Don't Doesn't Work

children and the internet: policies that work  

by Michael Saurs. Available at WebJunction,,  Originally published 8/20/2004.

Reprinted under Creative Commons License.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not reflect the opinions of The Bibliographical Center for Research, The Aurora Public Library or The Arapahoe Library District.

Back in 1991 I was taking an American literature class at SUNY Brockport. We had read the assigned book for the week, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and the instructor asked us why Sinclair had started a novel that contained so much horror, sadness and despair with a happy scene of a wedding reception. What she expected to hear from me was something about the contrast between their work and non-work lives. My answer to her was that Sinclair just wanted to hook the reader so they would read the rest of the book; starting out the novel on a depressing note would not encourage readers to continue reading. I'm sure that every American literature professor is rolling their eyes, or rolling over in their grave over my analysis of the opening of this book, but I still stick by this theory.1 Looking back on this situation I can see the early formation of my distinct lack of support for over-analyzing problems. In my life I've come to realize that too many people over-analyze a problem when trying to come up with a solution, when many times the answer is straightforward or already exists. I believe this applies to the "problems" associated with providing Internet access to patrons in public libraries. [Please note: In this article I am specifically dealing only with public libraries. I do accept that in private institutions, schools and higher education that the situation is different and a different solution may need to be provided.]

For the past eleven years, through graduate school, my period as an independent consultant in Las Vegas, NV, board member of the Aurora Public Library, reference desk volunteer at the Arapahoe Library District and the past seven years as the Internet Trainer for the Bibliographical Center for Research (BCR), I have been keeping an eye on the state of Internet access policies in public libraries in the U.S. I've read literally hundreds of policies, looking at them from both the point of view of a librarian, board member and a patron. I've talked to librarians, library staff, directors and board members. We discussed the issues involved and the policies that have been created. We've talked informally and in a classroom environment in my Internet Access Policies workshop. I've heard the horror stories and the success stories. I've heard about the patrons causing trouble and I've heard about the librarians having to do battle with their board, city or county in order just to provide access in the first place. I'm tempted to say that I've heard it all and that you couldn't tell me something new, but I know better than that.

From all of this input I've come to this simple conclusion: a public library's Internet access policy is pointless and its creation was a waste of time that could have better been spent working on the library's budget. I will admit that the discussion that happens during the creation of a policy (assuming discussion happened and that the policy was not set by decree) is worthy of the time taken, since it raises many important issues. (The policy of whether or not to filter, especially in light of CIPA, is not an issue I'll be addressing in this article. I'll be focusing on other issues that sit outside of the filtering debate.) The policy itself, however, I'll show is not. Many of you may believe my opinion to be extreme, but give me the chance to convince you.

One of the points that I make in my class and book titled Using the Internet as a Reference Tool is that computers--and the Internet--are just tools that we already have the necessary skills to use. It is simply the application of those skills that we, as librarians, need to work on. The fact that the information is electronically accessed is irrelevant to the issue. I hold that this is also true when it comes to patron access to that information.

Today, a significant majority of Internet access policies contain a list of things that the patron cannot do or cannot access. No porn, no chat, no e-mail; "research only."2 All this accomplishes is to turn the library staff into computer police. Staffs are busy enough as it is trying to assist patrons. They do not have the time, or in many cases the desire, to be controlling what they can and cannot do. I would even argue that we do not have the authority to say what information a patron can and cannot access.

This is not to say that I support letting the patrons do whatever they want, without consequences. Illegal is illegal. However, let's for a moment take the computer out of the picture. For example, would you, as a librarian look over the shoulder of a patron to see whether the book they were reading was "appropriate?"3 No librarian I've ever asked has answered yes to this question. However, when it comes to what the patron is viewing on the computer, many librarians seem to be willing to do exactly that. I've even recently read a policy that stated "All Internet users must have a current library card, or pay $2.00/hour for use." Now, when I'm traveling and I walk into a library in another town, no one has yet to charge me for taking a book off the shelf and reading it in the library. Yet when it comes to the computers I'll be charged for using them? Why the discrepancy?

