No. WP-96-03

In the trenches of the digital revolution:
Intellectual freedom and the "public" digital library

ASIS 1996 MidYear Conference:
Contributed Paper

Howard Rosenbaum
(To whom correspondence should be sent)

Center for Social Informatics
Indiana University

Phone: 812.855.3250
Fax: 812.855.6166

(C) 1996 Rosenbaum

Find out more about the challenge to free speech on the Internet

In the trenches of the digital revolution:
Intellectual freedom and the "public" digital library


Abstract | Introduction | Intellectual freedom and the "public" digital library | Free speech
Privacy | Access | Intellectual property | Conclusion | Notes | Bibliography


The development of the Internet and the increasing popularity of the World Wide Web have opened up a new realm of information access, storage, and delivery for librarians and information professionals. Libraries and schools are striving to respond to the pervasive and persistent growth of global networking and manage the demand for access to this dynamic medium. Currently, 21 percent of American public libraries and 35 percent of public schools have some form of internet access (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1995; Sackman, 1995). Working in the trenches of the digital revolution, librarians and information professionals are beginning to offer internet services to patrons; their work marks the beginning of the grassroots implementation of the "public" digital library. Such efforts do not come without their attendant risks, and it is extremely important that those who are becoming network service and resource providers and content producers clearly understand what is involved in their participation in the digital revolution from an issues- and policy-oriented perspective.

This paper will outline one subset of the range of critical issues that are part and parcel of the world of networked information and discuss its impacts on librarians and information professionals. It will discuss questions of access, privacy, copyright, and the protection of intellectual property and suggest that librarians and information professionals discuss and develop reasonable acceptable use policies early in the implementation process that will allow them to effectively person the front lines of the digital revolution.

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Capturing the attention of researchers, policy-makers, funding agencies, and practitioners alike, the concept of the "digital" or "virtual" library describes a new organizational form that is expected to be linked in some way to physical libraries. Although at best an elusive concept, the digital library has acquired the cachet of a powerful meme, driving research and thinking throughout this decade. In fact, the definition of a digital library is by no means clear; despite the awarding of millions of dollars to develop components of digital libraries and several conferences devoted to the topic, there does not seem to be a consensus on the meaning of the term (Digital Libraries '95, 1995; Digital Libraries Conference, 1995; Digital Libraries '94, 1994). Micksa and Doty (1994) wonder whether the term is even appropriate, considering that the use of the term has been asserted "not by librarians (who might have been expected to choose it) but rather by computer and information scientists." According to Nuernberg, Furuta, Leggett, Marshall, and Shipman (1995):
The emerging field of digital libraries brings together participants from many existing areas of research. Currently, the field lacks a clear agenda independent of these other areas. It is tempting for researchers to think that the field of digital libraries is a natural outgrowth of an already known field... [It] will be limited if viewed only as a subfield of prior research interests.
Despite this confusion, throughout this decade, librarians and information professionals have moved to the front lines of the digital revolution as a consequence of their interests and in response to increasing customer demand, providing Internet services to a wide range of patrons in a wide variety of settings. This is in keeping with the role that the Federal government has described for libraries in the National Information Infrastructure; according to the NRENAISSANCE Committee (1994; 135):
Libraries complement both research and education. They figured first into the NREN and now into the vision of an integrated, broadly useful NII. The High Performance Computing Act of 1991 (PL 102-194) envisioned libraries as both access points for users to utilize the network as well as providers of information resources via the Internet. The [Clinton] administration's characterization of the NII carries forward this expectation, expanding it to include a training function.
Predictably, most of the well-publicized work that has been done on digital libraries has occurred in academic settings and has focused on the technical issues involved in digitizing, storing, organizing, and providing access to the content of these libraries (for example, see Bishop, 1995; Fox, 1993, 1994; and the NSF/ARPA/NASA DLI digital library projects, Informedia, 1996; University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 1996; University of California at Berkeley, 1996; University of California at Santa Barbara,1996; University of Michigan, 1996; Stanford University, 1996). However, this only represents one of two major streams of work on digital libraries, the high end, well-funded, testbed projects taking place in research and educational institutions.

