At the boxy brick home of the Los Angeles County Public Library's Paramount branch, patrons attempting to use the Internet encountered a new watchdog software system Tuesday designed to allow unfettered access for adults and varying degrees of access for children.
If all goes well, the system will be implemented at all 84 county library branches by year's end. By coincidence, the launch came the same day the U.S. Supreme Court said it would take up the 2-year-old Children's Internet Protection Act, which requires the federal government to withhold funds from libraries that do not filter Internet content.
But the Los Angeles County filtering system was born out of local concerns, not a federal mandate -- a distinction that county Librarian Margaret Todd said makes all the difference.
"The federal government really shouldn't be trying to tell local communities how to do it," said Todd, who added that only about 1% of the county system's annual $82-million budget comes from federal sources. "Look at how diverse our county is -- it's very hard to agree on what is objectionable."
The Los Angeles City library system, which does not take federal funds, has no Internet filters on its public access terminals, said spokesman Peter Persic. Patrons who wish to view only material filtered for pornography or obscenity are offered the choice of several search engines, he said.
Todd said she believed that the county library system's approach appropriately balances free-speech protections and concern for children's welfare.
Two years ago, the county library board voted to make filters available for parents.
Until now, library staffers simply kept an eye on underage children to make sure they had parental permission to use the computers. Library officials say the majority of the 80,000 or more registered computer users are adults.
And library officials continue to remind parents that no filter is foolproof.
Sonia Rivera, a teacher's assistant in Paramount, worked side by side Tuesday with her 12-year-old son, Andres, at a computer terminal she had reserved.
The seventh-grader could not get on the Internet if he were alone at the library. His mother chose "no permission" for him, even though she allows Andres to surf the Internet under her close supervision, saying it is a must for many of his school assignments.
Her younger son, 7-year-old Javier, is a different case.
"No Internet. He's too young," Rivera said. "He doesn't need any other information than books in the library."