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Libraries and the Internet Toolkit

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Libraries, the Internet and Filtering

"Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one's children is to teach them to swim." — National Research Council, "Youth, Pornography, and the Internet" (2002)

In the effort to close the digital divide in the United States, one institution has led the way in ensuring that all people have access to this important resource called the Internet: the library.

Congress recognized this essential role when it designated public libraries as universal service providers for online information in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Since then, the number of public libraries online has tripled. Libraries are one of America's great democratic institutions, providing access to books and other resources to people of all ages and backgrounds regardless of their ability to pay. Today, libraries play a critical role in bridging the digital divide. Research shows that for people without Internet access at home, school or work, public libraries are the number one point of access (Falling Through the Net, NTIA 2000).

Laws pertaining to illegal materials and activity on the Internet should be enforced. ALA does not endorse the use of filtering technology in public libraries, however, because it is known to block legal material that library users may find valuable and useful for their jobs, studies, health and other needs.

The association strongly encourages local libraries to adopt policies and practices that govern Internet use in the same way they adopt other policies to ensure a positive library experience. The association also takes an active role in educating the public about how to use the Internet and encourages local libraries to play a leadership role in their communities. Almost all libraries offering Internet service have such policies and programs.

Most importantly, despite the CIPA ruling, which permits the government to require libraries receiving certain kinds of federal funding to filter, ALA policy is unchanged. ALA does not recommend the use in libraries of filtering technology that blocks constitutionally protected information.

Numerous studies, including those by the National Research Council, the U.S. Children's Online Protection Act Commission, and the Kaiser Family Foundation, have documented that filters fail to block many sites banned under CIPA as well as overblock hundreds of thousands of perfectly legal, useful sites. Expert witnesses representing both the plaintiffs and the government in the CIPA case corroborated these findings that are well documented in the Court findings. In addition to underblocking and overblocking, the Kaiser Family Foundation study also found that filters set above the lowest settings block another 50 percent of legal sites but only an additional 4 percent of sites banned by CIPA. ALA, therefore, urges libraries that choose to install filters to set their filters at the least restrictive level in order to minimize the blocking of Constitutionally protected speech. ALA also recommends that all libraries educate the general public on this issue, as well as library staff.

ALA, therefore, urges libraries that choose to install filters to set their filters at the least restrictive level. ALA also recommends that all libraries educate both the general public and library staff on this issue.

Finally, ALA believes that filters do not protect children, education does. As the National Research Council pointed out in its 2002 report, Youth, Pornography, and the Internet, "While both technology and public policy have important roles to play, social and educational strategies to develop in minors an ethic of responsible choice and the skills to effectuate these choices and to cope with exposure are foundational to protecting children from negative effects that may result from exposure to inappropriate material or experiences on the Internet." Similarly, the more children and parents know about the Internet and Internet safety, the better equipped they will be to protect themselves and enjoy their time online. Libraries have a long tradition of providing quality service to children and adults in a safe place, and they continue to do so. Parents and children should still exercise common sense in the library, as they do in any public place.

Role of the American Library Association

The mission of the American Library Association (ALA) is to promote the highest quality library and information services. This includes recommending model policies for local libraries to use in developing their own policies and procedures. ALA policies, such as the Library Bill of Rights adopted in 1940, are intended to protect the rights of library users to read and receive information as defined by the U.S. constitution and courts.

Fact: Local libraries are responsible for adopting their own operating policies and procedures.

Fact: The association does not endorse the use of filtering technology in public institutions, such as libraries, because it blocks legal information to which users are entitled under the Constitution.

How librarians manage the Internet

Librarians have developed and continue to develop Internet management techniques with the goal of ensuring public access to information and a positive online experience for people of all ages. Some libraries use filters on some computer terminals, generally in children's areas.

Some libraries are experimenting with special library cards with computer chips that allow individual library users to control Internet access for themselves and their children. Unlike filters intended for use in the home, this technology can cost many thousands of dollars and must be integrated into other library computer systems. Other considerations for libraries are ease of maintenance, protecting library user privacy, respecting First Amendment rights and providing a choice for library users.

Frequently used strategies for managing the Internet include:

  • Codes of conduct that define appropriate use of library computers and the Internet (e.g., no participation in illegal activities).
  • Internet training classes for children and parents to teach them techniques, including how to search effectively, to ensure a positive online experience.
  • Links to preselected sites such as the ALA's Great Web Sites for Kids ( and search engines specially designed for children such as KidsClick! or AOL's AOL@School.
  • Privacy screens on workstations.
  • Time limits and other rules for computer use in keeping with the library's mission statement and customer service practices.

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This document was last updated December 9, 2003

Links to non-ALA sites have been provided because these sites may have information of interest. Neither the American Library Association nor the Office for Intellectual Freedom necessarily endorses the views expressed or the facts presented on these sites; and furthermore, ALA and OIF do not endorse any commercial products that may be advertised or available on these sites.