A second stream of work is taking place in the trenches of the digital revolution, where librarians and information professionals in public libraries and K 12 schools are in the midst of attempts to provide to their patrons what certainly will become important components of digital libraries (Libraries for the Future, 1996; Saint Joseph County Public Library, 1996; Natinal Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1995; Sackman, 1995; Abrahams, Clement, and Parris,1995). Their work is typically underfunded and done "on-the-fly," yet they "have the potential to generate some of the most innovative educational uses of the evolving national electronic networked environment for meeting the needs of the widest range of individuals" (McClure, Ryan, and Moen, 1993; 7).

Public and school librarians are working typically without a blueprint, under time and economic constraints and, with a few exceptions, with little assistance from the research community (these exceptions include the work of McClure and his study teams, notably McClure, Bertot, and Beachboard, 1995; McClure, Babcock, Nelson, Polly, and Kankus, 1994). Their efforts do not come without their attendant risks, and it is extremely important that public and school librarians who are becoming network service and resource providers clearly understand what is involved in their participation in the digital revolution from an issues- and policy oriented perspective. For these reasons, this paper will concentrate on the second stream of digital library work, the emergence of front-line public digital libraries in public and school libraries, and will focus on an underappreciated but critically important subset of issues dealing with intellectual freedom: free speech, access, privacy, and intellectual property.

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Intellectual freedom and the "public" digital library

There is a range of issues and concerns that must be considered by those who are building and managing digital libraries which will vary with the setting within which the development effort takes place. Academic, special, and public/school libraries operate under varying institutional, social, and economic constraints and it is reasonable to expect that researchers and practitioners exploring the possibilities of digital libraries will have access to different resources and will face different problems in their work. One key difference is that the academic digital library projects are taking place under the aegis of the university and the major funding agencies; these projects may allow the public access to their services and resources, but they are not really "public." On the other hand, many of the efforts of public and school librarians take place without the same kind of institutional safety net and are intended for immediate public use. They are creating a new organizational form - the public digital library.

Therefore, the setting of interest in this paper encompasses public libraries and their K-12 counterparts, because of their unique position; currently, about 21 percent of American public libraries and 35 percent of public schools have some form of internet access (National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1995) and more than 650 K-12 schools have Web pages on the internet (Sackman, 1995). As the media continues to define the internet as the broadcast television of the 1990s, the general public discovers the vast world of resources and services on the internet, and politicians attempt to impose a regulatory framework on the American portion of the internet, public and school librarians find themselves on the front lines of provision of access to the net. There have been cogent arguments that this is appropriate because public and school libraries are the natural points of access to the internet (Isenstein, 1992; 2; Henderson, 1993; 1). As librarians and information professionals begin to offer Internet services to patrons, they are in the trenches of the digital revolution and their work marks the beginning of the grassroots implementation of the public digital library.

The complexity of the technical challenges that must be faced and overcome in these settings is neither trivial nor easily managed. However, there is an equally challenging set of issues focused loosely around the concept of intellectual freedom which also must be faced and managed. These are issues that have been recognized as being central to the professional compass of librarianship, as critically important in the electronic networked information environment, and, in the context of public and school libraries, little discussed and analyzed 1. Responding to an internal document staking out the American Library Association's position on the role of libraries in the NII, the ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee (1996; 25) comments that:

An atmosphere of urgency about issuing a statement on the national information infrastructure pervaded the 1994 conference. Bills on the subject were pending before Congress. Nevertheless, the Intellectual Freedom Committee felt that ALA's basic intellectual freedom policies were being swept aside, at least to some degree, in the rush by many library organizations to become 'players' in the discussions taking place in Washington on the structure of the national information superhighway.
In an effort to return intellectual freedom concerns to the debate over the implementation of the digital library, this paper raises four of these issues that quickly arise in any public library and many school libraries that offer patrons and student access to the internet. The purpose of this paper is to bring these issues to the foreground in an attempt to initiate a dialog between researches and practitioners; there will not be an attempt to resolve them here for many quickly shade off into intricate legal discussions. Rather, by explicitly bringing them into view, practitioners and interested researchers can begin to wrestle with them. This is a necessary first step towards one reasonable resolution of these issues, which is a well-thought out and defensible acceptable use policy that protects the institutions while not infringing on the rights of users.

