|By Chris Rodell
The first time my innocent eyes spied raw, hard-core pornography, it was by the illumination of a flashlight. I was about 16 years old and in the darkened woods late at night. A friend of mine had filched a copy of Penthouse hidden in his father's closet and he and I and another buddy were determined to discover what awaited when we became men.
I remember being shocked by the explicit pictures and a little intrigued at the thought that some of the girls I knew might someday entertain me in such an intimate fashion. It was a little frightening.
The three of us were particularly interested in the Forum tales of one young man who attended a small midwestern university. We took turns reading aloud the surprising romantic adventures that happened while he was studying, delivering pizzas or doing laundry with pretty co-eds, their roommates and sometimes their surprised but still-game mothers.
After getting our fill, we'd stash the magazine behind some rocks and head down to the local hangout in the vain hopes of meeting girls. It never happened because we were all drowning in a substance I came to know as "tease-tosterone." Those are the surplus hormones that get men so consumed with ambitious lust that women find them universally repulsive.
These days no one needs to go to such elaborate lengths to look at pornography. In fact, as I'm typing this sentence, it is nearing lunchtime and I can glance to my right and watch a woman bestowing oral pleasure on a bored-looking young man. If I lift my eyes just above the screen on my laptop, there's a couple engaged in anal sex. And off to the left, two beautiful young women are doing the kinds of things that ignited philosophical debates among my friends and I back in the woods more than 20 years ago.
It's just another day in a typical American public library.
Traditionally, there is no more historically staid place in America than the public library. Even places of worship are more boisterous. But that's changing in ways that are shocking to even me, a college graduate of -- where else? -- a small midwestern university.
Today it's common to walk into any public library in America and see adults and teenage students openly viewing hardcore pornography that is unavailable at home on any premium cable channel, is restricted to "adults-only" sections of video stores and, at least before the advent of the Internet, used to be purchased by church-going folks who felt compelled to don hats and fake mustaches to avoid shameful recognition.
The situation is tearing at the very soul of librarians, most of whom were raised in a reverential atmosphere of uplifting ideals and lofty debates about how literature can shape and elevate the mind of man. The elevation of his other organs was simply not discussed.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering arguments over the constitutional legality of the Children's Internet Protection Act. The law requires that any public library receiving federal aid must install Internet-filtering software on their public-access computers to prevent the display of obscene content, child pornography or other materials that have been deemed harmful to minors. In passing the law, Congress gave libraries a choice: either accept badly needed federal aid and use the filters, or forfeit the money.
The American Library Association says the choice puts them in an anti-constitutional bind. A.L.A. president Maurice Freedman says that because the law applies to every computer terminal in a library, the First Amendment is unjustly abridged.
"Everybody who wants to use a computer terminal in a library is forced to lose access to constitutionally protected speech," Freedman says. "This is not what the public library is about in the United States."
I'll say. Because the legal niceties of the argument -- or any of the eventual solutions -- do not begin to touch on the profound moral and cultural implications of what the Internet has wrought in the treasured community institutions that are our public libraries. Refined librarians and their umbrella organization are being forced to defend the First Amendment right of people whose "reading" habits are considered repugnant by many.
In fact, in my experience, there is no "reading" involved whatsoever. Unlike the ribald tales of "Lady Chatterley's Lover," or even the exploits of the sexual young vagabond from Penthouse forum, there are no words involved. Common library pornography is as hardcore, high-resolution, graphic and vivid as anything Hollywood smut merchants have ever peddled.
I tried to get some on-the-record comment from the A.L.A. and other spokespersons in the library community but, perhaps not surprisingly, their reaction was "Shhhhhh!" They'd rather not talk about it. No one returned my calls or would agree to be quoted on the record. One librarian did tell me that the problem is pervasive.
"This is happening in libraries all across the country," she said. "Some of these children tell their parents, 'Mom, I'm going to the library,' and the parents feel proud. But then some of these same kids and many adults will spend hours watching pornographic web sites right out in the open. It's very upsetting to some of our older librarians. But it's a First Amendment issue and there's not a thing we can do about it."
And the viewers are mostly brazen. They don't seem to care that what they are doing in the eyes of many is tantamount to a desecration of a sacred sort of place.
The Toronto Sun reported recently that police were investigating an incident in which a librarian was cursed and chased out of her own library by a group of teenagers after she cut them off from viewing pornography in the city's Downsville Public Library.
"It is appalling and disgusting," Det. Steve Craddock told he paper. "Police were shocked by the large number of kids looking at sex on the Internet."
One officer said teenagers now consider the library better than an amusement arcade because the latter doesn't allow them free, unfettered access to all kinds of pornography.
If I was a librarian I'd be deeply offended, but if I was a librarian I'd take offense at something as wholesome as "It's a Wonderful Life." In the Frank Capra Christmas classic, George Bailey, his world turned upside down, is desperate to learn the fate of his beloved wife Mary, but Clarence the Angel is reluctant to tell him for reasons that are clearly too horrible to reveal.
But after being thrashed about by Jimmy Stewart's character, the poor angel finally blurts out the awful truth of what became of Mary: "She's getting ready to close up the library!"
I have a contrary view of librarians. I've always found them to be engaging, progressive, inquisitive and possessed of a humanity and love for the written word that will forever endear them to me. And there are none better than at the venerable Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh where I'm concluding this essay, awash in an unwelcome sea of distracting smut.
To me, it's particularly galling to find myself in this situation in the library named for the man whose philanthropic good heart has done more for reading than any man in the history of America. Andrew Carnegie, an Irish immigrant and beloved Pittsburgher whose wealth from turn- of-the-century smokestack industries built more than 2,800 libraries around the world, believed education -- he asked "Let There Be Light" engraved above the doorways -- was the key to unlocking the full potential of the mind of man so that each of us could attain greatness. He believed free access to public libraries would lead to a better, more enlightened America.
I guess if today he walked into this great, august building and saw the lurid lights shining from library computer screens, the old industrialist would probably blow his stack.
The sight wouldn't faze me a bit.
By now I'm numb to the spectacle of seeing things getting blown in one of his libraries.