Molding Effective Internet Policies by Cynthia K. Richey. Computers in Libraries 22 no6 16-21 June 2002.

children and the internet: policies that work

Reprinted with Permission. Also available at http://www.infotoday.com/cilmag/jun02/richey.htm

The last century saw a remarkable transformation in public libraries, from Andrew Carnegie's buildings that would ensure the "education and improvement of the poorer classes" to the glorious modern facilities in which people across the socio-economic spectrum read books, listen to jazz, and surf the Net. Indeed, books, computers, classes, programs, children's story times and puppet shows, and new electronic formats make today's libraries indispensable. By far the most significant changes in public library service have come with the advent of computers and Internet access. Libraries are no longer restricted by their physical spaces as they connect people to the information, books, and other materials they seek. This is certainly true for the Mt. Lebanon Public Library, which is located about 6 miles south of Pittsburgh. We are the vital link between our citizens and the knowledgethey seek; we are the conduits of information delivery as we use our skills to navigate, organize, and clarify the incredible amount of information found on the World Wide Web.

When my library first acquired access to the Internet nearly 7 years ago, it revolutionized our reference service and opened a whole new world for our patrons. We had just moved into a renovated gas station that would serve as a temporary library for nearly 2 years while the existing library underwent a $4.2 million expansion and renovation. In our cramped quarters we had only one public computer with Internet access, next to the reference desk, and it was in constant use. That year the library board adopted a computer use and Internet access policy that contained only three points: The availability of the Internet was part of our mission to the public; we did not monitor and had no control over the content; and parents or legal guardians were responsible for their (minor) children's use. That was all—good statements, true, and fine for the temporary library with one public computer, but we realized we would need a stronger policy when we moved into the new building in June 1997. 

Our community had eagerly awaited the opening. We had publicized the wonderful features of the new facility, especially touting the fact that we would have 50 computers, nearly four-fifths of them for the public, and all with Internet access. Our library quickly became one of the busiest in the county; situated near several public transportation lines and in a relatively densely populated area of the county, we began serving patrons from communities well beyond our own of more than 33,000. We needed a policy that would address all the issues involved with computer use and Internet access, communicate effectively with the public, and protect the library. Thus began our work to craft an effective Internet policy. 

I had been a children's librarian for 25 years, and had served as head of children's services at Mt. Lebanon from 1986 until becoming director in September 1996, so I was involved with our Internet activity from the beginning. Moreover, I have chaired the Internet Access Committee for our county's Electronic Information Network (eiNetwork) since 1997 and have worked with library staff and trustees on various aspects of Internet use in public libraries. Mt. Lebanon's experience in managing Internet access by the public had relevance for other libraries as well. 

An important consideration in working on our Internet policy was our membership in the eiNetwork, a consortium of 70 public library locations in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Funded by the county and private foundations, the eiNetwork provides the shared online catalog, databases, and access to the Internet for the 70 library locations. It also provides hardware, software, and technical support and maintenance to member libraries. (And until this year, when a lease arrangement was established because of funding shortages, there was almost no cost to the libraries.) Libraries in our county include the large Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh with its 18 branches, and another 47 independent libraries ranging from large suburban to small rural facilities. We learned that other libraries in the eiNetwork needed Internet policies, too, so we formed the Internet Access Committee to explore all of the issues surrounding Internet policies and to help member libraries develop them. I will describe the process we've used over the last few years and some "extras" that we have found useful. 

As with many library activities, our committee's first step was to find out what others were doing, so we surveyed libraries in Pennsylvania and examined the policies of those in other states. We also scoured reference books and Web sites (see Further Reading) and attended every workshop on the subject that we could find. During this process we identified some essential elements that you should include when you're developing an Internet policy. What follows is the result of our work. You will need to adapt the content of your policy for your library's specific local needs and requirements. 

1. The Internet policy should be rooted in your library's mission statement. This is where you state your library's purpose in providing the Internet, the "why" of your policy. For example, we say that the "Internet enables the library to provide information beyond the confines of our own collection and allows access to ideas, information, and commentary from around the globe that can be personally, professionally, and culturally enriching." 

