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Magazines > Searcher > October 2003
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Vol. 11 No. 9 — October 2003
How Librarians Can Manage the Unintended Consequences of the Internet
By Marylaine Block

Up To Our Ears in Lawyers

The unrestrained freedom of the Net has caused conservative
organizations and staid, sober lawmakers to view libraries as pornography parlors and librarians as corrupters of youth. As a result, librarians have borne the brunt of an astonishing amount of ill-advised and
unconstitutional legislation in the past few years:

•The Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 (ruled unconstitutional), the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), and the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 1993 (unfortunately ruled constitutional in June 2003), which all require libraries to use a mechanical solution for the pornography issue with library filtering.

• Traditional fair use and first sale rights have been impinged on by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act

• The Uniform Computer Information Transaction Act (UCITA) even threatened our right to know what terms and conditions shrink-wrap contracts for software implicitly impose when we open the box until an organized campaign by librarians and other affected parties derailed the uniform legislation in August 2003.

Librarians have responded by doing what they do best: gathering information. Karen Schneider's Internet Filters Assessment Project demonstrated convincingly the flaws in the mechanical systems. Leigh Estabrook conducted a survey to find out how libraries manage Internet access. GODORT's Legislation Committee maintains a Web site to track emerging legislation. The American Library Association is now gathering information again, soliciting information from filter vendors. Library directors are evaluating the option of doing without the e-rate rather than remaining bound by the court decision.

Librarians have also created acceptable use policies that address legitimate concerns about Internet content without unduly stifling free access to information. They've created manuals for citizens and parents explaining how to protect children as they explore the Internet, created spectacularly good Web sites for children that link to trustworthy sites, and offered training sessions for children and adults alike. Mary Minow, both a lawyer and a librarian, has provided outstanding analysis of these issues in articles and on her Library Law Web site.

Librarians have testified before Congress about the consequences of proposed legislation for libraries and free information, and they have gone to court — and gone to court — and gone to court. The last few years have been like a veritable full-employment bill for ALA's Washington Office.

Editor's Note: Sites, projects, and articles mentioned below are further referenced in the "Resources" sidebar below.

The Luddites got a raw deal all around; not only did they lose their livelihoods to the machines, but they became the symbol of mindless resistance to technologies that were clearly a "Good Thing." In fact, they were absolutely correct in thinking that the machines would change everything, from prices and quality of products to traditional ways of organizing human labor. What they lacked was a strategy for survival.

The Internet has unquestionably been a "Good Thing" for libraries, allowing them to offer a collection of news and documents and art and music no single library could ever have afforded. It has allowed librarians to deliver magazines, newspapers, books, catalogs, and even virtual reference, 24/7/365. Yet I still notice that virtually all the difficulties librarians have experienced in the last few years were unintended consequences of this Good Thing.

Unlike the Luddites, though, librarians do have strategies for survival, so I explored the Web and the library literature to gather their most imaginative solutions and present them in a forthcoming book, Net Effects: How Librarians Can Manage the Unintended Consequences of the Internet (Information Today, Inc., September 2003).

The Challenge to Our Right to Select

Once the Internet comes in the doors, librarians can no longer control all the content in their libraries, because the Internet is a neutral delivery system, where Barbie dolls, Klaus [the Nazi war criminal] Barbie dolls, and animations of Barbie and Ken doing naughty things are equally available. If librarians install filters, by choice or by law, to screen out deplorable stuff, they turn over the selection of content to an outside vendor that refuses to explain what is screened out and why. As for magazines and newspapers in databases, vendors select those, not librarians, and the vendors, or their suppliers, may alter those selections without prior notice.

Many librarians have dealt with the mixed quality of Internet information by creating their own directories of trustworthy sites. The best of these, like the Librarians Index to the Internet and the Internet Public Library, filled a clear need and are now used worldwide. (This author also became an accidental Internet "guru" by creating one of the early librarians' Internet guides, Best Information on the Net, for her university.)

