For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
August 25, 2004 - Focus on the Family
I have in my hand the August, 2004 issue of Focus on the Family's "Citizen" magazine. It features an article called "Danger Zone." The subtitle reads, "Think it's safe to leave your kids alone at the library? Think again."
It begins with a scare story. Earlier this year, a homeless man came to the Philadelphia Free Library, where he allegedly made a habit of looking at pornography. There, in one of the restrooms, he beat and raped an unattended 8 year old girl.
The author then stated that "safety isn't an issue just in Philadelphia. Libraries across the nation have, as of July 1, implemented measures promoted by a new federal law designed to reduce the chances of a similar attack occurring elsewhere: The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires all libraries wishing to receive federal funds to install filters that will prevent not only children but adults, from downloading pornography."
Child abuse is indeed a serious problem in America. I once served on the board of an organization that dealt with survivors of child abuse, and it continues to haunt me. Just for the record, though, overwhelming research shows that the most dangerous place for a child is NOT a library.
It's home. Most child abuse is perpetrated by immediate relatives. By family.
Nonetheless, child molestation clearly does happen in public places, by strangers. Some research suggests that it may be among the most underreported crimes in America, often with the full support of local media. In part, this is an admirable attempt to protect the privacy of the victim.
Sometimes, the story -- about public restrooms in shopping malls, for instance -- is suppressed so as not to hurt business. In other cases, child molestation may be suppressed by higher ups -- even, as we have learned these past several years, by well-respected religious officials.
However, being a member of a family doesn't make you a rapist. Neither does running a shopping center. Neither does being a priest. Neither does being homeless, and neither does using an unfiltered Internet terminal at a public library.
The author of "Danger Zone" is twisting the tale.
For one thing, her statement about CIPA is false. CIPA does indeed require filtering of terminals for those libraries wishing to receive federal funding. But the requirement is only for children. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled in June of 2003 that filters must be turned off at the request of those 17 years of age and older.
The purpose of the bill wasn't to prevent sexual attacks in libraries, either. The purpose was to prevent children from displaying "materials deemed to be harmful to minors." "Danger Zone" then goes on to quote an advocate of public library filters, who said, "They're never going to be 100 percent accurate..."
What does all this mean? It means that legislation or no, filters or no, librarians will still have some responsibility to supervise public space. We will still, on occasion, have to remind people to behave themselves, and take action when they don't. Just as we do now.
The truth is, relative to many places in America, libraries are among the safest and healthiest choices families have, as so many families have discovered, to their pleasure and ours.
Yet it's also true that no place, public or private, is wholly safe, particularly for our youngest citizens. But the first step isn't the enthusiastic endorsement of new governmental restrictions on research, or to launch sensationalist attacks on the American Library Association, or to otherwise make the public library a pawn in a political chess game.
The first step -- who would have guessed? -- is to focus on the family.