ND librarians whine over new law to protect minors from explicit content

Since when did it become the norm for libraries NOT to cordon off obscene and other obviously age-inappropriate materials from minors? It’s one of the obvious responsibilities certainly many parents and patrons have assumed goes with the territory for those in charge of public libraries.

But lawmakers in North Dakota and several other states have lost their confidence in librarians to carry out that most fundamental duty, leading to the passage of legislation requiring public libraries to protect minors from explicit content. Some North Dakota librarians have responded to the legislative kick in the pants like adolescents themselves, taking a page out of the children’s classic Chicken Little and claiming the sky is falling in media outlets like Forum News.

[Fargo Public Library Director Tim] Dirks said he has not estimated how much it would cost Fargo’s three library sites to comply with the bills. However, he did note that to do so, library staff would have to pre-read all materials in their collections. For small libraries with limited staff and run mostly on volunteer hours, this may not even be possible, Dirks said.

“Certainly there is an impact financially, but more importantly, is what do libraries have to do to implement these policies,” Dirks said. “Small libraries can’t continue. They may literally disappear, because this will essentially put them under. I don’t think anyone who has voted for these things understands that or cares.”

Libraries also must promulgate and submit their policies over materials for children to the state. Over-the-top claims that all library materials would need to be evaluated word-for-word and page-by-page in order to comply has led to absurd calculations of the financial impact, $334 million in the case of the Bismarck Public Library.

[West Fargo Library Director Betty] Adams said the part of HB 1205 that would have the greatest impact on West Fargo’s sole library is where it calls for library collections to be “appropriate for the age and maturity levels of the individuals who may access the materials, and which is suitable for, and consistent with, the purpose of the library.”

To comply, she said the West Fargo Library would have to remove access to digital collections; add physical barriers inside the building to adult and young adult collections; more staff would be needed to verify patrons are over the age of 18; parents would be in violation of the library’s unattended children policy if youth are brought to the library while a parent is in the adult collection; and inter-library loans of materials between states would no longer happen.

Due to the library’s structure, Adams said staff would have to escort patrons with minors to designated areas to ensure children don’t access adult materials. The library’s catalog would also have to be revised or greatly eliminated to prevent children from searching the broad database, she said.

In fact, it could have been worse. Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed a bill authorizing misdemeanor charges against library staff in certain cases. Libraries have until August to comply with the new mandate. But opponents are already hinting at taking legal action to forestall having to set age-appropriate boundaries that they seem utterly incapable of coming to terms with.

“We are not the parent,” Fargo Public Library Director Tim Dirks said. “House Bill 1205 essentially demands that we become the parent.”

Dirks said the bill’s language is too broad, too challenging to enforce, and it creates responsibilities that shouldn’t be the job of librarians.

“It’s hard to really judge what the impact is, the language is so difficult,” Dirks said. “It’s unworkable, it’s clumsy, it doesn’t take into account how people use libraries.”