Studying Indiana Public Libraries' Usage of Internet Filters

Article excerpt

Wonder how others handle the touchy subject of filtering? Check these results from a statewide survey in Indiana.

A lot of literature from the past few years has discussed the importance of bridging the digital divide that exists between those with Internet access and those without. Public libraries have often declared themselves to be that bridge. This article looks at how Indiana's public libraries allow the citizens they serve access to the Internet. With a grant from the University Research Committee of Indiana State University, I studied the use of filtering software and other restrictions that have been placed on patrons' computer usage.

To determine Internet policies and usage here, I mailed a survey to all 434 Indiana public libraries (239 main and 195 branches) in the autumn of 2003. Thirty-three percent (144 of the 434 mailed) of the surveys were returned.

Managing Internet Usage

Estabrook and Lakner (2000) wrote of Internet access in libraries, "a substantial majority exert some kind of formal control, implementing one or more of the following measures: They filter access, require patrons to give their permission for children to use the Internet, or place computers in locations the staff can manage" (p. 60). The Indiana Survey on Internet Usage Policies at Public Libraries (PLs) shows that Hoosier libraries follow this national trend.

Oder reported in 2002 that 43 percent of public libraries in the U.S. use filtering software. In my 2003 survey of Indiana libraries, 66 percent (95 PLs) reported that they have filters in place, 31 percent (45 PLs) said they do not have filters in place, and 3 percent (four PLs) gave no response. (See pie chart.) Another 22 percent (32 PLs) said they are planning to install filters in the future. Of the 8 percent (12 PLs) that said they do not intend to install filters, 3 percent (five PLs) are in areas that served a population of more than 25,000, while 5 percent (seven PLs) are in areas that had populations less than 10,000.

What Drove Decisions

Monitoring what patrons view is a relatively new function for library staff members, who are usually on the forefront of championing patron privacy. Although many librarians still claim to be First Amendment advocates, the issue of Internet privacy has caused a number of us to be more inquisitive about what information our patrons are accessing on library computers. This may be due in part to outside political pressures that are tied into library funding. One such pressure is from CIPA, the Children's Internet Protection Act, which Congress passed in 2000, and which went into effect in July 2004. CIPA mandates that schools and libraries install filtering software or they'll lose eligibility for some federal funding (usually the E-rate, which allows K-12 schools and public libraries to get discounts for Internet connections).

When I asked whether the libraries had modified their computer usage policies because of CIPA, 18 percent (26 PLs) replied "yes" and 10 percent (14 PLs) replied "not yet."1 Many libraries may be caught in a financial quandary. As one librarian asserted, "The $10,000 T-1 line is simply not something we can afford without erate." Another librarian agreed, saying that management was "concerned about the budgeting implications" of not following CIPA requirements.

What Worked, What Didn't

Of the libraries that already had filters, CyberPatrol was the most popular, used by 11 percent of respondents (16 PLs). Next was Websense, used by 9 percent (13 PLs), and Web Balanced, used by 5 percent (seven PLs). According to the survey results, libraries were using more than 20 different filtering products.

In an almost-even split, 32 percent (46 PLs) reported no problems with their filtering software, while 35 percent (51 PLs) reported that they had experienced one or more types of problems. Twenty-two percent (31 PLs) said that patrons were unable to pull up needed information on the Internet. …