Library Issues

Editor: Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan.
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University; Sarah Pritchard, Smith College;


Vol. 19, No. 5 May 1999

Preserving Rights in the Information Age

by Mignon Adams

Privacy in the Information Age: Implications for Libraries

by William Miller


Preserving Rights in the Information Age

by Mignon Adams

L ibrarians have been traditionally concerned with the protection of rights for their readers. One issue has been library users’ right to privacy about what they read. Many states now have laws protecting the confidentiality of library circulation records—laws that librarians were instrumental in getting passed. (Had Monica Lewinsky borrowed rather than purchased her books, it would have been clear that a subpoena was necessary to find out what the books were.)

Librarians have also been in the forefront of fighting censorship. The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom is a clearinghouse for materials for resisting censorship and protecting the first amendment. The Office’s Freedom to Read Foundation supports and defends librarians whose positions are jeopardized because of their defense of free speech.

As print records and sources become electronic, familiar issues such as protecting privacy and resisting censorship take on new facets. And new issues arise. Although information increasingly seems to be “free,” the equipment to access it is not, so librarians must still decide how to allocate finite resources. Librarians have an important role in selecting and making Internet sites available, whether by purchase or by easing access. The ease of copying and manipulating images and information creates new ethical dilemmas.

Most librarians feel that what someone chooses to read is no one’s business but his or her own. With the old card systems used for checking out books, it was relatively easy to erase the tracks of who had read a book—and very difficult to pull together an individual’s reading record. Computerized circulation systems, however identify automatically each book checked out by each library user. Most automated systems can be set to delete some information on a timely basis. Libraries need to determine what degree of privacy is necessary for their users. Those in shared consortial networks may have to make compromises with their colleagues.

Computers keep track of other kinds of data as well. Those searching the bibliographic databases libraries have been providing for years leave behind them a record of their search strategies, their results, the times of the days they’ve searched, and for how long. It’s doubtful that individual libraries have bothered to compile these figures, but commercial providers might do so. Up until recently providers have been third-party vendors, but the marketplace is changing.

Many academic libraries are moving towards web-based fulltext databases, which may be available only through the publisher of the journals in the database. It is conceivable that it might be in someone’s interest to track the articles selected by a researcher at a particular institution. Current web browsers make this very easy by using “cookies.”

When a user connects to a website, his or her browser can be asked by the site to generate a file, which is stored on the user’s hard drive. This file—called a “cookie”—alerts the website the next time the user visits it, toggling a cache of memory. This memory might hold only a password or a running compilation of pages visited and articles downloaded. The articles selected by someone doing proprietary research may give real clues to the nature of his or her research.

While a campus network administrator can easily determine what websites someone on the network has visited, anyone at all with access to someone else’s computer can check the cookie file to see a wide array of websites that person has viewed.
Cookie files can be easily deleted, and browsers can be set to reject cookies, but most Internet users do not know how or do not bother to change their settings.

It was easy to protect users’ privacy when libraries used manual systems. Now, however, computers record every automated transaction people make—gasoline purchases, ATM withdrawals, phone calls, web visits. Administrators, faculty and librarians who are concerned about privacy need to be informed about the features of the automated systems they use, establish policies on how database statistics are kept, and question vendors on why and how they track visitors to their sites.

From the beginnings of the World Wide Web, media reports have raised concerns about pornography and other perceived dangers (how to build a bomb, for example) readily accessible through the web. Most concerns have been expressed about children’s access, but attempts to censor the Web have occurred on college campuses as well.

Colleges and universities spend millions of dollars annually to create and maintain their campus networks. Academic administrators can hardly be blamed when they are dismayed to see those dollars being spent to subsidize downloading pornographic images, reading “alt.foot.fetish” posts, or creating websites celebrating drunkenness. In some cases, they’ve reacted rashly.

At the University of Pittsburgh several years ago, the university administration stopped its feed from the “alt” newsgroups, citing as its reason that if their under-18-year-old students had access to obscenities that the institution could be prosecuted under state law. College leaders at a small college in the Midwest suddenly, and with no announcement, installed a filter on their Internet server, blocking access to many worthwhile sites as well as objectionable ones. In each of these cases and other similar ones, public outcry led to the reversal of the decisions.

“Colleges certainly have
the obligation to teach their students how to evaluate what they find,
and libraries can certainly assist in this task.”

Some institutions, such as religious ones, may have good reason to wish to stop access to sexual or other sites they consider to be morally offensive. However, no filtering software as of now is capable of blocking some sites without also preventing access to desirable ones. (WWW.Quaker.Org, a religious site, is proud to boast that it is blocked by X-Stop filtering software.) While parents may wish to limit their children to a small percentage of the Web, most would agree that college students need access to much more.