2. The policy should be developed with community participation and should specifically meet local needs. We discussed the good and the bad of the Internet with various civic, school, and community groups such as the PTA, League of Women Voters, Women's Clubs, Lions Clubs, and so forth. We used these opportunities to find out what members of the public expected in terms of access and control, and to promote the positive aspects of Internet access in public libraries. We also met with municipal officials to exchange ideas. We used all of this information as we drafted our policy. 

We found that after you have completed your research and you are ready to begin writing your policy, you will need to make sure that you address several key points. 

1. Disclaimers and warnings are an important component of the policy. We state in our policy that the content of the Internet is unregulated and that the library does not monitor and cannot control information accessed by patrons, including minors, through the Internet. We consider it important that patrons understand that the information accessed may contain material that is incorrect, inauthentic, unreliable, illegal, obscene, or sexually explicit. Even if a library offers filtering software on its computers, it cannot hold itself out as having made the Internet safe for patrons. 

2. Address restrictions on fraudulent or unlawful activities prohibited by any applicable federal, state, or local laws, including information that is obscene, child pornography, bestiality, and, depending on your state laws, harmful to minors. Use legal terms such as "obscene" and "indecent" rather than the broad and not legally defined "pornography." 

3. Have a specific children's use section, including a statement that the library does not act and that parents or legal guardians are responsible for their children's use of the Internet. Mention ways in which the library assists children and their parents in using the Internet. Address the issue of minors' access to explicit sexual material on the Internet, citing specific references to applicable law, and mentioning the approach your library takes regarding this issue (e.g., parental responsibility and control, installing filters on children's computers, or providing a "limited universe" such as restricted Web sites for children). 

4. Address the points necessary to comply with the Internet Safety Policy required by the Neighborhood Children's Internet Protection Act (NCIPA) by adopting and implementing "a policy that addresses access by minors to inappropriate matter ...; the safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms, and other forms of direct electronic communications; unauthorized access, including so-called 'hacking,' and other unlawful activities ...; unauthorized disclosure ... of personal identification information regarding minors; and measures designed to restrict minors' access to materials harmful to minors." Look at your mission statement to determine what you want your library to do in these areas. Involve parents in discussions and information sessions, perhaps forming a focus group to work with the library. By adding these points to the existing Internet policy, a library will also comply with this particular NCIPA requirement. 

5. Reserve the right for the library to control use of the computers and Internet access, for example, ending an Internet session, designating computers for a specific purpose, setting time limits, or requiring registration. 

6. Include acceptable use applications, such as using Internet workstations in a responsible manner, respecting the rights of other users, not damaging computer equipment or software, and not invading the privacy of others or engaging in any activity that is harassing or defamatory. 

7. State the consequences of violation of the policies and regulations that govern the use of your library's Internet resources. These may be the suspension or loss of use privileges or prosecution by the appropriate authorities. 

8. Finally, include a statement that the library board will review the policy annually to ensure that it remains vigorous and continues to support your mission and meet community needs. 

We have found that following these steps and including these key points in our policy helps us to effectively communicate with patrons about our library's Internet access, skillfully manage that access for patrons of all ages, remain organized, and adapt to change more easily. 

Prominently post your policy at each public computer and post it on several areas of your Web site. Make sure it's on the children's and parents' sections as well. We put the text for our link in red so people cannot miss it. In addition, make sure your staff is familiar with the policy and its role in enforcing it. We've found the latter to be a perennial challenge as staff has little time for enforcement and the difference between what is acceptable use to one staff member and unacceptable use to another is a serious one. One way we've tried to meet this challenge is through staff workshops and training. 

