WHEN Alexandra Quinn, a trustee of the Watertown (Mass.) Public Library, received a complaint that a video in the library bordered on soft pornography, she asked a group from the community to evaluate it with her.
Mrs. Quinn describes herself as ''moderate'' in her views. But she and others were unprepared for what they saw. The unrated John Waters film, ''Dangerous Living,'' featured graphic sex and extreme violence.
''It's an absolutely disgusting movie,'' says Quinn, the mother of four and a substitute teacher. Concerned that children might check out the video under the library's unrestricted borrowing policy, she sparked a townwide controversy by asking the library board to limit children's access to such films.
Across the country, similar debates are intensifying as library video collections expand and include R-rated titles. Videos now account for 20 to 30 percent of circulation, with rates reaching 50 percent in some cities, according to the American Library Association. Parents and a handful of lawmakers argue that libraries should create policies - the paper equivalent of a V-chip - to keep minors from borrowing R-rated videos.
Library officials and civil liberties groups counter that it is parents' responsibility to shield children from objectionable material.
''We absolutely believe there should be restrictions, but we believe they should be placed by the parents and not the library,'' says George Needham, executive director of the Public Library Association in Chicago. ''The only appropriate monitor of a child's usage of these services is the parent, and the parent has the right only to monitor his or her own children's library usage, not the usage of all the children in the community.''
Mr. Needham explains that although the American Library Association makes recommendations, each library sets its own policies. ''We propose, the library trustees dispose,'' he says.
The controversy comes at a time of widespread public debate about children's access to on-screen violence and sex. Today the White House is convening a summit with leaders of the broadcast industry. The four major networks have just agreed to establish their own ratings system, similar to the Motion Picture Association of America's movie code. By law, television manufacturers must now install a V-chip in sets so parents can block certain programs. And the new communications law, already being challenged in court, makes it a crime to transmit ''indecent'' material to minors on the Internet.
Library 'Bill of Rights'
The board of the Watertown library refused to limit access to certain films, citing the American Library Association's Bill of Rights, which states that library use ''should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.''
Leone Cole, director of the Watertown library, defends the decision. ''Most libraries have open access,'' she says. ''Libraries have had controversial materials for a long time. I think people who are really aware of what's in the public library don't have a problem with this.''
Quinn disagrees, noting that many video stores do not allow children to rent R-rated titles. ''If one of our [library] functions is as a video store, we should be acting responsibly as a video store, and the same rules should apply - that minors 17 and under cannot take out an R-rated movie,'' she says.
Sue Parseghian, another mother in Watertown, acknowledges the complexity of the issue. ''I'm not speaking in terms of censorship,'' she says. ''But what is right for a 25-year-old person is not necessarily right for a 12-year-old boy or girl. I feel it's a community effort to be a watchdog for other children.''
That attitude is also spurring legislation to limit children's access to certain videos. In New York, a bill proposed with bipartisan support would forbid libraries from lending videos with R or NC-17 ratings to children under 17 without parental consent. Some librarians regard such measures as a form of censorship.
Robert Jacquay, director of the William K. Sanford Town Library in Loudenville, N.Y., says, ''My fear is that if we start to do something legislatively on videos, it's not going to stop there. It's going to spill over to books and pamphlets, and then there is no limit.''
In Indiana, State Rep. Woody Burton, a Republican, has tried unsuccessfully to introduce a similar bill requiring parental consent for children to borrow R-rated material. He plans to add it as an amendment to another bill this week.
''I'm not for restricting libraries,'' Representative Burton says. ''I'm not telling them not to have R-rated videos in libraries. I'm just saying they should not let children check them out without parental consent.''
Betty Turock, president of the American Library Association, worries that such legislative efforts are part of a larger attempt by conservative groups to remove certain materials from library shelves. These groups, Ms. Turock says, ''have made it clear that they are pegging libraries as family-unfriendly places. How many institutions are we going to destroy until the country has no institutions people can visit?''
Effect of images on children
Karen Jo Gounaud of Springfield, Va., founder of a six-month-old group called Family Friendly Libraries, denies those charges. ''We're not asking them to remove books or tapes, we're just asking them to use common sense and a sense of decency in keeping them out of kids' hands without parental involvement,'' she says. ''We know from data that what children see, particularly video imagery, affects them very much.''
In one survey of 60 major libraries, Mrs. Gounaud says, 51 carried R-rated videos. A third also carried NC-17 videos - no one under 17 admitted. Fifty-two percent of libraries placed no restrictions on access.
Gounaud outlines a dual purpose for her group: protecting children from ''inappropriate materials'' and restoring parental control. ''It's an idea whose time has come,'' she says. ''That idea has to do with: How is our culture treating our children, how should we treat our children, and what kind of children are resulting from it? People are starting to rebel at the lack of a moral compass. Something needs to be done to empower people at the local level to get back in the driver's seat.''
Even some librarians, she says, support that goal. ''Most of the calls I've had in the past three months have been from librarians who are just as concerned about what's happened to children as the parents who have complained to me about their experiences.'' Noting that librarians have even invited her to speak at forums, she adds, ''They're not shutting us out.''
But for a majority of professionals in the field, the issue always comes back to freedom of speech. Ms. Turock says, ''Deciding for a community, in a public institution, what is available on other than a constitutional basis would defeat the purpose of the First Amendment, which is intellectual freedom.''
Gounaud disagrees, saying, ''Certainly the Constitution does not support the ALA's contention that children have the same rights to material as adults.''
Sheila Intner, a professor of library and information science at Simmons College in Boston, acknowledges that some videos are offensive. But, she adds, ''There may be people who wish to view them. They should have the opportunity to do so. The library - Watertown or any other public library - has a responsibility to more than one family or a few families. They have a responsibility to the larger community, which is made up of people with different needs and different tastes. Parents or guardians should be responsible for what is read or viewed by their children.''
Lack of supervision
But Quinn and Parseghian argue that it is unrealistic to expect parents, especially working parents, always to accompany children to the library.
To that, Ms. Cole, the Watertown librarian, says, ''I think it's a bigger story that there are so many children roaming around unsupervised after school. Yes, you pay taxpayer money to the library, but we're not supposed to be baby sitters any more than the fire department.''
In Watertown, the library board has voted to retain its current open-ended purchasing and circulation policies, citing in part a state law that prohibits policies contrary to the library association's Bill of Rights.
Even without legislation, some libraries are responding to parental concerns.
In Loudenville, N.Y., library videos include R-rated films that circulate to children. But the library also gives parents the option to deny children access to all videos.
In Indianapolis, when a mother complained to librarians that children might borrow a video called ''Erotic Celebrations,'' librarians viewed it and then removed it. The movie had been purchased as part of the collected works of filmmaker James Broughton.
''We determined that under our general selection guidelines, we would not have selected it had it not come as part of a multi-title package,'' says Laura Johnson, an associate director of the Indianapolis-Marion County Library.
Librarians there also created a ''JV card'' for children whose parents want them to borrow only juvenile videos. In addition, the board appointed a task force of community representatives to consider the availability of violent and sexual material to young cardholders. The group will present its recommendations in April.
However individual communities resolve issues of video access, Turock hopes the controversies will not tarnish the image and reputation of libraries.
''We need places where kids can go, where they will be safe, where they can learn, where they can be assisted in their intellectual pursuits,'' she says. ''Those places are libraries. They are still family-friendly.''