Librarians also created selection policies for Internet links, trying to treat Internet "acquisitions" like any other acquisitions and to defend against Webmasters who insisted on adding their sites to our directories.

However, the public is voting with its fingers, by large numbers choosing Google over even the best directories. That's why Karen Schneider, along with a team of other librarians who have created massive directories of quality Web sites, is working on a librarians' search engine, called Fiat Luxe.

One solution to the issue of vendors choosing titles for digitized journal collections and limiting coverage to the most recent 5-10 years' worth is a librarian-created project known as JSTOR. Here, journals are chosen by librarians; the entire backfile of each journal, some more than 100 years old, is available to subscribers, though current content has to be purchased separately.

Many other libraries have decided that since much important historical material is not available on the Net, they should put it there. Among the valuable library-created digital collections are the Perry-Castaneda Map Library at the University of Texas and the Making of America Project, sponsored by the libraries of the University of Michigan and Cornell University, which has digitized numerous 19th-century books and journals.

The Endangered Book

A second problem is the perceived threat to the book and reading, as people, especially teens, choose electronic forms of information, communication, and entertainment over books and print magazines and newspapers.

Librarians have responded to this in a variety of ways. The most well-known and widely imitated method is the One City, One Book program, begun by Nancy Pearl of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library. Morton Grove Public Library has created a MatchBook program, which allows users to create profiles of their reading interests and automatically alerts them to newly arrived books that match. Many librarians have used the Internet to offer book discussions, e-books (including PDA-accessible formats), and Chapter-a-Day services to remote users. Waterboro Public Library (Maine) offers great information for readers through its Web site, including the Waterboro Lib Blog, which daily links to book reviews, author interviews, book-related Web sites, discussion groups, and news of forthcoming books.

Librarians are also trying to improve the ease of access to books. They are working to make their online catalogs as inviting and informational as Amazon's, by incorporating tables of contents, book jackets, and even reviews into item records. The River Bend Library System in Illinois is a model of how to improve physical access to books, with its shared catalog of the holdings of all libraries in its Illinois/Iowa membership area, a library card that works in all member libraries, and a shuttle that delivers books and other library materials from one library to another.

And, as always, librarians continue to create readers, through story hours (both in the library and online), summer reading programs, ESL classes, and aggressive outreach to under-served members of the community through tailored collections and programming.

The Changing Expectations of Our Users

The Internet, PDAs, cell phones, and hand-held computers have changed people's information-seeking strategies and their expectations of service. Librarians have responded with a judicious combination of educating users while adapting to their expectations.

Training Our Users

Of course training people who think they are already good at searching for information, no matter how inadequate the results they get, is especially challenging, but librarians have come up with ways of meeting the challenge. They have done so by creating pathfinders and homework helpers that make it easy for students to find facts and background information for assignments. By organizing them, as the Multnomah County Library Homework Help pages do, into defined classes of information like Metasites, Pro, Con, Legislation, and Court Cases, the librarians teach a subtext about the structure of information. Librarians have also raised the stakes in the information hunt, working with instructors to assign topics students care about and want to learn more about.

Librarians have even co-opted Net-savvy students, using them to train other students to search the Net and library databases, and letting them help select appropriate Web sites for library Web pages. They've used wireless technologies to do library instruction in places where prospective library users congregate — senior centers, schools, and university classrooms.

Adapting to the Changing Expectations of Our Users

Many librarians today do what Jenny Levine, the "shifted librarian," has urged — they use people's preferred technologies and communication systems to deliver services to them wherever they are, whenever they want it. Hospital and corporate libraries have led the way in delivering databases and news services in PDA-compatible formats, so that doctors at the bedside and traveling executives can instantly look up information.

Virtual reference, using a chat system that allows Web pages to be "pushed" to the user, is another method that lets librarians deliver services where and when needed.

