Thursday, February 18, 2010

Just Disconnect?

In another one of those situations in which you've got to laugh so you don't cry, I recently saw two fascinating comments posted in response to a newspaper story about internet filters and libraries:

"Computer use . . . really isn't a function of a library to begin with."

"I say get rid of the internet at the library, we used to do research with books in the good old days."

It is impossible to guess how serious the two comentators were, or if their tongues were planted firmly in their cheeks as they wrote.  Nonetheless, they have aptly crystallized a key point in the internet filtering debate.  

The impact of the internet on our society has been immense.  It has completely reordered how most of us find information about anything, whether it is for academic research, reading the local news, deciding which restaurant to go to, or finding out what's on TV tonight. For more savvy organizations the internet has become the first place to put up-to-date information on anything, and few businesses can afford not to have a web presence today.  I haven't opened a paper telephone directory in years, although these tree-killers are still relentlessly delivered to my door, unsought and unwelcome.  

The impact of the internet has also been intense.  Most of this reordering of information access has taken place in only 25 years, and is still on-going.  Naturally, with any change so pervasive and rapid, there is some struggle to keep up. Some individuals still prefer paper and pencil to computer screen and keyboard, and some organizations still haven't figured out how to use the internet wisely, or at all.

Working on a university campus I see a microcosm of this struggle every day. Almost everything I do as a researcher and instructor is online, and I expect my students and colleagues to work the same way.  But at the organizational and bureaucratic levels, universities are amazingly non-adaptive institutions.  So many administrative offices still think in terms of pamphlets and paper forms! Their web pages are an afterthought, if they are any thought at all, and the result is the maintenance of an arcane impenetrability surrounding policies and procedures.  

This mixture of adaptation and resistance to change complicates how we deal with internet filtering issues in schools and libraries. On the one hand, libraries and librarians tend to be very aware of and well adapted to the internet age.  They understand that the internet is a critical component of all kinds of information access. They recognize that the internet is a huge library in and of itself. They realize that the internet has replaced the street corner and public square in terms of presenting and receiving ideas and opinions.  But outside the library we quickly run into more resistance by the outdated.  Some city and county officials are very internet savvy, but others are not, and their decisions about internet filters at local libraries are often marred by a counter-technological prejudice that could almost be quaint if it didn't cause so many legal and financial headaches.  The boards and administrations of public schools are often more like university administrations, preferring the arcane to the open, and thus just instinctively censorious.  The gaps and vagaries within the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) show that the legislators who crafted it don't understand what the internet is or how it works, or how the internet is important to the mission of public libraries. The US Supreme Court, erudite but behind the times, showed a similar failure to grasp what the internet is, when it handed own its US v. ALA decision allowing the CIPA to be enforced. That decision repaired only one gap of many in the CIPA, and left the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and already beleaguered libraries without guidance for grappling with the remaining mess.

We are now ten years into the 21st century.  It is past time for the comentators mentioned above, and other Luddites among us, to catch up at least to the 1990s.  Computer use is an integral and essential part of what libraries are and what libraries do, just as computer use is an integral and essential part of every other aspect of modern living. Those who look back nostalgically to the era of doing research amid stacks of paper books and journals simply have not experienced the huge jump in speed and thoroughness that the internet makes possible, and can't comprehend the impact taking such a tool away would have. Using internet filters judiciously to protect young children from illegal graphics is a practical way of facing the realities of modern life.  But hijacking that effort in order to gain control over what adults can and cannot access on the internet is as reprehensible as it is medieval. 

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