Freedom of speech is highly prized by librarians and by academics. Censoring Internet sites is little different from removing objectionable books from the shelves or denying a soapbox speaker his or her speech. One can only admire the stance of Northwestern University; when a physics professor mounted an anti-holocaust site there the University countered with only a disclaimer which emphasizes their commitment to free speech.

A very valid concern is the display of pornographic images on public computers, which may be considered legally to create a hostile work environment. To avoid this, some libraries arrange their computers so that viewers have some privacy. At least one vendor makes available computer “blinds” that block the view of everyone
except the person directly in front of the screen.

Allocating Finite Resources
Librarians have often said they practice “selection,” not censorship. With only so much money to spend, they choose to spend it on the best. The myth of the Internet is that now everything is free, so therefore no difficult decisions about resource allocation need to be made—we can have it all with no restrictions. However, the high cost of accessing the “free” information on the Internet leaves librarians with different kinds of resource decisions.

A library workstation used to be a table and chair, not cheap, but affordable. Now a workstation is a Pentium computer. Few academic libraries have enough workstations available to handle all of those seeking to use a computer at peak periods.

If priorities are to be set, on what basis should they be? It could be by time period. Students could sign up for blocks of time, with the assurance that the computer is theirs for that period. Or it could be by considering some uses more important than others. Students playing games or reading e-mail could be “bumped” in favor of those who want to use library databases.

Another problem often discussed on library listserves is that of local high school students coming into the library for long hours of surfing the web, tying up computers that the institution’s own students want to use. Some libraries resort to signup sheets; others require the display of an ID card on the computer; and others use passwords so that only their students are permitted on the machines.

No matter what the chosen solution is, librarians are not comfortable denying or limiting access to some of their resources. Hopefully, this is a short-lived problem, one which may disappear when the number of computers both on and off campus increase.

The Internet has made everyone with a computer a potential publisher. The incredible wealth of information on the web is matched only with the wild inaccuracy of much of it. Colleges certainly have the obligation to teach their students how to evaluate what they find, and libraries can certainly assist in this task.

While no librarians would claim that every book in their libraries were credible or even worthwhile, library collections have always been the result of selection. Most users feel that if a publication is a “library book,” that it must have some measure of credibility.

Librarians can use the same selection criteria that they’ve used to create their book collections to develop home pages with links to websites carefully evaluated to be reliable, credible, and accurate. Many libraries have in fact done this. An excellent example of a cooperative effort is HealthWeb ( This web gateway is the product of librarians at 22 Midwestern health sciences institutions who each select, evaluate, and monitor sites in a particular health area. A collective effort like this provides on a very large scale the kind of guidance that library collections have always given their users.

New Kinds of Ethical Dilemmas
Not so long ago, the copying of images and text was expensive and time-consuming. Now, technology makes the duplication and manipulation of anything in machine-readable form incredibly fast, cheap, and out-of-control.

Any library with public access computers has to cope with the problems students leave for them on a daily basis. Students alter desktops, change the wallpaper to obscene or silly scenes, install screensavers of their loved one’s face or other piece of anatomy, hack away at websites. Students view these activities as harmless pranks, with no understanding of the work required to clean them up. Many librarians dream of the long-promised network computer, with no software on it but a browser. In the meantime, the software available to control and tie down a computer has increased both in number and effectiveness. (IKiosk, Fortres, and Cooler are three pieces of software; NT as the operating system also cuts down on what students can do.)

“Students alter desktops,
change the wallpaper to obscene or silly scenes,
install screensavers of their loved one’s face or other piece of anatomy,
hack away at websites. Students view these activities as harmless pranks,
with no understanding of the work required
to clean them up. ”

More troubling ethically is the technical capability to cut and paste from the fulltext databases that libraries are now making available. Plagiarism has always been a problem on campuses. Now, a student can download and merge a paragraph from this article with a paragraph from another, printing the newly-created term paper on the library’s laser printer, possibly without ever having written a word of it him/herself.

Even less work for a student is to download an already-written term paper from one of several sites on the web. Many are free, supposedly posted by volunteers in the same spirit that fosters fraternity files. The free ones are generally of poor quality; one does not know whether to despair more that someone thinks them worthy of downloading or that somewhere students received a decent grade on them. Other sites offer papers for sale, or propose to have them written for a fee. Tony Krier, a librarian at Franklin Pierce College, has assembled a site with links so that college and university instructors can see what’s available to their students.

