Library officials in one of the nation's booming high-tech belts this week rejected a proposal to let parents block Net access for children under 12 who frequent their local branches' book stacks and PCs.
On Tuesday, Virginia's Fairfax County Public Library board of trustees voted 7-3 against the plan, shocking its author, who called the move a "no-brainer."
"I proposed that we keep open access to the Net, and not censor anything. This policy was about parents' choice," said Charles Fegan, who represents the Braddock District Library and submitted the plan. "I'm afraid now we're going to get a backlash, and a push toward censorship, because we've shown ourselves as not being reasonable individuals."
There is a nationwide controversy stirring over whether to allow uninhibited access to the Internet. Some communities want to put up a wall around children's access to adult material, some want to ban all citizens from pulling up illegal or pornographic sites, and others are against Net filtering.
Despite the American Library Association's policy that members not censor anything on the Net, cities are making their own choices based on local demands. In San Jose, California, city council members have an open access policy, while in Austin, Texas, users hit road blocks when trying to enter certain Web sites.
Library officials in Virginia's so-called Silicon Dominion are lining up on different sides of the Net filtering debate as well. Fairfax's neighboring Loudoun County decided last month to filter all patrons' Net access to sexual and violent sites. Bordering Prince William County is considering a similar policy.
Fegan's idea for Fairfax aimed to strike a middle ground, he said. Children on the no-Net list would have been barred when they tried to log onto a computer by name or by swiping their library cards, while adults and teenagers were able to freely navigate cyberspace under the proposal.
But the majority on the board worried that librarians would be held liable for clever kids who skirted the block. Others said parents should teach their young children how to safely use the Net.
"Librarians need to help people gain access to information, not be a policeman or baby-sitter," said Elizabeth Clements, a trustee who opposed the policy. "I was just wondering what liability there would be for the library if it had to monitor this."
Entering chat rooms or using email already is prohibited at Fairfax libraries. If caught, patrons could lose their Net access privileges. Clements feels that policy is acceptable because online terminals have 30-minute time limits, which doesn't allow much time for gabbing in chat rooms. Patrons can still conduct research without sending messages over the Net, she contends.
However, the Net is a great tool, she says, even for children ages 12 and under.
"I think we have to teach our children, and educate ourselves as parents and citizens, how to navigate the Internet, and point out where the land mines are," Clements added. "It's the same thing with movies and television--the kids are going to have to learn where the perils are because there are so many wonderful things they can do with the Internet."