According to the American Library Association (1995):

Issues arising from the still-developing technology of computer-mediated information generation, distribution, and retrieval need to be approached and regularly reviewed from a context of constitutional principles and established policy, so that fundamental and traditional tenets of librarianship are not swept away
In each of the following sections, a brief scenario will be presented to focus the discussion of the issues; these scenarios are descriptive and are intended to provoke thoughtful reflection. This will be followed by questions intended to sharpen the issue and excerpts from the American Library Association's (1996) recently adopted resolution about patron access to electronic information, services, and networks, which stakes out the broad guidelines for the profession. This is an important document to consider because it provides a basis on which acceptable use policies can be built.

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Free Speech
ĦE A patron brings a disk in to the library, uploads a document that contains hateful material denigrating particular ethnic groups and advocating racial separation, and sends it as email to the White House, hundreds of listservs and USENET groups, and some selected individuals. Each time the message arrives at its destination, it carries header information identifying it as having come from the library.

Can the library deny the patron's right to broadcast the document? What are the limits of a patron's constitutionally protected speech when using the public library's internet connection to engage in communication with others (privately and in computer conferences)? According to Cavazos and Morin (1995; 67), "the right to speak one's mind without fear of government retribution is perhaps the most cherished of all the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution." What should be the position of the library on the issue of the protection of the patron's right to freedom of expression, which "encompasses the freedom of speech and the corollary right to receive information" (ALA, 1996)? More specifically, the question concerns the extent to which the rights of the patron using the library's internet access to participate in public and private electronic communications must be balanced against the responsibilities of the library as the provider of the resources and services. Are there or should there be any restrictions on a patron's ability to use an email account or other internet resources provided by the library to send or receive any type of electronic message to another person, organization, or computer conference? This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many libraries are experimenting with WWW access, using browsers such as Netscape [tm], Mosaic [tm], or Internet Explorer [tm], all of which allow the user to send email without closing the browser and with varying degrees of anonymity.2

The ALA (1996), in its document "Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks," recently clarified its position on the issue of free speech by asserting that "Users should not be restricted or denied access for expressing or receiving constitutionally protected speech." This would seem to indicate that, in the above scenario, the patron should be allowed to carry on. This raises the dilemma of "finding the right balance of editorial control and tolerance" in an official policy statement of user rights, responsibilities, and acceptable use (Cavazos and Morin,1995; 70). If a given computer conference and other site where the patron engages in the potentially hateful communication can be defined as a "limited public forum," then the case for restricting speech is weakened, because "the owner of that particular forum no longer has the right to control and censor speech activities there" (Cavazos and Morin, 1995; 70). This matter is further complicated by the realization that the issue of the ownership of the internet is far from clear.

The protection of patron's rights to freely express themselves using the internet facilities in their public library is also supported by the National Research Council (1994), albeit for different reasons:

Providers that assert the right to control the content of public traffic may be subject to a more stringent liability (e.g., for defamation) for that traffic than those that do not assert such a right ... Information services supported by public funds, operated by government, or otherwise deemed public cannot discriminate among users on the basis of their electronic communications for First Amendment reasons ... Service providers of all types are well advised to establish the rules under which they provide their services, preferably in advance and perhaps in consultation with their users.
Public and school librarians would do well to heed this advice and have a set of clearly established rules and procedures covering the range of internet resources and services they intend to offer in advance of establishing their internet connection.

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ĦE After the library has been running its forms- and email-based electronic reference service through its WWW site, the systems librarian asks what to do with the archives of the email messages and the information in the files that are created when users visit and use the WWW pages. She informs you that the files contain personal information about the patrons.

If a library operates an internet reference desk, as is being done at the Internet Public Library (1996), all incoming reference questions and outgoing responses can be captured easily and stored in a searchable database. This enable the amassing of detailed statistics that will provide the librarians with a clearer understanding of the efficiency of their reference work, the diversity of questions that arrive as email, and the usefulness of their reference collection. This information, however, also raises privacy concerns, because the header information that is attached to each email question is also captured. Unlike the face-to-face reference interview, where the question can be logged and time-on-task recorded, electronic, networked reference work allows the capturing of personal information about the sender of the question the confidentiality of which the library must be careful to preserve.

