Williams had a familiar question when he passed a library computer with pornography on the screen.
"Our tax money funds this?"
The father of four had taken his children to the public library in Medina, Ohio, but didn't expect to see teenagers downloading pictures of group sex.
"Every terminal has access to adult material," he said.
Williams confronted the staff and uncovered a problem affecting many areas of the country: "They don't make any effort to monitor the screen. Kids have total freedom."
According to the U.S. Statistical Abstract, there are 15,893 public libraries in this country. About half have hookups to the Internet.
For years, library policies on decency have varied and, with the Internet, are stretched all the more.
"We started to get nudity on the front and back covers of books," recounted Linda Pesarchick, a former Medina County library clerk. Then titles arrived like The Joy of Sex and New Joy of Gay Sex. And children had access with a library card.
"These books are extremely graphic," Pesarchick said. "I was stunned."
She complained to her supervisors. "This is your job," they told her. "Do it or leave."
"Libraries have changed," Pesarchick said. "This is no longer a place you want to send Johnny and leave him a couple hours."
Soon after Medina's library got an Internet connection in December, a teen figured out how to put "Santa Having Sex" on screen.
"The parents assume their kids are going to the library for research," Williams said. "Most parents are totally unaware of how bad the Internet can be."
He went back to Medina's library and started typing in words like "naked lady." He pulled up thirty pictures and a story about the rape and torture of a 12-year-old girl. Williams then called the sheriff and other parents. The debate continued to the Ohio statehouse, with deliberations ongoing on a bill to require software filters on library computers.
"There's no regulation and no accountability," Williams said. "It's almost like a pipeline right out of hell."
"Librarians can't be the gatekeepers and police," said Deborah Liebow with the American Library Association. "You shouldn't tell my child what he can or can't see."
The ALA is a professional organization for librarians with 57,000 members. Its "Library Bill of Rights" cites the role of free speech in a public forum, and one of the guidelines calls for treating children the same as adults in accessing any information a library offers.
"It totally undermines any efforts the parents make," said Karen Gounaud with Family Friendly Libraries, a nonprofit organization for library policymakers.
According to the ALA, restrictions on the Internet would block other material from adults.
"It's amazing that we even have a debate," said Bruce Watson, vice president of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, a nondenominational group in the fight against pornography.
"This is a public facility," Watson said. "The library is accountable to their local sponsors – not to the ALA."
The Orange County Library in Orlando, Fla., had unfiltered access to the Internet. Parents complained, and one staff member threatened a lawsuit as the pornography use worsened. Staff members then found a filtering block called WebSENSE that could remove the objectionable material.
"We want to put the taxpayers' dollars to effective use," said Dorothy Field, the library's director, in a story for the PRnewswire.
Field added: "Pornographic materials are not selected in print media …. We see no reason why it should be allowed into the library in any other form."
Paul Cardin confronted the same problem in Oklahoma. He directs the Center for a Family Friendly Internet. He noticed child pornography coming from their Internet service provider — the University of Oklahoma.
The university provided local libraries with a hookup to the Internet, which also allowed access to the "Usenet news groups," a collection of 14,000 on-line publications with some of the worst pornography in cyberspace.
"How can you prosecute a man who runs an adult bookstore when you can go to the library and view the material free?" Cardin asked.
His group took their information to the university president. The next day most of those news groups were removed.
The problem worsens without intervention. According to Gounaud, the Fairfax County public libraries in Virginia allowed distribution for a gay newspaper. Parents then complained about the ads for anal intercourse.
"Now the libraries have a lot of stuff that used to be in an adult bookstore," Gounaud said of the Internet access. "The stuff on the Internet is getting more explicit.
"Some striptease sites have models pulling clothes off right there and make $15,000 a day," Gounaud said.
You can confront the problem in your local area with several steps:
• Get the facts on Internet policy.
• Share your concerns with library board members. Those names and numbers are available through any branch.
• Take parent groups to the board meetings. Each library is supported by local taxes and is accountable to the taxpayers.
Watson, in an open letter to the American Library Association, wrote: "It is simply not practical (or even desirable) for parents to accompany their children 24 hours a day. We do not expect librarians to function as babysitters; we simply ask that your policies work with rather than against parents."
Since 1977, five federal laws have been enacted to battle child pornography in the Internet. Never the less, tens of thousands of photos are available on, or through, the Internet. A child-porn Web page secretly set up by U.S. customs received over 70,000 hits in its first two months.
U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT, May 26, 1997