Perusing in public

Some library computers are unfiltered for a good reason, but that also allows patrons chance to view pornography

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COEUR d'ALENE - Compared to cell phone chatter, it barely registers.

But the explicit images Elisabeth Goltz's fourth-grade daughter saw on a library patron's computer screen shocked her.

The girl, at the Coeur d'Alene Public Library on Nov. 21 for a class trip, was perusing the upper level when she saw a man she'd describe as wrinkly, with long, gray hair looking at naked women on his computer.

She did not report it to library staff.

Instead, the girl kept quiet until her mother was tucking her in that night.

Feeling something was wrong, Goltz asked her daughter what was bothering her.

"She said she was afraid to go to sleep," Goltz said. "Then she broke down and started crying."

Angry that her daughter had been exposed to the images, Goltz contacted The Press, and library staff.

"I feel like they're doing what they can, but it still frustrates me," Goltz said about the library safeguarding visitors. "It just seems like it just shouldn't happen."

While the alleged incident isn't unique to Coeur d'Alene - a 46-year-old homeless man was arrested in southern California this week for watching pornography at a public library, according to news reports - it has been an issue in the past.

It also raises the question how much should, or could, be done to prevent patrons from accessing potentially sexually graphic sites.

Coeur d'Alene's library has 35 computers - 26 of those have filters.

Filters block key words to prevent access to certain sites, typically sexual. But nine of the computers in the library's computer lab are unfiltered, kept that way to allow patrons more access for more involved research and medical information, said Bette Ammon, library director.

Requiring libraries to filter computers is a debate that steers toward personal freedoms that has surfaced in many states, including Idaho, which this year passed a law banning minors from using unfiltered computers in state libraries.

"I thought it was a solution looking for a problem," said Bette Ammon, library director, on the new law. "I was never in favor of the bill."

Instead, the best way to ensure computer privileges aren't abused is for staff to stay on top of activity, so reporting violations is paramount, she said.

"We always want to do whatever we can to protect the children," Ammon said. "Whenever anyone sees someone viewing inappropriate material they should tell staff immediately."

The library does have a policy prohibiting such abuses, and bans repeat violators from logging online. So do the eight Community Library Network book buildings around the area.

But even without policies, viewing pornography in public where children are is a federal offense under the Child Internet Protection Act, said John Hartung, director of the Community Library Network, which oversees eight libraries, including in Hayden, Post Falls and Rathdrum.

While safeguards are in place, there are ways around it.

"There are patrons who push the limits, just as there are school children to push a teacher's limits," said Hartung, "Very, very rarely (do the libraries receive pornography complaints). I'm not saying we don't have complaints, but it's not a common thing."

The network has 140 computers among it, 30 of which are filtered.

It's banned three patrons in eight years from going online due to repeat violations. It had 144,000 computer users in fiscal year 2011.

In Coeur d'Alene, the graphic complaint pales in comparison to ones about phone conversations breaking the silence - at least by sheer numbers.

Since the library was built in 2006, two people have been warned by staff of inappropriate use. One violated the policy repeatedly, and has been barred from accessing the web. Around 800 to 1,000 people visit the library a day, and library staff handles at least one cell phone complaint per week.

But Ammon said that's only what's been reported to staff.

One Coeur d'Alene library patron, Jay Weatherly, said last week he'd seen another patron viewing pornography in the unfiltered computer lab.

It didn't bother him, he said, sitting in front of the monitor and surfing the web. He didn't report it, either.

"To each their own, so long as they're not out there flashing," he said.

Ammon said when a patron is notified that the content they are viewing received a complaint, the web user almost always agrees to stop, and the web surfer - except in one case - doesn't do it again.

But to Goltz, even a bit of leeway sounds like too much for first-time violators. She's not in favor of warnings at all, and she'd like to see a tighter filtering system.

"If a child's involved, you're done," she said, adding that she'd heard similar complaints about inappropriate material from her mother, who used to work at the library in Hayden. "The library should be a safe."

The topic hit the Idaho Legislature last year.

A new state policy will now require library patrons under 18 years old only use filtered computers. So by October 2012, some tighter restrictions should be in place.

As it is now, all Coeur d'Alene library patrons with library cards have access to all library resources, including filtered and unfiltered computers. Children 18 and younger need a parent's signature in order to get a card.

Any new policy will go before the library board. One method could be to enter birthdates - a new feature in the new library system implemented this May - in patron accounts.

That way, patrons under 18, using their library cards, wouldn't be able to unlock unfiltered computers.

Still, not all violators are under 18, and not all computer screens belong to the library.

The man Goltz's daughter saw, based on the description of where he was according to Sandy Pratt, deputy library director, was using a personal laptop and accessing the library's WiFi connection. It wasn't a computer library.

And nestled in the quiet computer lab at the Coeur d'Alene library last week, other guests said it's much ado about nothing.

"My eyeballs keep focused," said one man, working on a research project in the lab but who didn't want to give his name. "From my experience, it's clean."

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