Librarians Can Manage the Unintended Consequences of
By Marylaine Block
Editor's Note: Sites, projects, and articles
mentioned below are further referenced in the "Resources"
Up To Our Ears in Lawyers
The unrestrained freedom of the Net has caused
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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 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.
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
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
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.
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 http://www.ci.cerritos.ca.us/library/photos/library.html.]
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
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.
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
PDA Resources, VCU Libraries
PDAs for Health Care: Library
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
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
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 [http://marylaine.com/exlibris/xlib40.html].
Block, Marylaine, "Selling the Learning Experience," Library
Journal, Movers and Shakers Supplement, March
15, 2003 [http://libraryjournal.reviewsnews.com/index.asp?layout=
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
Sisler, Eric. "Linux in Your Library?," Library
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 [http://www.class.unl.edu/biochem/url/broken_links.html].
Tennant, Roy, "Digital Libraries Coping
with Disasters," Library Journal, 15 Nov.
Marylaine Block's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.