Internet Filters in Indiana Public Libraries

Internet Filters in Indiana Public Libraries
Comer, A. (2005). Studying Indiana public libraries’ usage of internet filters. Computers in Libraries, 25(6), 10-15.

For the purposes of this study the author sent a survey via snail-mail to all 434 public libraries in fall of 2003 (a copy of the survey questions is not included.) The return rate for this survey was 33% – 144 libraries returned a completed copy of the survey. Of these libraries, 95 of them reported having filtering software in place, however of the remaining public libraries said that they were planning on installing filtering software, and 4 public libraries did not respond to the question. It should be noted that CIPA (the Children’s Internet Protection Act) requiring filtering software for some kinds of federal funding went into effect in July 2004. Of the libraries that responded, 26 libraries said that they had installed filtering software as a direct result of CIPA, and 14 responded “not yet” implying that they were in the process of doing so. Considering the differential between the 95 libraries that had filtering software in place at the time of the survey and the 26 that said they began using filtering software because of CIPA, one has to wonder what the impetus for filtering was for the other 69 public libraries that responded.

Of the libraries that reported having filtering software installed 46 libraries reported that they had no problems (I wonder how that was worded in the survey?) and 51 reported problems such as patrons not finding needed information, over-blocking (content that should not be blocked was), and under-blocking (12 libraries reported that patrons were still able to access pornographic sites, and blocking of personal names.

The libraries which had filtering in place stated that they would not offer internet access to the public if they could not have a filter in place, that they felt filtering reflected the needs of the community and staff, and that filtering was “common sense”. Some of the libraries which didn’t filter stated that there had been no push from the community for filtering internet access at the public library, and they also felt that filtering software didn’t work properly anyway. A very few libraries said that they didn’t need to filter because the public computer terminals were located within sight of the reference librarians, so users were visually monitored at all times. Some librarians felt that filtering was intrusive and limited access for no reason.

the study also found that there there other internet access restrictions placed on patron usage at the library

– 23 libraries do not permit making online purchases
– 109 restrict pornography (does not go into how)
– 7 restrict use of email
– 74 restrict use of chat
– 92 enforce time restrictions
– 4 libraries have restrictions other than one ones listed above

across the board restrictions in all of the above listed areas were the same or greater for minors.

librarians reported that some of the most problems came from patrons looking at pornography, chatting, downloading and installing software, and abusing time limits.

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My commentary:

When I was an undergraduate, going to the computer lab was a really big deal. While many students had a computer of some type, most didn’t. Even if you did have your own machine, you were working on a dial-up connection, later switched to a much better Ethernet connection about halfway through my degree program. Regardless, the point was that it was usually better and faster to simply go to a computer lab to do your work. During the peak work periods of the year, there would often be a line and people doing “real” work took priority – if you were “just” checking your email you could be asked by one of the lab monitors to relinquish your machine so that someone else could use it.

I find it interesting what actions and uses of computer mediated communication and simply computers in general become commonplace and officially deemed useful. Personally I’ve used email, chat, and IM for “official” purposes. I’ve held meetings and conducted research, turned in assignments and hashed out ideas for future publications all via mediums that are apparently restricted for use in many public libraries in Indiana. While one could say that these actions were required of me because I’m a student and that I’m a special case because I have computers available to me through the university to fulfill these needs, it is true that using forms of computer mediated communication on a machine with a decent connection to the internet provides a cheap, and reliable form of communication for those who use it. If your friend or relative lives far away and also has a public library that provides these kind of services you have a way of keeping in touch with them that doesn’t cost you anything. That’s an extremely valuable service.

In the article one librarian mentioned that library computers were to be used for informational purposes alone – no email, chat, downloading, etc. It’s interesting what we choose to regard as information. I think it’s an easy argument to make that talking to friends and family serves an informational need. Not to mention downloading…downloading what? PDFs? Word documents? Might those not serve an informational need?

When talking about issues surrounding the digital divide, everyone assumes that having a public library which provides patrons with internet access fulfills this need. This assumption rarely, if ever, takes into account the internet access policy of the library. Public libraries need to weigh this factor when they are establishing boundaries for patron’s usage of the internet. For many, it really is the only internet access they have and patrons uses of it are legitimate. If the library probhibits access to certain kinds of services and information online, for many patrons, this closes off patron’s access to material only available online completely.

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