Librarians use e-mail and RSS feeds to deliver alerting services directly to users. Genie Tyburski's The Virtual Chase, which she created for her law firm, is a model of such services. The Web site contains well-organized guides to legal and reference information on the Net, and the TVC Alert distills and links important news each day about law, technology, and search systems.

Access Problems

The Internet has created new access problems for libraries. Libraries are solving the "digital divide" problem by offering training programs, both within the library and at community and senior centers, and by building partnerships with community groups that assist with funding, equipment, or qualified trainers. Mary Stillwell has described a number of such programs in her article, "Partnerships That Support Public Access Computing."

But computer and Web design also create serious accessibility problems for people with disabilities. Many libraries respond by building special workstations and incorporating accessibility standards into the design of their own Web sites; Cheryl Kirkpatrick and Catherine Buck Morgan are among those who have described in detail how they redesigned their libraries' workstations and Web pages to make them fully accessible.

The Techno-Economic Imperative

The expense of computers and Internet access has created a further problem for libraries, which constantly have to buy more and more technology, upgrade it, and hire systems people just to make it all work properly. One solution has librarians training their own techies. Librarian Rachel Singer Gordon has amplified an earlier article on this into a book that's a virtual instruction manual, The Accidental Systems Librarian. Librarian Eric Sisler has written articles and created a Web site to teach librarians how to install and maintain free LINUX operating systems and open-source software. The oss4lib [Open Source Systems for Libraries] Weblog offers articles and news about new systems and software.

Academic librarians have warned professors for years about the skyrocketing costs of journals and databases. Now they are collaborating with scholars in the rapidly developing movement for free online scholarship and institutional repositories of scholarship.

Continuous Retraining

The speed with which technologies, Web sites, and database interfaces and capabilities change has forced librarians into the position of running as fast as they can just to stay in the same place. Fortunately, librarians have come up with numerous ways of helping each other stay current, including spontaneously generating Weblogs, like LIS News, The Shifted Librarian, and Gary Price's Resource Shelf, new site announcement services, like the Eldorado County
Library's What's Hot on the Internet This Week, and listservs, like GovDocs-L and Fiction-L.

Some large libraries, like Multnomah County, have formal training programs that include every single library employee. Other libraries allocate set percentages of their budget for continuing education and conference attendance.

Disappearing Data

Librarians were among the first to recognize the fragility of electronic data. Web sites disappear at an astonishing rate. (A study at the University of Nebraska by John Markwell found that the life span for science education Web sites averaged just 55 months.) Electronic formats change so fast that information stored on old formats is effectively unretrievable. Electronic data may also be corrupted. Worst of all, it can be easily altered and/or removed — a clear threat to public access to government information now often only available via the Internet.

Librarians have responded to all these threats. The Librarians' Index to the Internet (LII), for example, has a model policy that requires all selectors of Web sites to monitor them for link rot. As a consequence, on any given day, less than six-tenths of one percent of LII's links are unreachable.

The Council on Library Information and Resources, the Digital Library Federation, and many other library organizations and individual libraries have created standards for digitized projects that specify monitoring data quality and migrating the data to new formats. Roy Tennant and many others have written about the need for libraries to create digital disaster plans to restore lost data. The Public Library Association and other organizations have published outlines and manuals on how to implement such plans.

ALA's Washington Office, the depository library council, and various library associations, have made Congress and the Government Printing Office (GPO) aware of the need for a preservation strategy for all electronic government information, and the GPO and National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) are taking on the challenge — though many prudent government documents librarians have begun backing up digital documents critical to their mission on their own.

Not Getting Blindsided Again

Librarians have also given thought to how librarians can avoid being blindsided again by new technologies. John Guscott, author and publisher of Library Futures Quarterly, has created a "Library Foresight System," a method for monitoring changes in technologies, lifestyles, demographics, and community needs, to make sure libraries will meet community needs by being ready for the next new "thing." And every year at the ALA Midwinter conference, a group of LITA leaders, experts in library and information technology, meet to decide and post online the top technology trends they believe librarians should watch.