The content of our workshops and training includes several components: 

* issues related to Internet access in a public library, such as the benefits of the Internet, principles of intellectual freedom, legal issues, and filtering practices and rationale (if relevant) 

* practical tips for promoting positive Internet use

* the importance of maintaining a good customer service presence in areas where public computers are in use 

* how to treat behavior problems 

We also discuss the public's perception of Internet access vis-a-vis the library's experience with it. We have had some lively staff discussions over these issues.

It's important, too, to develop procedures for staff to notify supervisors about problems. We also developed simple scripts for staff to use with patrons: 

"This seems to be a good time to remind you about our Internet Access Policy. [Show patron policy posted at computer or on Web page.] You can read it over and I'll be back in a couple of minutes to see if you have any questions." 

From the feedback we've received, employees have found our workshops and training sessions to be of considerable value. Internet policies and practices are placed in context and staff members have the opportunity to discuss their experiences, both the pleasures and the frustrations, and to learn managing techniques from others who are facing the same challenges. 

We also ask staff members to explain our policy whenever they provide informal computer assistance to patrons, as well as when they conduct classes for adults and/or children on computer use and the Internet. These actions are effective in educating the public about our policy and providing staff with an opportunity to answer questions and correct any misconceptions quickly. We are much less likely to be held legally liable for patrons' behaviors if we can prove that we have made a good effort to inform the public about the Internet and the library's Internet policy. Although the issue is fraught with difficulty, we have found that a strong Internet policy protects us. 

To help other libraries, we have conducted workshops for local library board members and library directors on developing Internet policies, gathering community opinion, and interpreting policies for the public. We have also created classes about computer use and the Internet for library staff to conduct for adults, children, and parents with children. These classes promote positive Internet experiences and give parents the tools they need to help their children become responsible Internet users. We plan to add classes and workshops on "techno-ethics," too, addressing such Internet topics as copyright, intellectual property, researching on the Internet, attribution, and avoiding plagiarism. 

Patrons who have participated in our public workshops and classes have responded enthusiastically. Parents are grateful for the guidance we've given them and tell us that they follow up at home. In some cases, however, attendance has been disappointing, sometimes with only a handful of people actually showing up, whereas scores have expressed interest in Internet education, asking us how the library can help. The dichotomy between what patrons talk about wanting to do with their children and what they actually do with them is significant. It seems as though many parents abrogate their responsibility for educating their children about the Internet and, instead, expect the library to do it all. We've found this to be true in other libraries across the country as well. Still, we press on, trying to reach as many people as we possibly can. 

So much has changed since we first developed our policy back in 1997. We have added 25 more computers with Internet access; the Internet itself has exploded into a staggering volume of global information; state legislation has been enacted that has had a direct effect on our Internet policy; and the public has grown more sophisticated in its expectations for this kind of library service. Add to that more pending legislation on the state level and, of course, CIPA, and we are reminded that our Internet policy has never been, and can never be, a final work; it is, rather, a perennial work-in-progress. But having carefully crafted an effective Internet policy in the first place has enabled us to reshape it as necessary with relative ease.

Further Reading

American Library Association's Children's Internet Protection Act Web Site. http://www.ala.org/cipa

The American Library Trustee Association (ALTA),the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), and the Public Library Association (PLA), divisions of the American Library Association. Chicago: American Library Association, 1998. 

Second edition. Allen C. Benson and Linda Fodemski. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1999.

"Guidelines and Considerations for Developing a Public Library Internet Use Policy." The Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association. Issued 1998, revised November 2000.

Libraries & the Internet Toolkit: tips and guidance for managing and communicating about the Internet. Chicago: American Library Association, 2001.   

Office for Intellectual Freedom home page. American Library Association. Contains many sites on intellectual freedom, filtering, Internet use, policies, privacy and confidentiality, etc. Also contains the Library Bill of Rights and its Interpretations. http://www.ala.org/oif.html


Cynthia K. Richey is director of the Mt. Lebanon Public Library in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She holds a B.A. in English and an M.L.S. from the University of Pittsburgh. She has chaired the Internet Access Committee for Allegheny County's Electronic Information Network since 1997. Her e-mail address is richeyc@einetwork.net

 

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