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Robin Huebner Reports: You may be surprised what kids can access at area libraries

The Fargo Public Library’s adult section contains books with titles including “The Way it Works,” “Irresistible” and “365 Sex Positions,” all of which are available to library patrons of any age. R-rated movies are also available for check out even if a child isn’t old enough to see the film in theatres. Photo by Nick Wagner / The Forum

FARGO - A complaint about a teen listening to profanity-laced music on a public library computer has prompted questions about what kids can and cannot access at their local libraries.

In the recent case at the Barnesville, Minn., public library, a teen’s headphones were not fully plugged into the computer, causing another patron to hear what was considered to be “offensive” music.

“That happens more often than you’d think,” said Liz Lynch, director of Lake Agassiz Regional Library, which includes the Barnesville and Moorhead libraries, along with more than a dozen others in northwest Minnesota.

Lynch and The Forum fielded complaints from the unidentified patron, who didn’t want to hear the profane lyrics and didn’t think the teen should, either.

But it appears the library did nothing wrong in allowing the teen to access material that others might find highly objectionable.

In fact, the American Library Association says denying minors equal access to library resources available to others violates the Library Bill of Rights.

“Librarians, in general, are supportive of free access to information, and not supportive of censorship,” said Sandra Hannahs, director of the West Fargo Public Library.

Cori Maier of Fargo, who visits the downtown Fargo library with 8-year-old daughter Zoe, said content decisions should be hers to make.

“I think it’s up to the parents to monitor what their children are watching or getting,” Maier said.

“Ultimately, we can’t be the parent,” said Tim Dirks, director of the Fargo Public Library.

Computer protections

The primary computer protection used by Fargo, West Fargo and Lake Agassiz Regional Libraries is software that blocks viewing of pornography by patrons of any age.

“The filters hold out the worst of the worst,” Dirks said.

Under the Children’s Internet Protection Act passed by Congress in 2000, if schools and libraries receive certain discounts for Internet access, they must filter pictures that are obscene, child pornography or harmful to minors (for computers used by minors).

Occasionally, adults will ask to have the filter turned off in order to find information on a sensitive subject.

“For instance, if someone is doing research on breast cancer, the filter may pick up something like that,” Lynch said.

When it comes to computer privileges, libraries require civil behavior by all, young and old.

Under the Fargo library’s computer use policy enacted in 2008, any disruption, including loud or boisterous behavior, verbal or physical harassment, drunkenness and congregating in large groups is prohibited.

Violate the policy once and the patron loses access to library computers for six months. Do it a second time, and the patron can’t use them for a year.

It’s not a punishment they need to use often.

“I can’t think of even one this year,” Dirks said.

R-rated movies

Depending on the library they go to, children can check out R-rated movies or will be turned down when trying to do so.

R-rated titles with heavy sexual content, nudity, drug use or profanity – including “Knocked Up,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Eyes Wide Shut” – are available for checkout at the Fargo Public Library.

In Fargo, people ages 16 and older can apply for an adult library card.

Youths 15 and under need a parent or guardian to sign them up, and that adult can say “No DVDs” on the registration form.

Dirks said that option is not widely used by parents.

In effect, R-rated fare is accessible to most Fargo Public Library patrons.

At the Moorhead and other northwest Minnesota libraries, kids 13 and older can get a library card on their own, while a parent must register those 12 and younger; and there’s no movie opt-out on the forms – again, meaning access for most.

It’s a different story at the West Fargo Public Library, where patrons must be 17 or older and have an adult library card to check out R-rated movies.

“Because of the norms of the community, we’ve always blocked R-rated items,” Hannahs said.

Adult-themed books

While certain movies may be off-limits to the younger set at some libraries, printed materials are available to all, no matter the subject.

For example, if a young teen really wanted to check out the best-selling erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey,” no library employee would stop them, said Jenna Kahly, youth services coordinator at Lake Agassiz Regional Library.

But Kahly said she might try to redirect them to a book they’d find more interesting.

“We want to help families make good decisions, but have to uphold ALA (and its Bill of Rights), too,” she said.

As for those who think kids have free rein at the library, it may be a matter of a generational divide.

“They think children should be quiet and only be able to look at certain things,” Lynch said.

“Libraries aren’t the quiet place they used to be,” Lynch said, “and a lot of people have a hard time with that.”