COMMENTARY - Stupid machine censors - Let librarians do their jobs
BYLINE: FROMA HARROP
DATE: 11-20-2002
PUBLICATION: Providence Journal Company
EDITION: All
SECTION: EDITORIAL
PAGE: B-07



LIBRARIANS KNOW HOW to handle the raunchy stuff. They've been doing it forever. The Children's Internet Protection Act says they don't. It threatens to pull federal funds from any public library that does not install filtering software on its computers to block pornographic Web sites.

The U.S. District Court in Philadelphia recently struck down the law as unconstitutional a curb on the right of free speech. Now it's on to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on the case this winter.

If only Mrs. Fowlkes were around to set Washington straight. Mrs. Fowlkes ran the public library where I worked after school and during summers. I did mostly grunt jobs shelving books, checking them out and gluing broken bindings. Mrs. Fowlkes made policy.

This was the '70s. Mrs. Fowlkes was a proud great-grandmother who still wore flowered hats and white gloves, and stood pencil straight. Admiring widowers would swarm around her. Who could blame them? She was a knockout, and knew exactly what to do about Henry Miller.

Of course, we had Miller's steamy novels. They ended up on (what I called) our 10-foot shelf of porn. The shelf was right under the checkout desk, hidden on the librarian side. My instructions were that if anyone asked for one of the books, I would fetch it and check it out. Mrs. Fowlkes explained the policy with quiet authority and not the slightest blush. My opinion was not sought then, or ever.

I have no idea of Mrs. Fowlkes's politics. One thing was clear: She believed that the librarian's mission was to open the world to the people living in my suburban town and it was a big world.

That did not mean putting easy-to-read pornography on the open shelves. (The more archaic bawdy works of Shakespeare and Chaucer got right through.) It meant having it available for those who inquired.

Granted, it is a far greater challenge to patrol the Internet than to control bookshelves. Once you sign on and roam the Web, the smut keeps working its way onto the screen, even if you try to avoid it.

Still, decisions about library computers belong with local librarians, not politicians in Washington. It is up to the community to replace a librarian who does not perform to its standards.

One significant drawback to Internet filters is that they don't work. Many of their advocates say they're better than nothing, but, actually, they are nothing.

First of all, they block access to perfectly proper Web sites - for example, references to Super Bowl XXX or Marsexploration. At the same time, they allow obscene material to surge onto the screens. All these sites have to do is stick to perfectly innocent words, such as cheerleader, girl or dollhouse. In one of the great ironies, the software blocked out the Web site of Jeffrey Pollack, a Republican candidate in Oregon who at one point had supported mandatory Internet filters.

Furthermore, you never know what the software products are filtering out. The words they blacklist are considered business secrets.

Even if software could block the nasty stuff, a lot of material falls into gray areas. These are sites that some parents might consider appropriate and others not. Should children have access, for example, to the Planned Parenthood site?

That is why concerned parents should prefer working with a living librarian to depending on a faulty piece of software. More than 95 percent of libraries have Internet-use policies, according to the American Li-brary Association. They include signed agreements, parental consent, time limits and optional filters. Li-braries also offer search engines geared for children. There's no need for a ham- fisted assault on free speech.

I am proud of first lady and librarian Laura Bush for featuring authors hostile to her husband's administration at White House literary symposiums. She also ran discussions on the Harlem Renaissance, a group of black writers in the last century who held many unflattering views of American history.

Put on the spot, the first lady has weakly defended the Children's Internet Protection Act. I bet that deep down she regards librarians as the frontline professionals best trained to deal with the Internet-porn problem. Librarians over the ages have skillfully mo-nitored the floodgates through which passes the messy flow of information.

Congress needs constant reminding that some things ain't broke.

Froma Harrop is a Journal editorial writer and syndicated columnist. She may be reached by e-mail at: fharrop@projo.com.

KEYWORDS: COMMENTARY; INTERNET; LIBRARIES

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