Staff Report on Internet Access at Burlington Public Library
February 17, 1998


At the January 1998 Board meeting we heard from three members of the community about Burlington Public Library's Internet service. Two fathers, Mr. Auger and Mr. MacIntosh expressed concerns about their children being inadvertently exposed to inappropriate materials left on library computer screens. The third speaker, Dr. Jones urged us to protect an individual's right to privacy and freedom of expression.

Subsequent to the Board meeting, staff had further opportunities to discuss these concerns with each of the delegations. While there may be differences in the concerns expressed by these three library users, there is also some common ground. There is general agreement that the Internet is a valuable resource to people of all ages and the public library has a role in delivering this service.

Staff believe the concerns brought to the Board's attention can be addressed. It is the purpose of this report to explain how we will accomplish this.

Snapshot of Our Internet Service

Through our partnership in Halinet, a wide area network in Halton which links public libraries, school boards, and municipal and regional governments, Burlington Public Library has been able to offer Internet access to library visitors since September 1996. Throughout the system there are currently 20 public terminals providing over a quarter of a million hours of Internet access per year. For many library users their only means of accessing the Internet is via the public library. While there has been some misuse, overall the community has respected the Library's guidelines regarding Internet use.

As more and more resources, particularly reference and government documents, are published solely in electronic form, the value of the Internet and the Library's dependence on the Internet in the provision of information services increase. At the same time, schools and government agencies are developing resources and curriculum for students which depend on their ability to access Internet resources outside of the classroom. Businesses are finding Internet access is critical for them to remain competitive. Through its Network 2000 project the provincial government has recognized the critical role public libraries must play in ensuring citizens of all ages have access to the information super highway.

Measures Taken Prior to 1998

The concerns brought to the Board's attention in January are not new ones. Even before offering Internet access, staff had been grappling with these issues. For although it provides a wealth of information, staff recognized that the Internet also contains materials that would be viewed as inappropriate by some library users. Any measures we adopted to address this issue had to take into account the library's commitment to intellectual freedom.

Library staff took responsibility for outlining appropriate behaviour and use of the Internet, educating library users about the Internet and facilitating access to appropriate sites. Specific measures taken prior to 1998 include:

New Measures Explored

With any service the Library offers there is always room for improvement. Since the January 1998 Board meeting, staff have conducted a thorough review of our Internet service. With input from staff, colleagues in other libraries and the three delegations who spoke to the Board last month we have identified some suggestions that are workable and others which are not.

As long as the Library continues to offer Internet access, and it is staff's strong recommendation that we do so, we cannot totally eliminate the risk of exposing someone to materials he or she may find offensive. We can, however, take additional measures to reduce this risk.

The overwhelming majority of our Internet users do not abuse the service. Any measures we implement must recognize this. Our actions must be directed at the few individuals who cause the problem, rather than at the whole library community.

Internet Use Guidelines

We need to acknowledge that this is primarily a behavioural problem. Our most effective response is to continue to provide clear Internet use guidelines and ensure that they are both understood and enforced.

By the end of March clearer signage will be prepared to ensure the public is aware of our Internet guidelines and the consequences for misusing the service. When new library users register, every effort will be made to bring their attention to our Internet guidelines.

To assist staff in doing their job, written guidelines will be prepared within the next month outlining steps to be taken when the service is misused. These guidelines will be consistent with the manner in which we deal with other cases of misconduct in library facilities. Consequences will progress from a verbal warning to eviction from the library.

It was suggested at the last Board meeting that we consider adopting a zero tolerance policy. Due to the complex nature of the Internet, some library users inadvertently access offensive materials and should not be penalized for this. Staff feel users should be given the opportunity to modify their behaviour and will first issue a warning and reminder of our Internet guidelines.

Location of Public Computers and Increased Privacy

While an effective measure, strictly enforcing our guidelines will not eliminate the problem. By reviewing the location of each of our public computers and the use of devices such as privacy screens, it may be possible to further reduce users being inadvertently exposed to materials they find offensive. A staff task force will address these issues and make recommendations to the Management Committee by the end of April. Their role will include reviewing suggestions made by Mr. Auger and Mr. MacIntosh in a recent meeting and other comments we have heard from the public.

In considering this solution staff must balance a number of factors: the individual's right to privacy, the risk of vandalism, staff sightlines, budget impact and the needs of the physically disabled.

The task force's activities will start with two pilot projects, each involving the public. The first of these comes out of our recent meeting with Mr. Auger and Mr. MacIntosh. Recognizing that it is in a high traffic area, Internet access will be removed from the computer on the information desk closest to the children's area at Tansley Woods Branch. The Internet access now provided at the information desk will be moved to a computer which provides more privacy but can be monitored by staff. Tansley Woods' staff will evaluate this on a two month trial basis to determine if it is a workable solution. This will not reduce the number of Internet workstations at Tansley Woods, it simply relocates them. In order to provide equitable access to the disabled, one of the public computers at the information desk will continue to offer the Internet.

