Albion Monitor /Commentary

V-Chip For Books Planned

by David Jones

The problem is that kids can visit the local library and borrow anything they choose

OTTAWA -- The Canadian Library Association today announced its intention to comply with the wishes of millions of Canadians who had signed a petition decrying the increasing presence of "vivid imagery of sex and violence" in books targeted at children.

"Once my daughter started reading books in the 'Goose Bumps' series," says one concerned parent, "reading became like an addiction to her." Even though the books were so violent and scary the girl had nightmares. "Soon she started reading beyond her grade level and was getting into books with 'adult themes'."

The problem, say most busy parents, is that kids can visit the local library and borrow anything they choose, regardless of their family's values.

Gives a parent more control over what their child reads

The new book rating system, modeled after television's highly successful V-chip, has been dubbed the V-barcode, because each book will have a machine-readable "barcode" on the spine that encodes a rating of the book's contents on several scales: sex, violence, coarse language, drug use, religion, and "alternative lifestyles."

"This isn't about censorship", says Keith Spicer, who recently joined the CLA as policy director after leaving the CRTC, "this is about choice ... about empowering parents to make choices." Under the new system, parents will select their family's "tolerance levels" on each scale. These are encoded as a barcode on their child's library card.

When a child wants to borrow a book, the librarian simply passes the library card and book over a scanner (just like the ones used in the supermarket) and a screen instantly displays whether authorization should be granted.

"It's a marvel of technology," bubbles Spicer, "it's just like the child's parent is there, saying to the child -- 'No, we don't borrow that kind of book in this family.'"

The CLA dismisses complaints the system will be burdensome. "We already have barcodes on most books, so the cost of the new system will be incidental," said a CLA spokesperson. Library patrons can expect to pay an additional $5 per year over their normal borrowing fees.

"The V-barcode is just a small part of the overall solution for dealing with violence in books," says Spicer. "The best way of dealing with bad books is to have more good books, and we hope that once children stop borrowing the bad books publishers will start printing books of better quality."

There are still a few wrinkles to be worked out, however. Some skeptical parents think children might start hanging out in libraries -- where they can still read books they aren't allowed to borrow. Still, to many parents, the new system gives a parent more control over what their child reads than is the case without this technology.

"It's a social experiment worth trying," says one parent. "It will be interesting to see what guidelines will be drawn up and who will be doing the drawing. It will force people to reflect on ethics and reading, which is something we could afford to be more reflective about."

Enthusiasts of the V-barcode would like to see its use expanded. "We'd like to see the V-barcode system adopted in bookstores", says Keith Spicer.

"We've already got a pilot project going with the Cole's Bookstore chain and the Bank of Montreal where the parental tolerance levels are encoded into the mag-stripe on the child's bank card." A book purchase can be declined at the checkout if it exceeds the family's tolerance levels.

"Cash purchases," says Spicer, "are still a problem."

David Jones is a member of Electronic Frontiers Canada, in Hamilton, Ontario

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1996 (

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