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KEEPING A WATCH OVER THE SUPERHIGHWAY

At the center of the Children's Room of the Boston Public Library there is a banner announcing "Welcome Curious George." It hangs appropriately enough over a display of the books that celebrate the famed monkey's high jinks.

This is how we think of libraries, of course. Safe havens for the curious. Places where kids do some literary exploration.

But nearby is a small bank of computers. There, a very curious George of the human variety surfing the Internet could find some very, very curious stuff.

There, George could go in search of Bambi and find an XXX-rated dear. There, George could type in "breast" and find everything from cancer to chicken recipes to swim strokes to "Horny Babes on Aphrodisiacs."

This is a dilemma of the information age. The Internet has been compared to a library where all the books are scattered across the floor. On this same littered floor are X-rated magazines and adult videos.

"All the good and bad you find in the world, you find on the Internet," says Bernard Margolis, president of the library. The question is, he says, "How do you, in accommodating technology, cope with what it brings?"

As head of the oldest publicly supported library in the country -- 150 next year -- he faces this new variation of a familiar problem: "How do you protect the most impressionable among us from things that are bad?"

Margolis is a veteran of the wars between censorship and free speech. His first battle was waged as a child when he read the forbidden "The Catcher in the Rye" with a flashlight under the covers. As the Internet "happened," he recognized that there are "folks who believe the prime reason the Internet exists is to distribute pornography." And yet he also understands that "the library was seen as a safe place to send kids." And today, it seems a little less safe.

In many ways, parents today see the communications revolution as a coup d'etat. The power to guide children, to shape and screen the cultural messages, was taken from our hands by the television in our living room and now by the information superhighway running through home, school and library.

When Margolis arrived in Boston in March, there were many who wanted to ban sexually explicit material from the Internet itself. The Communications Decency Act passed Congress with near unanimity. The mayor of Boston demanded that libraries censor the Net. The First Amendment defenders, including the American Library Association, rightly objected to electronic censorship.

So the first public library in America came up with what Margolis likes to call "The Boston Solution." They simply divided the Internet into two editions. One, an unfettered free-for-all for adults. The other, a filtered "children's room" with sites as edited as kiddie bookshelves.

Last month, the Supreme Court toppled the Communications Decency Act, ruling that the Internet was protected by the First Amendment. Last week in Washington the president came out in favor of a "virtual toolbox" of blocking technology to use at home.

The Boston Solution remained standing, indeed it's become a model of a way to protect children without shackling adults in the libraries we share.

There are, to be sure, flaws in this system. Margolis compares Net filters to coffee filters, "Inevitably there are still grounds in the bottom of the cup. If science can't filter coffee, how can they filter something as complex as the Internet?"

Libraries today are no longer book museums but community information centers. So they will remain at the center of a struggle to maintain freedom of speech and protect children. For now, the Boston Solution is working. But for the last word, maybe we should turn from George to Alice: It's getting curiouser and curiouser.

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