Creating an Internet Policy by Civic Engagement: Bringing the Community into the Process Promotes Understanding by John Alita. American Libraries, Dec 2001 v32 i11 p48.

children and the internet: policies that work

Reprinted with permission.

In April 1999, our library director, Yvonne Chen, approached Electronic Services Supervisor Scott Bauer about reviewing the Redwood City (Calif.) Public Library's Internet policy. Prompted by guidelines from the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science report Kids and the Internet: The Promise and the Perils (AL, Apr. 1999, P. 12), Chen felt it was a good time to review and perhaps revise the policy, which the library board had adopted in 1995.

The library was also receiving an increasing number of calls from members of the public who had legitimate questions about its position regarding children and Internet use. As the media demonstrates on a regular basis, the justifiable concerns that a community has about open Internet access can easily become a lightning rod for all sorts of problems. We felt that not only could those problems be avoided by involving citizens in our policy-review process, but that this approach could in fact further strengthen our relationship with them.

Perhaps we would have come up with an identical policy, or one that works equally as well, on our own; but it was in the dialogue that took place with stakeholders in our community that we really came to an understanding of what we needed to do to both honor our users' right to access to information and to protect others, especially children, from some very real dangers.

We had several reasons to review a policy that was written less than five years ago. The first was simply a matter of the evolution of the Internet. The increase in the amount of information and the deeper penetration of Internet access in public libraries make policies a moving target. The second is that most current policies take a formulaic approach, usually incorporating two points in the form of disclaimers: 1) The library cannot act in loco parentis; and 2) the parents, not the library, are responsible for their children's use of the Internet. "While these may be necessary and important elements to include," Bauer explains, "they also tend to highlight the more negative aspects of the Internet and do not make the library appear very willing to work with the community. If the library is not going to act in loco parentis then we should provide tools to help parents do their job."

"I have a basic discomfort with the way some librarians use the term 'not in loco parentis."' adds Chen. "Of course I agree in theory, but in the working-world reality of today's community, we need to make sure we're not using that as a convenient way to get off the hook. I believe, especially in a smaller community, that everyone--teachers, librarians, cops--should all collectively be taking care of our children."

To develop the new policy, Bauer formed a committee that included as many potential stakeholders as possible. The group consisted of a branch librarian; a children's librarian; a school library media specialist; a young adult librarian; and the managers of youth services, information services, and collection development. In addition, the president of the local clergy association and the president of a local PTA were asked by the director to serve on the committee.

From the outset, there was some understandable apprehension on the part of all the committee members. How would the community members feel about filtering? Would they make demands of the staff to adopt it? On the other hand, would the librarians blindly go by the letter of the law to champion open access without considering the protection of children? Would they use the First Amendment as a way of avoiding an honest investigation of all the options, particularly filtering?

While there was quite a bit of uncertainty in the beginning, the participants also shared a common concern for the welfare of our community, especially its children. And although each of us had perhaps a different notion of how best to contribute to that welfare, we could at least agree on our mutual concern as a starting point. As Patricia Wright, the local PTA president, said, "Everyone cared. Points of view are very important and if not properly articulated and considered, things aren't going to move forward. Everyone has a story to tell, and people have to feel like they've been heard."

From the community's perspective, the Internet changes the playing field with regard to the library. "Everything is out there, good and bad," Wright explained, "and it is unfiltered, unlike other material in the library, which has gone through several kinds of filtering: A publisher put it through an editorial process and published it, librarians felt it was worth adding to the collection, etc. Since other information coming into the library passes through these various filters, why treat the Internet differently?"

While there was agreement on this view of the Internet, some committee members voiced concern about filters as the solution. "I'm worried that filters create a false sense of security with the public," said Chuck Ashton, the library's director of youth services. "On the one hand, we as librarians worry that potentially helpful sites will be blocked; but on the other hand, I'm also concerned that we're putting our trust in a piece of software that may not even block out the sites that we think it will."

We needed a policy that was easy to implement, consistent with other library policies, easily explainable, and not overly burdensome to administer. There were also legal issues that required a clear understanding of the First Amendment, obscenity law, and the status of the library as a public institution.

To make matters even more challenging, into this mix were thrown some discrepancies in library policy. When Internet access began, the library had instituted a policy requiring parental permission for minors 14 and under. However, the core values of the library state that a person's right to use the library will not be "denied or abridged" because of a number of factors, including age. Bauer did point out that the 1995 policy had been approved under the same circumstances as we face today. "I think it is likely that the

board was aware of those contradictions, and was willing to live with them," said Bauer. "It could be argued that the board recognizes that there are aspects of the Internet that make it a different animal than other aspects of the library."

