Time's Up!

It was fun while it lasted, but the Denver Public Library has finally lost patience with patrons who use its computer facilities as a video arcade--or, for that matter, an adult-video arcade. In an effort to relieve congestion on their overburdened PCs, library administrators are working on a plan that will limit the amount of time patrons are allowed to spend on them per day.

Current library rules prohibit patrons from using the PCs for non-research-related activities such as word processing, e-mail, chat rooms and video games. But a peek at the many screens in use at the Central Library reveals a flagrant disregard for the mandate. Not only can you watch computer users play time-consuming games of chess, bridge or hearts, you can peer into online conversations as patrons gab endlessly in Web-based chat rooms. Pornography, of course, is another favorite online distraction; gone are the days when patrons would pull a human-sexuality book off the shelves for a little titillation.

Librarians aren't complaining about the content of the Web searches; they say it's not their job to judge, babysit or censor patrons' surfing habits (although some concede that it's "unsettling" to hand pornographic printouts to customers). But with a limited number of Internet-capable computers in the Central Library branch, library administrators want to make sure that the equipment is used for "legitimate research" without turning librarians into over-the-shoulder snoops. After all, they reason, who's to say that a guy downloading nude pictures of Pamela Lee isn't doing "legitimate research" on plastic surgery or second-rate actresses?

The library found itself in a quandary soon after it started providing Web access three years ago; during certain hours of the day, a free PC has been impossible to find. But time, and not the computers themselves, is the problem, says Linda Cumming, director of the Central Library. PCs are such a hit with library visitors that simply adding more would not fill the demand. "It seems like everything we do is driven by limited resources," explains Cumming. "We have 110 computers for customer use. We could have 1,010 and it wouldn't make a difference."

When a written request asking patrons to monitor the amount of time they spent online met with only limited success, library officials considered other solutions. Cumming says she had initially thought of putting up a sign-up sheet for customers to use, but she was "reluctant to put a master's-degreed librarian in the role of watchdogs over time clocks."

Then why not just boot off the people who are downloading porn or--by far, the biggest computer hogs--those who are playing video games? "I do not want to put the staff in the position of deciding what's right and what's wrong," says Cumming.

Instead, library officials decided to limit the amount of time a person can use the computers per day. This so-called time-out solution would require library patrons (or "customers," in DPL parlance) to enter their names and library card numbers into a terminal, triggering a countdown mechanism. Once a user surpasses the yet-to-be-determined time allotment, he would not be able to log on at any DPL library until the following business day. In addition, the time-out system would prevent him from using such non-Internet-related PC features as the online card catalogue or magazine databases. (Patrons would still be able to use non-PC terminals, which aren't connected to the Internet, but the library plans to eventually phase out those machines.)

Cumming hopes the final design will be flexible enough that "librarians can use their wits to bypass" the time-out system. That means if you use up your time, you can plead your case to a librarian to get back on.

The program seems to be the library's best shot at balancing the right of patrons to use the Net for whatever they consider legitimate research without preventing someone else from getting a chance to log on. It also doesn't require librarians to play referee. But implementing an automated system is easier said than done. The Denver Public Library, which has been at the forefront of public Internet access, has found that there are not a lot of ready-made solutions available. Officials are trying to decide whether to work with a software vendor to develop a solution specific to DPL or to buy an existing product that will come close to its needs.

And the plan is not without its detractors. "I'm against it totally," says Earnest, who doesn't want to give his full name. He is one of the library's many homeless patrons who lack fixed addresses and therefore are unable to obtain library cards--which would be required under the time-out solution. Homeless people who can show proof of an address--whether it's that of a homeless shelter or a friend--can obtain a card. But Earnest says he refuses to be "herded like cattle" into a shelter and therefore has no address.

In an e-mail sent to Westword, Earnest argues that the plan "restricts freedoms as a human being who has a right to the liberty the constitutional amendments provided for all Americans, including myself."

Currently, Earnest says, he spends his afternoons and evenings using the library's PCs to research Japanese animation via the Internet. However, he admits to sometimes finding himself a little off-course from his original search and up to his eyeballs in flesh. "But," he insists, "it's all soft-core."

Anya Breitenbach, the library's public-relations manager, admits that Earnest's particular scenario--that of an address-less patron--is one that the library has yet to fully consider with the time-out plan. She says the library will institute a testing phase to work out such bugs before anything is finalized. "A lot of these questions don't come up until you start working with customers," she says.

Other libraries are eagerly awaiting the answers DPL provides, says Jamie LaRue, president-elect of the Colorado Library Association. "They're a good test case," he says. "Denver is in the spot that it's on the frontier."

LaRue says the trick for libraries is to develop the broadest policies to start with and then step in to fix what doesn't work with regard to computer access. "Most libraries try, instead of restricting usage, to restrict time," he says.

The time-out solution, says LaRue, is reasonable, considering the limited resources of most libraries. "It's a new twist on an old problem," he says.

But for patrons like Earnest, the clock is still ticking. He may want to e-mail library officials to register his objections--as long as he doesn't tell them where he's writing from.


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