posted on fri, mar. 17, 2006

library to filter online porn
ramsey county acts after weighing access vs. problems

pioneer press

reversing a long-standing policy, the ramsey county library board this week voted unanimously to install anti-porn software on its library computers.

"the decision is a reluctant one," library director susan nemitz said thursday. "there's a lot of concern about unfettered access to information, and that we don't want to be a group that is censoring what we are reading. but i think the internet has posed difficulties for us that we never imagined 10 years ago."

current policy prohibits the library's computer users from accessing pornography or material that would create a threatening or hostile environment for others.

but some people break the rules.

librarians at the system's seven branches report that patrons do frequent pornographic web sites, sometimes printing the images. staff are then put in the uncomfortable position of confronting the users.

"one of our key concerns as a library board was to not inflict our staff with having to find these images on computers and to be subjected to unwanted information," said board president david norrgard.

three years ago, a dozen librarians from the minneapolis public library filed suit in federal court alleging that they were subject to a hostile work environment from patrons surfing online sex-related sites, printing out material and even masturbating in the library.

the library paid the plaintiffs $435,000 to settle the case and has since installed filters on its computers.

another motivation for the change in ramsey county is the potential effect on children.

"the whole goal of the library is to be a community gathering place, and we don't want to have any patron feel like it's not an environment they would want to bring their family to," nemitz said.

the ramsey county library board's decision wednesday night brings it into compliance with a 2000 federal law called the children's internet protection act.

the act, which initially faced a court challenge but was later upheld by the u.s. supreme court, requires libraries and schools to install filters for obscene and pornographic material.

those who fail to comply lose federal money. in the case of ramsey county, it amounted to about $20,000 a year, nemitz said.

"in these tight times, i cannot say that the money issue was not important," she said.

the filters are scheduled to be in place by june 30, in time for the library to qualify for next year's funds.

the board's decision was also influenced by improvement in the filtering software, making it far superior to what was around in the past, nemitz said.

earlier software sometimes filtered out material that was appropriate, such as information on breast cancer.

"what we are completely focused on is the issue of porn on public access computers in the library," norrgard said. "and that is the only subject we are trying to filter."

parents should be aware, however, that no filter is infallible, nemitz said.

"the library really relies on parents to be responsible for their children, both in terms of their reading materials as well as the internet."

the cost for the filtering software is about $12,000 for three years, plus $4,000 for a server, nemitz said.

federal law also requires libraries to allow patrons 17 and older to bypass the filter if they wish.

in choosing to install filters, the ramsey county system joins most others in the area, including st. paul, minneapolis, and the counties of dakota, washington and anoka. hennepin county uses filters on children's computers only.

ramsey county operates libraries in maplewood, roseville, shoreview, north st. paul, white bear lake, arden hills and mounds view. it has 241,744 library cardholders, a number that includes patrons from st. paul and elsewhere who can use the suburban system.

emily gurnon can be reached at or 651-228-5522.

ramsey county library

• seven suburban branches

• 241,744 users

other libraries using filters

• st. paul

• minneapolis

• dakota county

• washington county

• anoka county

hennepin county libraries use filters on children's computers only.

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