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Comparison of public library internet access policies: St. Louis Public Library system and Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library.

Amy Pearson ( (ready to use)

Subject Areas
Information Science

Grade Levels

Unit Keywords
380, Fall2001, Activity4, internet access policy, intellectual freedom, public libraries

Rationale of the Unit
Considering the continuing debate over the ethics and practicality of limiting internet access in general or specifically to minors, as well as recent proposed and passed legislation in this area, libraries need to carefully consider their ethical and legal obligations in formulating their internet access policies. It is also important that librarians as a profession carefully examine these access policies to see if they are consistent with the mission of public libraries.

  INVESTIGATE Go to Topgo to top
Background and Resources
Guidelines and Considerations for Developing a Public Library Internet Use Policy:

This ALA publication, developed largely to address the conflict between the public library's ideal of free information access and laws meant to protect minors or impose other limits on internet access, concludes that libraries cannot justify using filtering software, but suggests ways libraries can protect themselves legally from the repercussions of children finding sites that are considered objectionable by current legislation.

Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library Internet Access Policy & Guidelines for Use of Library Workstations:

St. Louis Public Library Public Internet Use Policy -

Additionally, I browsed some of the ALA website's material on intellectual freedom issues, and viewed many public libraries' internet access policies. Although I did not make direct enough use of the ideas from these websites to justify citing them, they may have influenced the ideas I formulated on the subject.

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Activities and Open-ended problems
The ALA's Guidelines and Considerations for Developing a Public Library Internet Use Policy describes the issues a public library must consider in designing an internet access policy. Any public library, in formulating an internet access policy, must find a way to strike some sort of balance between its responsibilities to serve the public's information needs, and its obligations under the law to restrict access to certain types of web resources to certain users.

For instance, child pornography and obscenity are not constitutionally protected forms of expression, and if a library patron accesses such a website from the public library's terminal, the library may be held partially accountable. Additionally, laws have been passed attempting to restrict minors' access to sites that are "harmful" to them. It is illegal in locations with these laws to provide minors with certain kinds of material, usually sexually explicit material. If a minor accesses a type of material that is restricted while using the internet in a public library, depending on the state and municipality it is possible that the library might be held liable.

St. Louis Public Library and Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library both provide internet access to patrons, but they have chosen slightly different ways to deal with legal issues.

Cleveland Heights has a fairly open policy. "The library has a policy of open access to all parts of its collections, including access to the Internet, and usage is not restricted by age," states its policy. The library protects itself by stating that supervising children is the responsibility of parents, guardians, or other caregivers. The policy goes on to add that the library's workstations may not be used for "unauthorized, illegal or unethical purposes" as defined by Ohio law. The Cleveland Heights policy goes on to add that not all sources on the internet provide current and accurate information, and that the library cannot be held responsible for the veracity of information on the internet or for any material that the user may find personally offensive or consider inappropriate for children. The library offers a list of acceptable sites for children, but adding that the library cannot be held responsible for the content of external links.

Cleveland Heights also has special workstations available in the children's room that have filtering software. A disclaimer adds that the software is not perfect, filtering out some acceptable sites and not filtering out some unacceptable sites.

St. Louis Public Library also has an open access policy. Library staff will assist users of all ages in using the internet, but "users are responsible for the access points they reach" and "the Library cannot censor access to material." Under Missouri law, a minor's parents are responsible for their child's use of Library resources; in other words, the Library cannot be held accountable for what sites children view while on the premises. That is the responsibility of the parents.

St. Louis Public Library, unlike the Cleveland Heights system, does not provide any terminals with filtering software. The policy just states that the Library cannot be held accountable for inaccurate, offensive, or illegal sites on the web that patrons may find while using the terminal. Also, users must comply with the appropriate use policy of the Library's internet service provider. No further explanation or link is provided. Presumably this would include activities similar to the use for "unauthorized, illegal or unethical purposes" at Cleveland Heights.

These were very similar to about ten other public libraries' internet access policies I looked at. Generally, libraries seem to have handled the potential conflict between their duty to uphold the First Amendment and their need to adhere to current or future statutes regarding online material that is "harmful to minors" by adopting disclaimers which say that users, not the library, are responsible for what they or their children view on the internet. The major difference I found between policies was that some library systems offer terminals with filtering software, for people who would prefer that their children use the internet in such a protected environment. None of the libraries whose policies I viewed refused adult patrons the right to access the internet without filtering software.

Although the policies offer users a great deal of freedom in terms of the type of information they can access, they make sure to point out that certain types of internet use are illegal, or that they are inappropriate for use in a public setting, where children could potentially see what the patron is accessing. In such a circumstance the library can deny the patron continued access to the internet.

I do wonder, though, if these policies' disclaimers would really be enough to protect the library from litigation if a patron decided to file a lawsuit. If a state's law says that parents are responsible for the materials accessed by their children in public libraries, like in Missouri law, then the library is probably sheltered from legal action. However, according to the ALA's Guidelines, this is not true of all states' laws. I could not find information on which states do hold libraries responsible for material viewed by children while on the premises; presumably this would affect the internet access policies of libraries in such states.

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Dialogues, Discussions, and Presentations
I talked with Natalie about some of the problems with filtering software. If software tries to filter things out by finding certain key words, it may filter out unobjectionable sites (even completely ignoring the issue of who decides what is "objectionable"). For instance, Natalie mentioned that a filtering program that blocks sites containing the word "breast" would prevent people from viewing sites that mention breast cancer, chicken breast, Robin Red Breast, breast pocket, or the quote "Hope springs eternal within the human breast." It occurred to me, thinking about Natalie's comment, that such software would also block sites with accidental misspellings: "breast" instead of "beast." Furthermore, someone aware of this software could create a site with "objectionable" pictures but nothing in the text that would alert the filtering program.

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Assessment, Related Questions, and Story of the Unit
I don't think that a definite solution will ever be found. The idea of what is "objectionable" and what is "acceptable," both in general and specifically for children, changes over time and varies from community to community and from person to person. A public library must not lose sight of either its obligations to protect constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, or its responsibilities to uphold federal, state, and local laws. If the two obligations conflict, then that is for the courts to decide, not the individual libraries (although the ALA might decide to step into a legal battle over the constitutionality of a law).

This one went a little better than the earlier ones, because the guidelines were a lot clearer. It was very helpful to know that I needed to write a 750-1000 word essay. Mine was 876 words.

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