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Libraries' Identity Crisis

As more branches go online, some say traditional resources are being sacrificed for patrons who use the technology to send e-mail or view pornography.


When the doors open at the Van Nuys branch of the public library, there's such a mad rush for the reference desk that the staff has to implore patrons not to stampede through the main room. But it's not reference books they're racing to, it's the sign-up sheet for the branch's nine public computers.

Such is life these days in the Los Angeles Public Library system, which is embracing computers and the concept of the "virtual library" on a scale so far unmatched by other public systems around the country.

The downtown Central Library and 48 of the 67 branches are equipped with 500 public computers that can access the Internet and more than 100 electronic databases, as well as the system's electronic card catalog. By the end of the year, an additional 200 computers will be online. And by the middle of next year, all the branches should be wired.

The library has its own Web site, offering everything from specially designed pages for teenagers and children to digitalized photographs from its collections. Library users can sign on at home and reserve a book anywhere in the system.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 5, 1998 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Libraries--In Friday's Times, a summary in the Metro highlights column about library online services incorrectly referred to Los Angeles County libraries. It should have made reference instead to the city's library system.

The computers have become one of the hottest attractions. They are in constant use and there is generally a wait to get on them. People who rarely set foot in a public library before have become habitues.

Library administrators proudly boast of bringing computers and the Internet to the poorest of neighborhoods and providing residents, regardless of where they live, with "equity of access to information." They describe the installation of public computers as one of their most significant outreach efforts in years.

Yet however wonderful the concept of the virtual library, the reality has been more problematic.

Staff librarians worry that computerization has redefined their roles in ways they do not altogether like. They complain that terminals are frequently down. They say that the computers are primarily used by the public not to scour the rich resource of databases, but to check e-mail, play computer games, engage in chat room exchanges and view pornography.

"If [the computers] were only used for research, we would probably accept it a lot more," said Patricia Clark, the chief rank-and-file steward of the library's union local. "As it is, they are used for entertainment, and entertainment that is sometimes disgusting. So it's hard to support."

A hefty cut in this year's Central Library budget for buying books and periodicals also has left some staff grumbling that City Librarian Susan Kent is emphasizing the virtual services at the expense of print and is effectively dumbing down the system--a charge she dismisses as unfounded.

"They're robbing Peter to pay Paul," said librarian Glen Creason, a longtime downtown library staff member who feels that the technology is assuming too high a priority. "There should be a balance and there's not now."

Vast Potential Is Often Ignored

Like many librarians, Creason is ambivalent about the computer stations that have become ubiquitous in his workplace. "I'm very much torn," he said one day after teaching a small class of patrons how to search electronic databases in the humanities.

On the one hand, he recognizes the computer's enormous potential as a research tool. He speaks of "all this great stuff" available online. But he also notes that the great stuff is frequently in less demand than the junk.

"When someone's looking at a Web site of women having sex with horses--that's not what the library is here for," he said.

Even discounting the pornography viewing, Creason sees conflicts, such as when "a kid is playing virtual games on the computer instead of reading Judy Blume or literature."

He believes his role as a professional has diminished. He used to feel almost like a professor as he helped people dig for information. Now he says he feels like he's "giving change in an arcade."

The issues raised by Creason and Clark are not easy ones.

Christine Lind Hage, president of the Public Library Assn., said that although some library systems have installed filters to block access to pornography sites or Web-based e-mail and chat rooms, most do not.

The reigning philosophy in library circles--including in the city system--is that if the Internet is offered, all of it should be offered, not just edifying pieces of it.

"We really do not have a right to tell you, as an adult, what to look at," said Joan Bartel, director of information technologies and collections in the Los Angeles system.

Moreover, she and Kent say, the available filtering software is only partly effective. It misses some smut sites while blocking out perfectly innocent information.

For example, Kent said that when the staff checked out one filtering program, it blocked the "pussy willow" encyclopedia entry. However, when she was using the Internet at home to do some vacation research on Brittany, France, a porn site named "Brittany" popped up.

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