As Bauer eloquently reminded us in the minutes from one of our meetings, "One of the library's core values is that no person's right to use the library will be denied because of origin, age, background, or views. Another is that the library is driven by community needs. The process we are going through in crafting this Internet policy is an attempt to balance these two values."

Yearlong process

The process of revising our policy took about one year. Although that may seem quite lengthy, it was not an exaggerated time frame given the importance of the issue and everyone's desire to have a consensus. In retrospect, however, we realized that there were definitely some areas where we could have improved both the process and shortened the time it took for us to arrive at our final policy. The following guidelines may serve to help other libraries undertaking a similar process:

* Involve an attorney early in the process. Many of our early discussions would have been helped simply by having a clearer understanding of the legal parameters surrounding the First Amendment, the library's legal status as a public institution, and the potential liability in relation to a written Internet policy. If your city has an attorney on staff, invite him or her to sit on the committee after the community representatives have been selected; if not, find one.

* Choose a representative group. Our committee had only two members of the community, and it would probably have been better to have it more equally balanced with librarians and a more representative cross section of our citizen demographic. As our PTA representative said, "I felt a burden being only one of two people representing the community." It may be useful to create focus groups or ask enough regular library users (preferably some with children) that you have an even distribution of staff and community.

* Provide community members with background information on the Internet, libraries, and the law-and likewise for the staff involved. Both of our community representatives felt that some background information on the issues would have helped them to represent the community more effectively. And as librarians, especially in the age of the Internet, we should educate ourselves completely about the law and its application in our professional capacities.

* Get comfortable with ambiguity. It is likely that you will encounter contradictions or develop a policy that is open to different interpretations. Don't try to make a rule for every contingency. Instead, plan out possible scenarios and decide how the library should respond if those situations should arise.

* Know your community. If you aren't aware of current issues facing the community or are unacquainted with your city council and local politics, it behooves you to study up on what is happening. Even if the issues seem unrelated to your policy work, they will go a long way in familiarizing you with the prevailing social climate.

* Keep yourself open to exploring all scenarios. An option is just that. Discussing filtering doesn't mean you have to choose it. If your community is interested, you owe it to them (and to yourselves) to investigate all of the possibilities. Besides, you can't have true dialogue if you have already made up your mind. Dennis Logie, our representative from the faith community, didn't always agree with decisions but he commented favorably on our process. "I never got the sense that people weren't listening," he said.

* Don't rush the process. Don't forget that the real value in involving the community is the chance to hear face-to-face the thoughts and concerns of your customers. These issues are difficult and contentious; if you don't make room for all viewpoints and allow time for ample discussion, it will show up in your final product.

Letting parents choose

Our final policy (which went into effect October 29) came as close as we felt possible to balancing the library's values. The choice to filter or not would rest not in the hands of the library staff but where it was most appropriate: with the parents and citizens of our community. We felt we would be able to use commercial software packages to set up a system whereby patrons could choose filtered or unfiltered access for themselves and their children; the type of access could be tied to a library card number used as a login identification. Anyone age 14 and under would need parental permission to use the Internet, and the permission forms would come with a choice of filtered or unfiltered access to be determined by the parents. The forms would also offer an explanation of the choices and the filtering product so that parents could make an informed decision.

I can't say that in the end there was unanimous agreement about our final policy, nor is it by any means a blueprint for all libraries. The approach we arrived at relies heavily on technology, much of which is still in the testing phase. Logie also still feels that the age limit should be set at a higher age than 14. And while he says the policy is definitely an improvement, he adds, "I still feel that it isn't specific enough and uses too much legalese to avoid the library's accountability to the community."

What did emerge from this experience, Logie said, was a clearer understanding of his feelings about the relationship between the American Library Association, the church, and our library in particular. And although our differences still remain, we were able to have an enlightening dialogue about the role our particular institutions play within the community, which is a step closer than we were before. And in the final analysis, isn't it these kinds of conversations that provide the most significant ingredient in our ability to serve our community while still guaranteeing their fundamental rights?


John Alita is information services supervisor at Redwood City (Calif.) Public Library.

Related Article: To smooth out the policymaking process:

* Involve an attorney.
* Choose a representative group.
* Provide background information on the Internet, libraries, and the law.
* Know your community.

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