Strategies Are Available

In short, for every problem that may confront a librarian as a result of our new technologies, other librarians have been there before and have come up with a dazzling variety of solutions.

Libraries have long styled themselves as the "information place." But in an age in which information has come to be regarded as free and omnipresent, people have begun to ask whether a physical library is even needed any longer, since "it's all on the Internet." Libraries have countered this argument in a number of ways, but the most interesting to me is emphasizing our value as an appealing public space. In the "2003 Movers and Shakers" issue of LJ, I wrote about Waynn Pearson, who directed the design of the new Cerritos library building as a vital public space, a learning environment that appeals to all the senses. [See the photo tour of the Cerritos Public Library at]

One especially nice feature about the Net is that increasingly books come with Web sites, which means that books are no longer one-shot deals that stop dead at the moment the print is set. For example, the Web site that will accompany Net Effects, which I wrote to serve as an idea book that readers could dip into as problems arose, will post links to new Web sites and strategies I discover. It will even deal with problems that did not occur to me at the time I began researching this book, such as the commoditization of information.

In short, for every problem a librarian may confront as a result of our new technologies, other librarians have been there before and have come up with a dazzling variety of solutions to fit all sizes and types of libraries. Some are big, complicated, and expensive, some are quick and dirty and cheap. But whatever comes, we librarians can handle it.


The Web

Librarians' Index to the Internet

Internet Public Library

Best Information on the Net


Perry-Castaneda Map Collection

Making of America Project

If All of Seattle Read the Same Book



Waterboro Lib Blog

Multnomah County Library Homework Help Pages

The Shifted Librarian

Notable examples:

• PDA Resources, VCU Libraries

• PDAs for Health Care: Library Initiatives

• Handheld Librarian
The leading compiler of information on virtual reference is Bernie Sloan. Start with his.

Digital Reference Service Bibliography

Research News, The Virtual Chase

Eric's Linux Information

oss4lib — Open Source Systems for Libraries

Open Access News


Resource Shelf from Gary Price

Eldorado County Library's What's Hot on the Internet This Week

The Internet Filter Assessment Project

GODORT Legislation Committee

Library Law

ALA Washington Office

Public Library Association Tech Note: Disaster Planning for Computers and Networks

Library Futures Quarterly

LITA Top Tech Trends

Net Effects: The Web Page


Other Sources

Schneider, Karen, "Creating a Yahoo! with Values," Library Journal NetConnect, 15 July 2002.

Block, Marylaine, "The Best Little Library System in the World," ExLibris, 21 Jan. 2001 [].

Block, Marylaine, "Selling the Learning Experience," Library Journal, Movers and Shakers Supplement, March 15, 2003 [

Stillwell, Mary, "Partnerships that Support Public Access Computing," Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, vol. 15, 2001, pp. 29-32.

Cheryl H. Kirkpatrick and Catherine Buck Morgan, "How We Renovated Our Library, Physically and Electronically, for Handicapped Patrons," Computers in Libraries, Oct. 2001, pp. 24-29.

Gordon, Rachel Singer. The Accidental Systems Librarian. Information Today, 2003.

Sisler, Eric. "Linux in Your Library?," Library Journal NetConnect, Fall, 2001.

Young, Jeffrey R., "Superarchives Could Hold All Scholarly Output," Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 July, 2002, p. A29.

Estabrook, Leigh S. and Edward Lakner, "Managing Internet Access: Results of a National Survey," American Libraries, Sept. 2000, pp. 60-62.

Markwell, John, et al., "Science Education Broken Links," March 12, 2003 [].

Tennant, Roy, "Digital Libraries — Coping with Disasters," Library Journal, 15 Nov. 2001.



Marylaine Block's e-mail address is
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