Markkula Center of Applied Ethics


The 1996 children's movie, Matilda, provides a useful context for this report of facts and opinions surrounding the issue of children's access to the Internet in public libraries. The movie allows us to place the proper focus of this report on the one bit of common ground shared by everyone on all sides of this debate: the individual child (perhaps our own child) who has a need for information and, at the same time, a need to learn how to find his or her way in an increasingly complex world. Ethicists often begin by asking "Whose interests are at stake? Who stands to gain and lose the most by our decision, short-term and long-term?" Matilda helps us understand the answer to that question: all things being equal, our decisions must advance children's interests, now and in the future.

The story, a modern-day fable originally written by Roald Dahl, introduces us to Harry and Zinnia Wormwood, who are too busy to pay much attention to their highly intelligent daughter, Matilda. Everyday, Harry goes off to sell used cars and Zinnia to play bingo, leaving Matilda at home alone.

By the time she's four, Matilda has taught herself to read. Soon after, her parents turn down her request for books, saying that she can learn just as well from television -- and faster. So, at the age of four, she goes alone to the public library ten blocks from her house. Just a bit tentatively, she approaches the librarian, Mrs. Phelps, who is standing behind a mammoth desk. "Excuse me," Matilda says in small voice. "Where are the children's books, please?" "Right over there," Mrs. Phelps replies, pointing. "Would you like me to pick one out for you with lots of pictures?" "No, thank you," she says. "I'm sure I can manage."

Beginning in the children's room, Matilda devours one book after another. Soon she's read all of them and begins wandering around the library looking for something else. Mrs. Phelps, who has been watching her with fascination the past few weeks, offers her some valuable library information. "You know, you could have your very own library card. And then you could take books home. And you wouldn't have to walk here everyday. You could take as many as you liked." Matilda responds, "That would be wonderful."

So, the narrator reminds us, "Matilda's strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world, like ships onto the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message, 'You are not alone.'" And things continued like that until, one day, when Matilda's father discovered that she could read and that she had, in fact, been to the library.

This story has a happy ending, because her parents finally allow Matilda to go to school. Later, they allow her teacher to adopt her.

Of course, Mrs. Phelps' library does not have the World Wide Web to satisfy Matilda's insatiable desire to learn. But suppose it did.

Certainly, Harry and Zinnia would never have a computer at home because they consider the television quite capable of meeting all their -- and Matilda's -- information needs. They've also made it clear that they don't want their daughter exposed to books and, we'd imagine, media other than television. For the purposes of this report, we will consider the Internet and its graphics-based World Wide Web a new interactive medium on a grand and global scale, whose purposes are the same as most of our other media: information, entertainment, persuasion, and commerce.

No matter. Harry and Zinnia don't want their daughter exposed to books, much less the Internet, which one writer describes as "the repository for virtually every kind of information you can imagine, from hundreds of print magazines and newspapers gone electronic to the widely publicized newsgroups, scientific arcana, game services, music guides, Webzines, catalog shopping, and electronic picture-book tours of the White House (complete with kitty-cheesecake of the President's cat, Socks)." Matilda's parents want her to stay at home and watch television; all the ideas contained in books can only get her in trouble.

So, consider the questions we could ask if near-genius Matilda had presented herself to Mrs. Phelps at the age of four in a library equipped with the World Wide Web. Should Mrs. Phelps simply point the way to the computers in the children's room and leave Matilda to her own devices? Would your answer change if those computers were not running filtering software and Matilda could access any site she wanted or stumbled across? What if those computers were running filtering software and Matilda asked Mrs. Phelps to turn it off because she couldn't see things she wanted to see? Should it make a difference to Mrs. Phelps if she knew Matilda's parents' didn't want her reading, period? What are Matilda's parents' responsibilities in this situation? And what if Mrs. Phelps' decisions were to have an impact on other library patrons, some of them adults?

Matilda is a fairy tale and unrealistic. All adults would be concerned for a four year old walking alone on a busy city street and into a library. But these questions, and many more like them, are very real and are at the heart of the national, and local, debate currently underway about children's access to the Internet in public libraries. On the one hand, we have the 50 year old library policy of open access, The Library Bill of Rights, interpreted in 1996 for electronic communication. It holds that "libraries, acting within their mission and objectives, must support access to information on all subjects that serve the needs or interests of each user, regardless of the user's age or the content of the material....Libraries and librarians should not deny access to information solely on the grounds that it is perceived to lack value." On the other, we have parents and others who seek to protect children from sexually-explicit material on the Internet in public libraries and who believe that filtering software on children's library computers is an appropriate way for parents to exercise their "right and responsibility to restrict the access of their library resources."

Not surprisingly, politicians and library decision-makers in many parts of the country are watching the decision here in Santa Clara County, the heart of "Silicon Valley." Shall it be limited access? Or open access? Or can both points of view, both positive values in themselves, be accommodated? Can we reaffirm open access as central to the role of the library and the librarian in the 21st century, while at the same time providing reasonable accommodation for parents who do not want their children to display or consume sexually-explicit Internet images (which many parents consider to be pornographic) in the public library?

Back to the Table of Contents or voice your opinion.