A similar concern is raised by MOO-based reference work 3, where users must log on, again providing the host (in this case the library) with personal information. In addition, a line-by-line verbatim transcript can easily be saved and stored, each of line of which can be matched to the userID of the person who keyed it in. This obviously is a boon to the researcher interested in careful textual analysis of the reference interview interaction, but again, the librarian must be concerned with the preservation of the patron's privacy. A related privacy concern arises in the instance where the library hosts computer conferences, through their WWW site, using listserv software, or through the creation of a USENET group. The library is then in possession of the database of subscribers, containing their names and email addresses and, if archived, a complete transcript of all of the messages posted to the conference.

One prevailing opinion is that this information should receive the same protection as is afforded to circulation information. The ALA (1996) seems to agree, arguing that, in the electronic, networked, information environment:

Users have both the right of confidentiality and the right of privacy. The library should uphold these rights by policy, procedure, and practice. Users should be advised, however, that because security is technically difficult to achieve, electronic transactions and files could become public.
One good example of language in a policy statement intended to deal with the ease with which personal information can be collected about individuals using the "public" digital library's resources and services is found in the "Server Access Log Policy" of the Internet Public Library (1996):
No Library records shall be made available to the public, press, or governmental agency, except by such process, order, or subpoena authorized by national, state or local law. The Director of the Library shall resist such process, order, or subpoena until there is a proper show of good cause. Any costs incurred by the Library in any search of records shall be charged to the agency demanding such a search.
The importance of such language cannot be underemphasized, because of the need to protect the confidentiality of the patron's personal information.

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ĦE One patron has gotten into the habit of using the WWW search tools to run searches for sites with sexual themes. He takes delight in downloading and displaying images and multimedia that he finds on web sites and in USENET groups on the high resolution monitor. He asks at the reference desk for help in printing them out on the library's printer.

A milder form of this scenario might be the patron requesting that the library provide access to certain USENET computer conferences in the .alt hierarchy that espouse racial warfare and separation of the races.

Can the library deny this patron access to the internet connection? Would the situation be different if the patron was searching for politically sensitive information, such as pro- or anti-abortion sites? Are there reasonable grounds for refusing a patron access to the library's internet services and resources?

The ALA (1996) does not believe that there are a priori grounds for denying patrons access to networked information resources and services, arguing that "electronic information, services, and networks provided directly or indirectly by the library should be equally, readily and equitably accessible to all library users". Further, librarians should not be placed in the position of having to make decisions about the quality of the resources and services that patrons may access and, on the touchy issue of allowing minors access to the full range of the internet, ALA (1996) state forcefully that access restrictions are the provenance of parents:

Providing connections to global information, services, and networks is not the same as selecting and purchasing material for a library collection. Determining the accuracy or authenticity of electronic information may present special problems. Some information accessed electronically may not meet a library's selection or collection development policy. It is, therefore, left to each user to determine what is appropriate. Parents and legal guardians who are concerned about their children's use of electronic resources should provide guidance to their own children.
Libraries and librarians should not deny or limit access to information available via electronic resources because of its allegedly controversial content or because of the librarian's personal beliefs or fear of confrontation. Information retrieved or utilized electronically should be considered constitutionally protected unless determined otherwise by a court with appropriate jurisdiction.

Perhaps questions of access can be handled by education; librarians may wish to consider developing programming to educate their patrons about the complexities, rights, and responsibilities of internet use, following the observation of the United States National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council (1995) that "schools, libraries, and community centers have an interest in encouraging their constituents to use information in lawful and ethical ways."

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Intellectual property

ĦE The library is publishing its own web pages. The person in charge is proud of her work and points out that the markup was simplified because she was able to access other pages and easily cut and paste their markup into the library's pages, including a "guestbook," and could quickly and efficiently download most images directly to the library's pages.

The trend seems to be for public and school libraries to establish their internet presences on the WWW, especially since the primary markup language (Hypertext Markup Language or HTML) has proven to be fairly easy to learn and use. In the scenario described above, are the various elements that constitute a WWW page fair game simply because most browsers allow users to access the markup code for any page on the web? Is there any problem in copying and using images and "scripts" from other people's sites? It is clear that current networking hardware and software make the copying and transfer of digital information simple and relatively painless, especially when using WWW browsers. It is much less clear what type of copying and use of what can be found on the WWW is legitimate and what constitutes a violation of copyright.

