Managing Access to the Internet in Public Libraries
The MAIPLE project
How do public libraries manage to prevent users from accessing ‘unacceptable’, obscene, or otherwise illegal material and protect minors from harm on the internet? And what impact do measures taken have on our right to freedom of expression and freedom of access to information? For the past two years, a team led by Louise Cooke in CIM, and including RA Rachel Spacey, Claire Creaser in LISU, and Adrienne Muir in the School of Arts, English & Drama, have been researching this sensitive issue, thanks to funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council.
The project used a mixed methods approach comprising a review of relevant academic, professional and grey literature; an online questionnaire survey of Public Library Services with 80 responses; five in‑depth case studies of public libraries across the UK; desk research into commercial public WiFi provision; and a workshop for a range of stakeholders, held towards the end of the project to test and refine the findings. The team was supported throughout by an independent External Advisory Board of experts in the field. The case studies, spread around the four home countries of the UK and including interviews with users of public library computers, were especially enlightening (and fun to do!), and deepened our appreciation of just how critical the provision of public internet access in libraries is to a some sections of society. In particular, this includes those who lack the financial resources for broadband access at home (or who don’t have a place to call home), but who are now required to conduct many transactions such as job and benefit applications online. Likewise, those who lack the skills and knowledge to use computers without support have a high dependence on these facilities: the library computers were often described to us as ‘a lifeline’.
Some key findings
The project findings support the conclusions of previous research with regard to the ubiquity of the use of filtering software in public libraries (100% of our survey respondents reported that their service filters all public internet access). Librarians appear to be at risk of marginalisation from key decision‑making in this area, which is often devolved to IT or local government managerial personnel, and even (and perhaps more worryingly) the vendors of Internet Service Provision. What is clear from the findings is that access to legitimate Internet content is being withheld from users on a seemingly arbitrary basis, often for reasons of simple expediency. For example, we found that a user had been unable to access a field sports site: it had been classified as ‘violence’ by the software as it contained an image of a gun!
Nevertheless, it appears that most library personnel and users are satisfied with the status quo, and accept that the public library’s symbolic representation as a ‘decent public space’ carries with it necessary restrictions on access to Internet content. Issues of privacy were also found to exist, with users’ access taking place in a ‘virtual panopticon’ of surveillance measures – it is always wise to remember that your web browsing history can be viewed and traced back to you when you use library computers! Whilst other measures, such as the use of an AUP, were found to be in place, they were not being implemented very effectively, with most users unaware of their content, despite having signed up to the policy.
The advent of WiFi is posing new challenges, and public libraries find themselves having to adopt similar measures to commercial providers with regard to content restriction. Given that many of the library users we spoke with were suffering from multiple disadvantage (e.g. unemployment, benefit dependency, poor computer literacy etc.), it is disappointing to note that they also had to contend with the challenges posed by measures to manage Internet access in public libraries. These include time limits on use that were insufficient to prepare and submit a job application. Other measures that have the potential to combat digital and social inclusion such as the teaching of digital skills were often left to volunteers, who themselves did not always possess the level of skills necessary to take on this role effectively.
It is research into this element of the public library service’s role and responsibility in combatting digital and social exclusion, and how it is meeting this challenge that we hope to take forward in further research. Meantime, we are working on developing the recommendations from the project into a set of national guidelines and will be involving other external stakeholders, such as Arts Council England, in this work.
If you are interested to find out more about the project, you can download a PDF of the full report from this site. If, however, you would prefer a hard copy of the report, this can be ordered here at cost price plus p&p. We would warmly welcome any comments on the project findings so please do use the comment facility below, or contact the project’s Principal Investigator, Louise Cooke (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Journal articles and conference papers about the project can also be found on open access:
Spacey, Cooke, Muir & Creaser. Regulating use of the Internet in public libraries: a review. Journal of Documentation, 70 (3). http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/JD-02-2013-0021
Cooke, Spacey, Creaser & Muir. (2014) “You don’t come to the library to look at porn and stuff like that”: filtering software in public libraries. Library and Information Research. 38 (117) 5-19. http://www.lirgjournal.org.uk/lir/ojs/index.php/lir/article/view/620
Cooke, Spacey, Muir & Creaser. (2014) Filtering access to the Internet in public libraries: an ethical dilemma. IN: Preisig, A.V., Rösch, H. and Stückelberger, C. (eds.) Ethical Dilemmas in the Information Society Codes of Ethics for Librarians and Archivists Papers from the IFLA/FAIFE Satellite Meeting 2014. Geneva: Globethics.net, pp. 179 – 190. http://www.globethics.net/documents/4289936/13403236/GE_Global_11_web_final.pdf/0b8e3552-62e4-4495-a576-2f341326891b
Spacey, Cooke, Creaser & Muir. (2013) Regulating Internet access and use in UK public libraries: findings from the MAIPLE project. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science. http://lis.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/03/25/0961000613500688