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Public Libraries Latest Battleground Over Access to Books

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In a growing number of communities, public libraries are replacing pornography shops as the target of attacks from citizens who fear children are being exposed to threatening materials.

Critics claim these attempts to restrict or remove books, magazines, and videos deemed inappropriate for children whiff of censorship. Others, however, view the actions as practical measures to protect youngsters.

"As parents, can't we get some reason, some common sense?" asked Karen Gounaud, a parent and activist who led recent efforts to limit children's access to certain publications in the Fairfax County, Va., public-library system.

The Fairfax library board has rebuffed attempts to rid the system of a gay and lesbian newspaper and to create an adults-only library section.

Attempts to block access to certain publications are hardly new.

But in recent years, librarians say, conservative groups in particular have mounted more orchestrated challenges to an array of works commonly placed in children's collections.

Since 1991, the American Library Association has documented an ever-increasing number of what it terms censorship incidents in the nation's public and school libraries.

Last year, 697 incidents were recorded, and the a.l.a. predicts 1994 will surpass 1993.

About one-third of the attempts to remove or restrict materials occur in the public libraries.

Supporters of library-access restrictions, however, say the root of these challenges is not so much a conservative vanguard as it is communities' awakening to questionable policies of their local libraries.

Both sides make the same argument: Parents should be the arbiter of their children's reading materials. They disagree, though, over how to carry out this conviction.

Librarians want individual families to decide what children read because values vary among the diverse public they serve. Parental supervision, they say, not library restrictions, should determine what books children check out.

In contrast, those who have challenged books want libraries to limit access because parents cannot screen all the materials their children may encounter.

The philosophical differences have led to confrontations.

In the 20 years that she has been a librarian in Reno, Nev., Martha Gould had not encountered a censorship problem until this past spring.

According to Ms. Gould, a group of evangelical Christian clergy demanded that all questionable sex-education books be removed from the libraries' shelves.

The titles they found objectionable included Being Born and Where Did I Come From? They also volunteered to staff a committee to decide what books should be transferred to the adult collection.

When their demands were not met, the clergy and their supporters waged a boycott at the system's Sparks branch.

Ms. Gould said she and her staff have been insulted, harassed, and threatened. So far, though, the library board has backed the librarians.

But Ms. Gould believes her library system and others are in for a rough ride because "there is a movement nationwide."

Withholding the Bible

Restricting children's materials made it as far as the statewide ballot in Idaho last week. Voters were asked to ban the use of public funds for materials that had the effect of promoting homosexuality or claiming that it was a valid lifestyle. Such materials already on hand would have to be kept away from children.

Librarians said it would have been impossible to comply with the measure, which was narrowly defeated.

"'Any materials which address homosexuality' could be a story in Newsweek or the holy Bible," said Max Leek, the director of the Pocatello public library.

Many of the complaints center on sexuality, with homosexuality topping the list.

Two of the books that pop up most often are Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate. The books, which are about homosexual parents, are written for children.

Acting on a parent's complaint, the Mercer County, N.J., library commission transferred the two books from the children's to the adult collection last year. The commission reaffirmed its decision last June following an appeal by another group of parents.

Jennifer Petrino, the chief financial officer, said the episode was atypical for the Mercer County libraries.

"They're just notorious books," Ms. Petrino said. "I don't expect that to happen again."

Other librarians, though, suggest the campaign against homosexual materials is the censors' wedge.

"In my office, we call it 'bait and switch,"' said Judith F. Krug, the director of the a.l.a.'s office for intellectual freedom.

The challengers "start with material that they find offensive and think others will," Ms. Krug said. "Of course, in the public's mind, they are saying this is so awful. If this is so awful," she continued, "then everything else she is pinpointing must be awful, too."

Community Responsibility

But some parents believe public libraries are out of sync with the communities they serve.

"This is about returning the system to a measure of responsibility to the community that buys the books and uses the books and is responsible for their children," Ms. Gounaud said.

She and other parents contend that the Fairfax County system in northern Virginia has a liberal bias in its book-selection criteria.

Initially, they tried to get the library to remove copies of a local gay newspaper. Thwarted in that quest, the group then pushed for an adults-only library section. That effort also failed.

The group last week persuaded the library board to permit parents to inspect their children's borrowing records.

Other communities in suburban Washington are limiting children's access to some library materials.

The Montgomery County, Md., system is considering a special card that would put adult videos off-limits to youths 13 and younger.

Librarians worry that every attempt at restriction--successful or not, modest or full-blown--will have consequences.

"Teachers will say, 'Do I really want to use this in my class?' or librarians will say, 'Do I really want to read this in story hour?"' Ms. Krug said. "That, I say, is the chilling effect."

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