Current copyright legislation protects the "original expression" of a fact or idea or of "compilations of facts" or ideas as soon as the work is fixed in a tangible medium (Cavazos and Morin, 1995; 49; 50). It also establishes the conditions under which use of the copyrighted material is legitimate; when, then can the downloading and use of the images, arrangement of HTML tags, and CGI or Java scripts of another web page be considered fair use?

The ease with which one WWW page can be linked to another using HTML tags is at least partially responsible for the phenomenal growth of the WWW. It is also important to note that linking is mostly a one-way phenomenon; because I link to your site, you are under no obligation to link to my site. At present, there is no protocol beyond HTML which determines the procedures by which two sites can be linked and nothing more binding that common courtesy determining the appropriateness of the resulting links. In a sense, the owner of a web page cannot prevent another from making use of the page through linking and cannot prevent the subsequent display of her or his intellectual property. The designer or owner of a public digital library site has little more then his or her powers of persuasion in the event that his or her page has been linked to a site that, by the standards and policies of the library, is deemed unacceptable.

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It is clear that there is a strong emphasis on the extension of digital libraries into public and school libraries in some as-of-yet undetermined form. According to the NTIA Office of Telecommunications and Information Applications (1995):

Connecting every classroom, library, hospital, and clinic in the United States to the National Information Infrastructure (NII) is a priority for the Clinton Administration. It is critical for these public institutions to become and remain active participants in the NII, since they can use telecommunications and information technologies to benefit all Americans.
Putting aside for a moment the technical and economic issues involved in creating and maintaining a digital library in a public or school library setting, this paper has argued that there are layers of complexity involved in applying the principles of intellectual freedom to public digital library service. There is a set of issues that must be separated and carefully studied by librarians and information professionals so that they can clarify the policies that are necessary to ensure, to the fullest extent, that they and their patrons "can escape the whims of the censor and enjoy the full benefit of freedom of expression under the First Amendment" (Krug, 1996; x).

These issues include the preservation of free speech when communicating on the global internet, the right of the patron to privacy, particularly in the realm of personal information in electronic form, the provision of access to electronic, networked resources and services in the public or school library, and the protection of digital intellectual property. Examples of acceptable use policies created by public and school libraries that attempt to come to grips with these issues have been gathered by Champelli (1996) and Ingram (1996) and a sympathetic critique this type of policy is offered by Kinneman (1996). These are not trivial matters to resolve, and this paper represents a call to librarians and information professionals to begin a critical public discussion towards two complementary ends: the clarification of the range of positions that be taken in the profession on these issues and the development of practical and workable policies that can provide assistance and support to those in the trenches of the digital revolution.

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1. The recent passage of and continuing legal battles over the Communications Decency Act raise additional questions for librarians concerned with intellectual freedom issues. A full discussion of the implications of this legislation are beyond the scope of this paper. There are a number of excellent sources of information about the CDA and the legal challenges; one good place to start is the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which is available at

2.It is possible, if the site maintainer has sufficient technical expertise, to disable some of the features of WWW browsers, effectively preventing user from being able to invoke the mailing and newsgroup posting functions, but this is a neither trivial nor obvious procedure.

3.The MOO at the Internet Public Library is described as follows:

A MOO is a Multi-User Object Oriented environment, an interactive system accessible through telnet by many users at the same time. Moos are based on the MUD - (Multi-User Dungeon) concept, but include more possibilities for interaction and real time communication learning experiences.

Why telnet to the MOO?

The Internet Public Library is a place where a library community can form, where people can get together and interact in real time. In this environment the community can help shape their surroundings and make it a place that fits their needs. One of the benefits of the moo is that interaction with other visitors and objects (desks, chairs, cat etc.) creates a mood conducive to virtual community. We have formed the framework where librarians and information seekers can gather together, talk, and provide reference services.

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This document was prepared by Howard Rosenbaum. Comments are welcome.
Obligatory disclaimer: At the time this paper was marked up [5.18.96],
all links used in the bibliography were working.

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