Does your library have a behavior policy? If you do, chances are good that this policy is rather generic and states that patrons should not perform any action that causes a disturbance for other library patrons, whether through action or speech. If a group of teens are talking in the library loud enough to disturb other patrons, they are asked to quiet down. If they are holding a normal conversation, not disturbing anyone else, they are left alone.4

Well, why can't this behavioral policy, which has been in most libraries for years, be applied to the use of the Internet? Stated another way: as long as the patron isn't bothering anyone, why can't we just leave him or her alone? When their actions elevate to the level of causing a disturbance then, and only then, should the librarian become involved. I am still not encouraging allowing everything. Illegal is still illegal and should be dealt with appropriately, by reporting the problem to the appropriate authorities.

I believe that use of this policy in this way has several benefits for the library. First, this reduces the need for library staff to act as police. With this policy, library staff can assist patrons when they ask for it, or become involved when there is a perceived problem. No problem or request, no involvement.

Second, by using a behavioral policy, this gives the library additional flexibility than a "this is what you can't do" policy. If the policy states "no porn" and the student is doing a report on modern erotic art, the librarian is, by policy, forced to prevent the patron from doing their work. By treating it as a behavioral issue, the librarian, in most cases, will not become involved at all. If, however, another patron complains about what that student is looking at on their screen, the librarian can use their professional judgment in balancing the needs of the student against the complaint made and deal with the situation as he or she sees fit.

The other problem that may arise from having a "don't" list is that of exceptions. The moment a librarian creates an exception for one patron they open the door for other patrons to complain with "But you let them do it. Why won't you let me?" When your policy has flexibility built in, you're on much better footing when dealing with such a situation.

Several libraries use this method of dealing with potential problems in their library. In all of the cases I've encountered, the libraries have reported significant success with the method and are glad they chose to use their existing policy this way.


In many libraries today policies regarding Internet access by patrons have been over-analyzed and over-thought. The result of this has been to turn library staff into a police force, reducing the time available to perform many other important tasks. In these cases the computer is being treated differently than other library resources. By removing the computer from the equation, most libraries will realize that they already have a policy on library behavior that can be applied to computer and Internet access related problems. This policy method removes the need for library staff to be police and gives that staff additional flexibility to deal with problems as they arise.


1. Actually, since I've become a published author myself I've modified this theory somewhat. I no longer believe that it was Sinclair's idea to start with a happy scene. More likely it was his publisher or editor that suggested it. "Uh, Up, can I call you Up? No? Well, Mr. Sinclair, we love the book and plan to publish it for you, we'd just like you to make a few changes. First, take out all the socialism. The political climate just isn't right. Okay? Also, the beginning's a bit of a downer. Could you add a chapter at the beginning that hooks the reader? Maybe a wedding reception..."

2. I find the concept of "research only" on a public library computer to be contradictory to the library's mission. For anyone that believes a "research only" policy is a good one I ask this: what is the "research" value of Danielle Steele books? Public libraries have always had an entertainment value and the computers in the library should be no different. Also, by saying "research only" we have now assigned ourselves the job of determining whether or not what the patron is doing is research. Something I don't believe we have the right to do.

For those librarians concerned with limited number of computers and giving those that need access the access, I am in full support of time limits on the computers. This gives every patron a fair chance to use the available computers and do what they need to do. What they do with their time however, is not our business unless it causes a disturbance.

3. We have a "banned book week." Why don't we have a "Banned Web Site Week." Here is another example of how we treat computers differently from other library resources.

4. Many libraries also completely ban cell phone use in the library. The trouble is, it's the behavior of the cell phone user, the not cell phone itself that's the problem. I was once told to leave a library with my cell phone because I was using it. I had left it on vibrate and was whispering into the phone. Trouble is, I was having trouble hearing the person on the other end due to the gaggle of young girls "doing their homework" and a table ten feet away from me. I was asked to stop what I was doing yet they were not despite the fact that they were causing more of a disturbance than I was.

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