An excellent way to prevent these types of plagiarism is to make available lists of “alternatives to term papers,” which many librarians have compiled. Assignments which ask students to do such things as compare and contrast two given articles or compile an annotated bibliography force students to use multiple resources in creative ways while making it difficult for them to find ready-made products.

Technology and its ease-of-copying have created still yet another problem for librarians. Both public and academic libraries have reported a small but growing number of instances of objectionable fliers left in shelved books. For example, there have been anti-Semitic broadsides in books about Hitler, and pornographic pictures in feminist books. While nothing short of closing the stacks can be done to prevent these random acts of bigotry, librarians can perhaps use them to begin discussions on tolerance and acceptance.

Librarians have always been concerned about the rights of their users to privacy, freedom of speech, and reliable information. They have made difficult decisions about setting priorities and allocating scarce resources. The information age has not erased these concerns, but faced with the new capabilities of technology, librarians have had to think about these issues in different ways.

Technology has also created new ethical problems to ponder. Not only information, but also mis-information and disturbing images, can be easily and quickly disseminated.

New solutions are being created for these problems. A good example is the document, “Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Documents: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” adopted by the American Library Association in 1996 and available on its website. Librarians continue to act on their traditional concerns for the rights of their users. —M. A.

Privacy in the Information Age: Implications for Libraries

by William Miller

Computer privacy is suddenly a front-page issue in daily newspapers and news magazines. Intel recently backed off of its plan to have the Pentium III chip automatically identify the PC using it on the Internet; a computer programmer reports the discovery that Microsoft’s Word and Excel programs generate a unique identifying number for each session; a faculty member at Clark College forces the administration of the school to back down after it told him not to use the college’s e-mail for messages to certain listservs on which he was supposedly
defaming individuals.1

What might loom ahead for the US is now being modeled in Iceland. Iceland’s parliament recently voted to give exclusive access to medical information on its homogeneous citizenry, cross-referenced with DNA samples and genealogical information, to a private US firm for medical research. While this could benefit Icelanders, it may also reveal personal information which many might not wish to have made public. This potential for compromise has led the European Union to pass its “EU Data Protection Directive” prohibiting the transmission of credit ratings, medical records, or other demographic information without the informed consent of the individuals involved.

The US, on the other hand, has no comprehensive policy on privacy, and no consistent law in this area. Perhaps as a result of our policy vacuum in the US, medical records, credit information, are routinely made available without
individuals’ knowledge or consent. The privacy of library records, however, is a hallmark of ALA’s Code of Ethics, and librarians refuse to make any such information available except on court order.

Librarians have always prided themselves on the maintenance of confidentiality and intellectual freedom, but both of these are inherently subject to compromise in the computer age, for a variety of reasons. At the simplest level, if one asks for a response to a query via e-mail or otherwise, the responder simply has to have a way of knowing to whom to respond. One cannot create a database via the web (such as a stock portfolio on Quicken, for example) and have it accessible over time without the system being able to know who the creator is, in one way or another.

More broadly, we have just begun to think about where intellectual freedom ends, and institutional responsibility begins, in the digital age. If a child molester or a bomb maker is operating with impunity from the library’s terminals, don’t we need a mechanism to find this out? Such behavior presumably is the virtual equivalent of crying fire in the proverbial crowded theater, and deserves to be punished. If a faculty member is defaming people on a listserv, using institutional computing and e-mail, and those people threaten to sue the institution, does the institution have a right to shut off access, or monitor it? Or must we preserve free speech at all costs?

Perhaps the answer lies in Judge Louis Brandeis’s definition of privacy as “the right to be left alone, not the right to operate in absolute secrecy.”2 The fact is that complex computer systems require identification mechanisms in order to work, and society also has a right to protect its citizens, which implies a right to know what potential malefactors are doing. At least, such is the thinking of the federal government in limiting the sale of encryption software.

What libraries can do is what we have always done: limit unrelated use of and accessibility to the personal information which we generate. For instance, libraries typically destroy circulation records immediately after a physical item is returned. There will be no reason to maintain ex post facto records of the use of electronic reserves or other virtual materials.

“You already have zero privacy—get over it,” says Scott McNealy, chairman and chief executive of Sun Microsystems. The challenge for higher education now is to strike a sensible compromise between pure privacy and academic freedom, on the one hand, and responsible use on the other. There can be no easy solutions here, and this issue will manifest itself increasingly over time.—W. M.

1Monaghan, Peter. “A Dispute Over a Professor’s E-Mail Illustrates the Complexities of Acceptable-Use Policies.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 19, 1999): A-25—A-26.
2Markoff, John. “A Growing Compatibility Issue in the Digital Age: Computers and Their Users’ Privacy.” The New York Times on the Web<>


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