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Librarians Aren’t Babysitters: How to Keep your Kid Safe at the Public Library

(Photo courtesy of CC Images: monterey public library)

Many of us have fond memories of our childhood libraries. It was an idyllic place complete with storytime and shushing librarians. But today’s libraries have the Internet, and the King County library System considers pornography to be protected speech. So you can watch anything except child porn, uninterrupted, at your leisure.

Lifelong Redmond resident, Debra Boyle, is a learning specialist who tutors more than 15 students at the Redmond Library. She says, in the past two years, it’s become an unsafe place.

“In February, one of my students came to me, it was a 14-year-old boy, ‘Over at the computers there was an older man and he asked me how old I was. Well, why do you want to know? And the man said, well I just want to know if you wanted to go and dance with me.’ And he showed me a piece of candy the older man had given him. The man said, ‘I just want to be friends with you.’ I left that day with this heaviness. I felt worried for every student.”

So she called all of her parents, and she now does most of her tutoring at a nearby Starbucks. Debra says she’s been followed out to her car by a man who was making her uncomfortable in the library and she’s seen people looking at what she considers to be inappropriate material without using a provided privacy screen. So two days after the incident with her student she stood outside the library passing out flyers.

“I got a lot of people engaged in discussion. In fact, one of the mom’s said, ‘My son has already turned in two gentleman in there.’ Another mom said to me, ‘Well, I went up to a man who was pleasuring himself, while he was watching pornography. I said to him: Don’t do that, it’s offensive to me. And he said, So? I’ll just sue you.'”

She also made five suggestions to the library, like asking them to enforce the use of privacy screens and asking if preteens can use the children’s bathroom to steer clear of suspicious adults but all were denied.

“In writing letters to the Board of Trustees for King County Library System to communicate with the Redmond Library to the Redmond Mayor’s Office to the Redmond Police, I came to find out that the Redmond library just is not safe. It’s a whole new world.”

Julie Brand Acteson is interim director of King County Library Systems. “My initial reaction was that libraries are public buildings and unfortunately, as a public building, people do encounter things that may offend or cause concern to their own personal values.”

One thing Debra suggested was putting up a sign next to each computer, advising patrons to call police or tell a librarian if they see suspicious behavior.

“We would not put a sign up like that,” Julie said. “I do think it is impeding on someone’s privacy. We certainly don’t want patrons to be policing within the library. The best action is for anyone who has a concern to come to our staff and our staff will deal with it within our appropriate policies. I mean, they’re in there to enjoy the library and use the resources. They’re not in there to be the library police.”

At this point Julie and Debra are actually on the same page: since the rules aren’t going to change, they want to remind parents to watch their children.

“I stood out there, passing out those 100 fliers, and more than I can tell you the parents were going, ‘Huh? You can watch that here? Our library here in Redmond?’ Yeah! I said, that’s why I’m out here is because I don’t want you to do what I see. You swing by, towards the front door, you open your car, you let out your little fourth grader and then you drive away and you assume that the library is a safe place.”

Julie reminds parents that librarians aren’t babysitters.

“Parents really do have to be mindful and provide the appropriate supervision of their kids while they’re in the library. What you have to do in any public building. I mean, you don’t walk into a mall or a public park and not supervise your kids.”

Because the library is no longer a real life Normal Rockwell painting.

“It’s not that library that I used to go to when I was a kid,” said Debra. “I checked out all the books on animals and I was always so excited about going there. Now it’s high tech, there’s lots of stuff that’s offered. It’s no longer that library, it’s a threat.

It’s not just the library: I spoke with attorney Anne Bremner as well as King county Prosecutor Dan Donahoe, and they both confirmed that it’s legal for someone to watch porn in a public place like a city park, as long as it’s not child porn.

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