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Libraries debate Internet access

When the Hernando County Library System hops onto the information superhighway next month, patrons will have Internet access to a variety of topics from A to Z.

That includes material that is rated X, like the image of a nude woman that a man was seen showing to three young boys recently at a Hillsborough County library.

The incident shocked Hillsborough commissioners, who are considering buying software that will block access to sites that display sexually explicit material.

Librarians' main worry used to be keeping curious youngsters from sneaking peeks into medical books and giggling at photographs in National Geographic. But the rapidly changing technology of cyberspace has forced them to deal with a medium that brings pornographic images to computer screens with a few clicks of a mouse.

The easy accessibility of such material has government officials across Tampa Bay and the nation struggling to come up with policies that protect children without unduly restricting adults' access to information.

Now, the problem is coming to Hernando County.

Using $14,000 from a state grant program aimed at getting all Florida public libraries online, Hernando plans to unveil its first direct Internet access during National Library Week, April 14-19. The first station will be at the main library in downtown Brooksville. Eventually, library workers plan to add terminals to three of the library's five branches.

Recent headlines about Internet controversies have gotten the attention of Laurel Solomon, who is surveying other libraries to see how they handle the touchy issue.

"We're still looking at all kinds of options," said Solomon, the county's library services director. "We're still in the throes of making a decision. We want to make this a really positive experience for all users. We're aware of concerns about children and young people. We share those concerns."

She said she plans to come up with a policy and take it to County Administrator Chuck Hetrick. The final decision could rest with the County Commission.

Commissioners cringe at the prospect of having pornographic material available in a public place.

"This is going to be a real problem," said Commissioner Bobbi Mills. She said she favors using software to restrict access to explicit material, if it is legal. However, she also wants to hear from constituents before committing to a decision.

"I think if (patrons) look at that stuff, (the library staff) should just yank them up and throw them out," commission Chairman Ray Lossing said.

Commissioner Paul Sullivan agreed.

"I think putting it in an exposed area would be sufficient," he said. "It's a public edifice, and you do not wish obscene material to be displayed." He said he trusts Solomon to come up with adequate guidelines.

Citrus County, which now offers only Internet text without graphics, received a $30,000 state grant and is using it to add graphics. Librarians there also are working to come up with a policy, said Vanda Carnes, systems manager.

"We're just sitting tight and seeing what everyone else does," Carnes said. Citrus officials expect to offer their upgraded Internet access in July.

One option is the software that locks out access to sexually explicit material. The drawback is that it also locks out important information, especially on such topics as breast cancer and other women's health matters.

In Austin, Texas, the software is so restrictive that it prevents people from looking up ducks.

"We find it isn't fail-safe because the sites change so rapidly," Solomon said. "It's a very fluid medium."

The software also has sparked complaints from civil rights groups, which have decried it as censorship. The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to sue the Orange County library system, which uses the software.

Another option is to place the work station in a conspicuous place to discourage people from accessing racy material. Solomon already plans to do that. She also plans to place it where employees can monitor what is on the screen.

"It will be in full view of watchful eyes of employees," she said.

Some libraries are putting workers in the role of censors by having them stop patrons who are calling up objectionable material.

That's the policy in Pasco County, which has offered Internet access at its Hudson branch for three years.

"We've talked about what we would do," said Patty Owen, Pasco's assistant library director. "If someone is using the Internet in this way, you ask that they refrain. We take a patron-conduct point of view," much like prohibitions on smoking, eating or drinking.

So far, though, there have been no problems at the Hudson branch, she said.

Solomon said she likes a disclaimer developed by the American Library Association, which says libraries are not responsible for the accuracy or taste of the material and says parents should decide what their children should see. It urges those who find a site objectionable to complain to the provider of the site.

Making the library decide on restrictions for children is a sticky issue, because parents have differing opinions on what is appropriate, Solomon said.

"If you leave that up to the library staff, one parent may be very happy that you restricted that, and the next parent may say, "Why are you restricting my child?'

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Mary Ann McKinney, a member of Hernando's Library Advisory Board, says she has mixed feelings, but ultimately favors freedom of access.

"Anyone who allows their children to watch TV or listen to the radio . . . needs to be aware that their children have seen and heard virtually everything out there," she said. The best thing to do is for parents to have discussions with their children so they know what is offensive and why.

The Internet's impending accessibility here already has conservatives concerned about the possibility of lurid images spilling from computers bought with taxpayer dollars and available to the public.

"The First Amendment was never intended to protect pornography," said Mary Lou Wright, a member of several conservative groups, including the Christian Coalition, the American Family Association and Concerned Women for America. She said there are some places parents should not have to worry about indecency, and the public library should be one of those places.

Wright said a lot of people think the Internet images are as mild as the centerfold of Playboy magazine. Not true, she said.

"They're horrible," Wright said. "You'd really have to go to triple-X adult bookstores to find that horrible stuff. To think it is that easily accessible is horrid."

Wright said she plans to form a citizens group to lobby commissioners to order the use of some type of lock-out device for material that does not meet community standards.

"I'm sure you can find enough people in this community that think this is obscene and don't want it sitting in our library spewing out garbage."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

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