InfoShok: The Information Promise

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  2. InfoShok
  3. I Sing the School Electric

Librarians should be overjoyed at one prospect on the information highway: no more dealing with overdue books. There are many people, quite vocal, who believe that librarians are more appropriate ‘Internet leaders’ than computer geeks. I agree with them in many important respects. They tend to idolize the librarian as civil liberties hero. K.K. Campbell, net reporter for the Toronto, Canada, eye Weekly wrote, when talking about the Homolka case, in which Canadian police asked a computer administrator for access to a student’s computer account, the computer administrators “were spineless.” The police asked the student to “bend over”, but it was the computer administrator who “applied the vaseline.” The writer continued, (?)

Computer administrators have no history of standing up to the police or the state. Librarians, on the other hand, have decades of precedent in demanding subpoenas and warrants when authority comes calling.

Karen Adams, executive director of the Canadian Library Association, told eye a librarian would probably have demanded a warrant before revealing if Lt. Starbuck [the student’s “net name”] even had an account at a library.

But ‘Lt. Starbuck’ did the same thing that the system administrators did. When confronted by police, he very quickly gave out the name of his writing ‘accomplice’, something that a more professional reporter might not have done.

Carl Kadie is the founder of the Internet’s Computers and Academic Freedom newsletter. In the same eye Weekly article, he pointed out that both Internet ‘librarians’ and Internet ‘reporters’ need to take their roles seriously: Professional librarians and professional reporters have codes of ethics that teach them how to handle such situations.

Kadie says that computer administrators desperately need to develop similar ethics.

“Just as a professional librarian would have been less likely than the computer system administrators to turn over personal information to the police, so professional reporters are less likely than students under the gun to disclose sources to the authorities,” Kadie told eye.

“The promise of the information superhighway is that we all become librarians and reporters. The danger right now is most people don’t understand the responsibilities that come with their new roles.”

Sonia Cawsey, reference librarian at the University of San Diego pointed out that

I don’t believe that libraries would be better equipped to handle Internet policies and concerns than computing departments. However, I think that computing departments may indeed have much to learn from libraries’ and librarians’ struggles to provide fair collection development and access policies. Public libraries have often dealt with issues of censorship and self-censorship. Many Public librarians feel that if they could, they would provide access to all information to any one at any time for no charge. (?)

Self-censorship? What’s that? Librarians are limited by shelf space and budgets. Computing departments are limited by network ‘bandwidth’ and, of course, budgets as well. The big difference, however, is that librarians control their book acquisition budgets; if I want the library to acquire a certain book, I fill out a form requesting that book. The request is either accepted or denied. Computing departments don’t control their ‘acquisition’ budgets. If I want to publish a book on the net from my hard drive, I don’t ask for ‘permission’ from the Academic Computing department.

Sonia points out that the University of San Diego is a Catholic institution. As a policy, they buy lots of Catholic books. As a form of censorship, this is quite benign: if an alumnus were to donate a bunch of books about recreational drug use, the USD libraries would most likely accept them and make shelf space for them--as, in fact, they have.

The computing department’s quandary is much different. Without central control, they can’t use this benign form of censorship. If I decide to publish information about recreational drug use on the net, the only way for USD to stop this is by telling me to stop. They have to actively censor the material. If so many people at USD start publishing that our network becomes overloaded, and we can’t get the budget to increase our network capacity, we’ll have to reduce the load, and the only way to do that will be to reduce the number of people who are publishing. But rather than choosing what to buy, like librarians do when managing resources, computing departments will have to choose what to burn. They will have to tell someone to stop publishing something. And that goes against the grain of academic standards of freedom.

  1. K. K. Campbell, “Policing the New Media”, eye Weekly, May 19, 1994.
  2. Sonia Cawsey, private e-mail, January 19, 1995.
  1. The Library of the Future
  2. InfoShok
  3. I Sing the School Electric