An article published by the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals (CILIP) December 2002.


Soapbox

Lack of privacy is just one of the problems
in using the People's Network PCs, says

Stephen J Wozniak


I was interested to read the article 'Avoiding terminal tantrums' (September Update, p. 51) concerning the problems of managing time on People's Network computers. As an inveterate library user and someone who regularly travels to different parts of the UK, I would suggest that time management is perhaps the least serious of several problems. I am familiar with the iCAM system as described by the author, Neil Johnson, but feel that it could be much improved - more of which some other time perhaps!

In many libraries the machines have been squeezed into any available space. Little thought has been given to user preferences. I suspect one reason was that lottery money was made available with a requirement to spend it by a specified date or lose it.

No-one seems to have thought through what the machines were likely to be used for and whether libraries were the best place to house them. In my home town of Sidmouth most of the machines are used by students for emailing and for surfing shallow websites having little or no educational value. Given the noise and disruption this involves, most People's Network PCs should perhaps in time be relocated in internet cafes, with machines in libraries dedicated for serious study. Present usage patterns are easy to determine because most of the PCs have been situated in full public view.

Lack of privacy effectively precludes use for serious purposes such as banking, share dealing or access to sensitive medical sites. The problem is particularly acute in small towns or villages where 'everyone knows everyone' and more than a few locals delight in knowing (or seeking to know) everyone else's business. Printing bank statements or tax returns can hardly be done in full public view, yet many libraries give no option. The librarian in charge of the printer could even be your neighbour! The Human Rights Act would suggest that people have a right to receive private correspondence in private. Software changes could overcome many of the problems.

However, some libraries have good facilities. In one Essex library, some computers are located in very public areas but others in secluded rooms with the specific aim of providing privacy. This would be equivalent to the long established right to take a reference book to a quiet corner and study it in private - surely something that is still needed in the computer age?

Surprisingly for a national project, there is no common approach for charging for time. Many libraries allow 20 or 30 free minutes per day, some allow an hour, while others charge all users except those holding a card signifying low wage or other disadvantage.

Machines stand idle.

As a consequence, banks of machines stand idle for much of the day. Printing costs vary from 20p to 1 for A4 colour. There are wide disparities also in access to the internet and chatroom sites for children and in the provision of written guidance to help first-time users.

Chatroom sites and access to the internet seem to have got a few councils mightily excited, with 'child protection' being used as a pretext for a great deal of 'snooping'. In some towns, I have walked in off the street, accessed the internet and walked out again. In other areas PCs are reserved for local library ticket-holders only. Some terms and conditions of use state that a log is kept of every web page and email site accessed by every user. Helpful written guidance on emailing and safe use of chatrooms is sometimes available but in others areas it is almost non-existent, and poorly trained staff have had to contend with a range of questions from irate would-be users.

No thought seems to have been given to specifying systems that shut down monitor power when the machines are not in use, despite this being a part of government guidance on helping to prevent global warming. In short, libraries are not singing from the same hymn sheet.

Users' views may not be important in the general scheme of library management, but surely it would have been possible to think through a few basic parameters before rushing headlong into large expenditure? In many libraries expensive equipment is being used only for trivial purposes. We might all soon know how to email, but will we be better educated and will not many libraries have lost much of their peaceful ambience? Will future governments use libraries as a source of information on the predilections and email contacts of each and every citizen? If so, I shall go back to browsing the book shelves and using pen and ink.


The author is a retired scientist and consultant. Readers' views on computer provision in libraries and especially on privacy for users can be sent to him at libprivacy@hotmail.com.


Some of the concerns highlighted in my article were subsequently echoed by CILIP's Chief Executive: see next page:

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