The second project will test the use of privacy screens on two public computers, one in Adult Services at Central Library and one at the Tansley Woods Branch. The two screens will cost approximately $400. A privacy screen covers the monitor so that only the person directly in front of the screen can view its content. From the sides a dark screen is visible. During March and April we will test these screens and gather public and staff input. If the input is positive we will equip some of the public terminals with these screens, thereby providing users with a choice. Given that these screens restrict group work, for example a parent and child working together, it will not be feasible to install privacy screens at all public computers.

At the January Board meeting it was proposed that we locate Internet workstations in separate rooms. While we understand the concerns that led to this suggestion, due to space and staffing limitations it is not feasible to implement. An unsupervised room would likely result in increased misuse of the service and vandalism and limit staff's ability to provide adequate user instruction.

Signage

As indicated above, signage will be improved to ensure users are aware of our Internet guidelines. In addition, signs will instruct Internet users to return to the library homepage before leaving the computer, as a courtesy to the next user. Based on experience to date, we expect the majority of library users will cooperate. Through user education we have been successful in getting users who access their patron information in B.I.R.O.N. to exit to the main menu.

Filtering

For several years library staff have monitored developments in filtering technology. We will continue to do so, just as we monitor developments in all aspects of library service. While well intentioned, currently filters have some drawbacks. They block a lot of valuable information, create a false sense of security and are easily circumvented. Many of our public terminals are multi-use machines providing access not only to the Internet, but also to B.I.R.O.N. Some filtering software would restrict access to all these resources. At this time staff feel filtering would not resolve the concerns brought to the attention of the Board. We will, however, continue to watch developments in this area.

Restricting Access by Age or by Patron Card

Library users of all ages have the right to information. An increasing amount of information that library users need to do their school work, conduct business or meet their lifelong learning needs is available only through the Internet.

For many children the public library is their sole means of accessing the Internet. While it is important to take steps to reduce their exposure to inappropriate materials, we must also continue to foster children's use of the Internet.

The Library has an important role to play with teens and acknowledges the need to focus more on this age group. As with younger children, we need to communicate acceptable use policies to teens, but at the same time must help them develop the Internet skills that they will need in the future.

It has been suggested that as a means of control only registered users be given access to our Internet service. With the current systems we have no means of allowing users to logon and off themselves. The staff intervention required to logon each Internet user cannot be accommodated with current staffing levels. More importantly, it would not eliminate the problem of some users deliberately accessing sites which others may find offensive. Some of the other measures proposed in this report would be a more effective use of staff time and are more likely to reduce the problem.

User Education and Tools to Guide Internet Users

While it does not specifically address the concerns brought to the Board's attention in January, one role the Library must continue to play is to provide user education about the Internet. In addition to the tutorials and brochures currently provided to our users, the Library will be offering workshops about safety on the Internet. By focusing on educating users about the Internet they will be better equipped to make their own choices, to appreciate the benefits and risks of the Internet and will understand our guidelines better.

In addition to training, we will help users navigate the Internet by continuing to develop and promote lists of recommended sites both in print and on our homepage.

Timeout Software

In order to further reduce the problems, systems staff have researched the possibility of having screens return to a default homepage after a period of inactivity. Except within web pages created by the Library, we have been unable to find a technical solution to achieve this. The other difficulty with timeouts is determining an appropriate period of inactivity. Lengthy periods of inactivity occur when users are reading the screen, taking notes and getting help from a staff member. This is another area where library staff will continue to monitor developments.

Summary of Measures to Be Implemented

In summary, Library staff will be taking the following action:

Action
Deadline
Raise awareness of our Internet guidelines and consequences for misuse:
  - Improve signage at public computers March 31
  - Provide guidelines to new library users Ongoing
Write staff guidelines to help staff enforce our Internet guidelines March 31
Post signs encouraging Internet users to return to the library homepage March 31
Conduct two month pilot projects with the public:
  - Relocate Internet access from one of the public terminals on the information desk at Tansley Woods and collect public input April 30
  - Test privacy screens at Central Library and Tansley Woods' and collect public input April 30
Make recommendations re: location of public computers and use of devices such as privacy screens at all library locations May 15
Continue to monitor developments in filtering technology Ongoing
Offer workshops about safety on the Internet Ongoing
Continue to focus on user education by offering tutorials, brochures, and user guides in print and on our homepage Ongoing
Monitor developments in timeout software Ongoing
Monitor developments in Internet technology to identify ways to improve our service Ongoing

Conclusion

Undeniably there is material on the Internet that some users may find offensive. Other than eliminating Internet access at the Library which would be a disservice to the Burlington community, there is no means to completely eliminate the risk of being exposed to such material. However, in partnership with library users, we feel there are ways to reduce this risk. Recent discussions with Mr. Auger, Mr. MacIntosh, and Dr. Jones, as well as library staff and colleagues from neighbouring libraries have already yielded positive results. We thank all of these individuals and groups for sharing both their concerns and their solutions.


EFC - PR