With the Internet doubling in growth every year, the question is not whether libraries have time limits on computers - most do, typically ranging from 30 minutes to an hour - but how those limits are enforced. It would be nice to think library patrons are "self-regulating," as one administrator wrote me. (In that case, why have circulation periods for books?) More often, the reality is that when he spies an Internet computer, Dr. Jekyll, the patron who will willingly wait a year on the reserve list for the Eleventh Commandment, grows fangs and knuckle hair and becomes Mr. Hyde, who wants his Internet now and doesn't want to leave once he sits down!
On the dotted line
Sign-up sheets are the least-technical, most-obvious solution for controlling access; over 30 librarians wrote to tell me that they use them. Sign-up procedures are particularly useful if your library takes reservations ahead of time. The question of "who's next" is easily answered by glancing at the sheet, and disputes about time can be resolved by looking at when people checked in.
However, there are at least two significant potential problems with sign-up sheets. First, they require staff monitoring and control - signing people in, ensuring the right people get to their stations, resolving disputes about who is next, etc. This may range from a fairly trivial investment of staff time in quieter libraries to a significant added labor component in busier ones. While use of library resources always requires staff involvement to some degree, sign-up sheets require librarians to be the primary enforcement mechanism. This also places staff in the center of disputes about use of computer resources.
I spy for the FBI
Another problem with sign-up sheets has to do with their visibility and permanence. Patron confidentiality extends to the digital environment. If you wouldn't answer the question "Did so-and-so check out books today?" you might consider whether your sign-in system provides patrons a little too much information about what their neighbors are doing. There are ways to track whether stations are booked without treading on patron privacy. Michelle McLean of Casey-Cardinia Library Corporation in Melbourne, Australia, told me that "at our largest branch, we have a whiteboard with all the machines and times, and use red markers to indicate what times and machines are booked at any given time."
Even if, as one library director told me, "patrons don't have privacy in my state," we as a profession have embraced patron privacy as an organizational value. How do you discard your sign-up sheets? Most online catalogs don't retain histories of patron use because once upon a time (about 10 years ago) the FBI was leaning hard on libraries to release that information to them as part of its "Library Awareness Program" (AL, Apr. 1988, p. 244). (To paraphrase James Thurber, it's not paranoia if it really happened to you. …