TAWN PARENT Commentary: Do libraries need gun control?

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My first job, at age 15, was shelving books in my neighborhood library. Those were the days of tidy card catalogs with brass-handled drawers and hand-stamped “date due” cards tucked into the back of books. There wasn’t a computer in the place.

Times have changed. Libraries now enable people without other Internet access to go online to research health problems, tap into business databases, find information for school projects, locate needed social services, and even apply for jobs. A recent survey conducted by the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library found that, of the 100 Web sites most visited by library users, 25 percent are related to education or employment.

Library computers can do people a world of good, but it’s not all upside.

IMCPL tries to limit potential harm by offering “filtered” Internet service designed to block access to online pornography and by prohibiting access to obscene or sexually explicit material. The library does not restrict access to violent content, however.

I found this out a couple of weeks ago, after a friend of mine, Shelley, visited the Children’s Room of the Interim Central Library with her kids, ages 3 and 6. She was dismayed to hear gunshots ringing around the room. They emanated from video games some teen-agers were playing. Her 6-year-old, Gordon, ran over to find a computer to play “Pajama Sam,” an educational game for young children. But when he reached the computers, Gordon saw a realistic onscreen image of a person shooting someone else in the face. Blood spurted, and Gordon shrieked. Shelley led him from the room as he sobbed, “I wish I didn’t see that.”

She later filed an online complaint with IMCPL. A library official replied: “Providing filtered Internet service is in keeping with our mission to provide access to materials appropriate to our patrons. … Games that may have some violence are not filtered. They are difficult to classify and because we know that many library patrons, including children, enjoy playing these games.”

Granted, it’s tough to know where to draw the line, but obscenity is also hard to classify. Yet IMCPL deems inappropriate sexy pictures that some teen-agers might enjoy. Are games that feature people splattering each other’s brains all over the floor more appropriate?

Library spokeswoman Maria Blake explained to me that, when IMCPL installed its filter several years ago, “Sexual content was the most pressing issue.” The library also reserves the right to block access to other types of sites on a case-by-case basis.

When I asked IMCPL board President Louis Mahern about the Internet-filtering policy, he responded: “If that’s true, it says a lot about our society, doesn’t it? People are more afraid of sex than of mayhem.”

In her complaint, Shelley wrote, “Just as pornography is not permitted, I believe that a case could be made for the patent offensiveness of these images in a public space. They are degrading to the human spirit and have no place in civilized public space, especially a space that is reserved for children.”

Sounds like a convincing argument to me.

The librarian told Shelley that, if denied access to their favorite video games, many teens wouldn’t come to the library at all. Some libraries around the country promote the use of online games to get teens through their doors. Some are even experimenting with installing PlayStations and other popular game systems.

Visiting the library is a wonderful habit to instill in children at an early age, but at what cost? Turning library computer banks into mini-video arcades is a dangerous corruption of a valuable public resource. Studies indicate that excessive video gaming can lead to aggressive behavior, sleep problems and lower school performance.

Libraries could better enrich the lives of children by serving as an oasis from the negative violent influences they are often exposed to elsewhere.

As IBJ reported in a page 1 story last week, IMCPL is in a financial crisis that could result in closing some branches. That would be a terrible shame. City leaders and we citizens should do our best to support this vital institution. In turn, the library should give its best to us and our children.

Parent is associate editor of IBJ. Her column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.

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