes and immediately summoned the librarian.
Alx recalled to the Register the response of the librarian to her complaint: “She said: ‘Yes, I see what they are doing. It's not my job to be a policeman.’”
What bothered her was the way naked pictures affected the young boys.
“They look at women differently. It's sort of embarrassing,” said Alx, now
13. “I don't want to see that stuff.”
So Alx and her mother Lizanne began to attend library board meetings and organized picketing outside of libraries.
After two and a half years, the Santa Clara County library system agreed to put Internet filtering software on computers found in the children's section of the library.
While that allowed Alx safe return to the library, any enterprising adolescent can simply ask the librarian to let him use the computers normally reserved for adults.
“She'll take you to the adult computers. She'll even print [the pictures] out for you. The kids take it to school and church and more people get exposed,” said Alx. “It really makes me upset that it's condoned by the library.”
Alx's story is not unique. Libraries have become a place where patrons — adult and adolescent alike — can view hard-core pornography on computer screens.
“Pornography, obscenity and child pornography in public libraries are a serious problem in this country,” said David Burt, a librarian from Lake Oswego, Ore.
In a March 15 report called Dangerous Access, Burt documented 2,062 reports of pornographic use in public libraries. Those figures are just “the tip of the iceberg,” said Burt, because 71% of libraries ignored his request for information.
And he doubts the low rate of compliance was an accident.
“The [American Library Association] actively interfered,” Burt said, by encouraging libraries to look for exemptions to his requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act.
“Unfortunately, it has been difficult to engage the library and free speech communities in a serious dialogue about solutions, because organizations such as the American Library Association, and the [American Civil Liberties Union], refuse to admit any problem exists,” said Burt.
In addition to child and adult patrons that don't want to encounter pornography, librarians say they deal with this problem “on a daily basis.”
In February, 47 librarians from the Minneapolis Public Library filed a petition over the American Library Association's “refusal to address the problem of Internet pornography in libraries.”
“It is difficult to explain the effects of daily viewing of pornographic images on workers,” said Wendy Adamson, a librarian from Minneapolis. “One young woman in my department who regularly goes around cleaning up keyboards and terminal screens ... found pornographic images almost daily.”
“Now I have seen images I can never forget,” said Adamson, a self-described liberal. “Ironically no newspaper, magazine, television or radio station could allow me to describe what I have seen, because they all face regulations which protect society from just this kind of material.”
She said, “Throughout the last two years, while we have struggled with this issue, the American Library Association has exhibited an appalling lack of leadership within our profession.”
Adamson noted, “The ALA advises library administrators to ‘avoid use of negative/inflammatory words such as pornography.’” She added, “The pictures we have seen are more than inflammatory.”
Full Access for Kids
The stated policy of the American Library Association makes no distinction between children and adults. According to the American Library Association statement, Free Access to Libraries for Minors: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, “The American Library Association opposes all attempts to restrict access to library services, materials, and facilities based on the age of library users.”
Statements by officers from the organization also back that view.
“Every time I hear someone say, ‘I want to protect the children,’ I want to pull my hair out,” Judith Krug, director of the organization's Office of Intellectual Freedom, told the Detroit News in 1998.
When specifically asked if a library should provide pornographic magazines if a 13 year-old requested it, American Library Association President Ann Symons told Hot Wired in November 1997: “If the library didn't own this material and you, as a 13-year-old, asked for an interlibrary loan, that should be granted to you just as it would be to an adult patron.”
That same 13 year-old could not get pornography from a bookstore, noted Janet Parshall, chief spokesman for the Family Research Council, which sponsored Burt's study.
“Public masturbation, sexual liaisons and hard-core depictions of rape, sexual torture and bestiality — this is what is occurring in public libraries, often with full knowledge of library staff,” said Parshall.
She noted that if a man committed this behavior anywhere else in public it would not be tolerated.
“If he did that in a public park, he would be arrested. If it's in a library, you have the ALA saying it's the First Amendment,” said Parshall.
There is no ‘right’ to view nudity on taxpayer-funded computers, said Burt. “You're talking about pornography welfare.”
In a short statement, issued the day after the release of Burt's report, the American Library Association criticized the report's findings.
“I am appalled by the Family Research Council's portrayal of public libraries,” said the association's Sarah Ann Long. “America's libraries have been serving the information needs of parents, children — indeed all people — for more than 100 years.”
The group remained committed to opposing filtering software.
“The American Library Association does not endorse filters because they block valuable information and they don't duly protect children,” the statement said.
Burt said that his report detailed how three libraries had implemented filtering software which were found to be 99.93 to 99.99% effective in blocking inappropriate material.
Unfortunately, Burt said, most libraries refuse to use such software and open themselves up to patron abuse. “The ALAis trying to wrap itself in what has happened in years past. But they act like the misbehaving heir who spends the family fortune.”
An Unholy Alliance
Heidi Borton, a Seattle-area librarian who quit her job over lax library policies, said the American Library Association's position on Internet pornography might be influenced by money.
“The ALA receives grants from the Playboy Foundation,” Borton told the Register.
Borton added that the association's Judith Krug serves on a board that decides the winners of the Playboy Foundation's annual Hugh Hefner Award.
The American Library Association did not return calls for comment.