Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

User Authentication in the Public Area of Academic Libraries in North Carolina

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

User Authentication in the Public Area of Academic Libraries in North Carolina

Article excerpt


Concerns surrounding usability, administration, and privacy with user authentication on public computers are not new issues for librarians. However, in recent years there has been increasing pressure on all types of libraries to require authentication of public computers for a variety of reasons. Since the 9/11 tragedy, there has been increasing legislation such as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA PATRIOT Act) and Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). In response, administrators and campus IT staff have become increasingly concerned about allowing open access anywhere on their campuses. Restrictive licensing agreements for specialized software and web resources are also making it necessary or attractive to limit access to particular academic subgroups and populations. Permitting access to secured campus storage from these computers can make it necessary for libraries to think about the necessity of authentication. And finally, the general state of the economy has increased the user traffic to libraries, sometimes making it necessary to control the use of limited computer resources. Authenticating can often make these changes easier to implement and can give the library more control over its IT environment.

That being said, authentication comes at a price for librarians. Authentication often creates ethical issues with regards to patron privacy, freedom of inquiry, increasing the complexity of using public area machines, and restricting the open access needs of public or guest users. Requiring a patron to log into a computer can make it possible for organizations outside the library's control to collect, review and use data of a patron's searching habits or online behaviors. Issues associated with managing patron logins can also create barriers for access as well as being time consuming and frustrating for both the patron and the library staff. (1) While open, anonymous access does not completely protect against these issues, it can help to create an environment of free, private and open access similar to the longstanding situation with the book collection in most libraries.

The Hunter Library Experience

While working on the implementation of a new campus-wide pay-for-print solution in 2009, librarians from the Hunter Library at Western Carolina University began to feel pressured by the campus IT department to change its practice of allowing anonymous logins to all the computers in the public areas of the library. Concerns about authenticating users on library public area machines had been building between these two units for several years. The resulting clash of principles between protecting privacy and protecting security came to a head over this project.

The Hunter Library employees perceived that there needed to be more time for research and debate before implementing the preceded mandate. Initially, there was great resistance from campus IT staff to take the library's concerns into account, but eventually a compromise was worked out that allowed the library to retain anonymous logins on its public computers. The confrontation led library staff to investigate the practices of other libraries, particularly within the University of North Carolina (UNC) System of which it is a member. It seemed a logical development to extend the initial research into the authentication practices throughout the state of North Carolina.

The Problem

One of the first questions asked by Western Carolina's library administration of the systems department was what other libraries in the area were doing. In our case, the library director specifically asked how many of West Carolina's sister universities were authenticating and why. Anecdotally, during this process, it seemed that many other University of North Carolina System libraries reported being pressured to authenticate their public computers by organizations outside the library, most often the campus IT department. …

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