June 21, 1997 in City

Library’s Sound Policy Beats Questionable Technology

Diann Brown Special To Roundtable
 

For nearly 100 years, Spokane Public Library has served the diverse information needs of its constituents while upholding First Amendment rights. The library believes that these rights are fundamental to a democracy and that they should be protected and defended for the benefit of all citizens, regardless of age.

In 1994, the library spent $1.5 million for a new automation system, including a network connecting all branches, 100 new computers and library automation software modules for circulation, acquisitions, cataloging, and administration. In 1995, with the help of two federal grants totaling $40,000, the library purchased 20 new computers earmarked for use as public Internet terminals. In 1995, the library spent $27,000 on Internet connectivity service charges; in 1996, $22,000; and in 1997, the library will spend $19,800 for those services.

Before installing any public Internet terminals, the library’s board, administration, and staff carefully weighed how to introduce this powerful new medium in the most responsible manner possible. An Internet use policy and procedures were developed and received board approval on June 20, 1995.

Library policy requires that all people who wish to use the library’s Internet terminals sign an Internet use agreement. In addition, parental or guardian signatures are required for youths under the age of 18. The library believes that this stipulation supports the board’s wish to be responsive to parents while at the same time not acting in loco parentis with regard to children’s use of the Library.

Library staff developed a web home page (http://splnet.spokpl.lib.wa.us) featuring a subject index of sites that could be used as starting points for research, as well as city and regional information, information about the library, and a Kid’s Home Page designed especially for youths, parents and educators. This web page features youth-friendly sites for homework, fun, and exploration, as well as extensive reading lists.

The library has also offered public training in the use of the Internet as an information resource. In addition to weekly Internet classes for the general public, staff have also offered Internet classes designed for children and families.

The library believes that all of these measures attest to the desire to provide Internet services in a responsible manner.

Library policy also states that, “When feasible, the library will implement software and hardware control mechanisms to prohibit information which the library has determined to be inconsistent with its mission and service roles.” To that end, library administration and staff have evaluated a number of filtering software packages, all of which have been problematic.

For example, Bess is a service to which the user subscribes on a per-terminal basis. Interestingly, Bess displays the following caveat on its page for N2H2 Internet filtering for Internet access providers: “No filtering system can block every objectionable website. Bess is no exception. We believe that our system provides the most comprehensive and up-to-date protection of any product or service available. However, we provide no guarantees.”

Other filtering packages are too far reaching.

Still other packages might block offensive material, but only after the user has an ample 30 seconds to view it.

We should not delude ourselves into thinking that originators of offensive material aren’t fully aware of the blockers’ systems. They will respond by naming their web pages so as to circumvent or otherwise defeat blocking. That’s why Bess offers the disclaimer.

If the library were to install filtering software on its public Internet terminals or on its server, would parents and guardians be lulled into thinking that it was completely safe to allow their children to “surf” indiscriminately? Would they then hold the library responsible for some perceived failure to block sites they found objectionable?

In a typical month, the library’s public Internet terminals are in use approximately 2,153 hours. Multiply that number by 12 and consider the fact that the library has only had to revoke one customer’s use privileges for violating patron rules of conduct with regard to the Internet.

This miniscule percentage demonstrates the effectiveness of the library’s Internet policy. It also suggests that we might better spend our time and energies advocating the use of the Internet by whole families, rather than advocating the use of devices that do not work well in a public setting.

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