We are creating a unified UKRI website that brings together the existing research council, Innovate UK and Research England websites.
If you would like to be involved in its development let us know.

Filtering the net: how far should public libraries restrict online access?

“It's very easy to be a lofty academic and say we shouldn't filter the internet and everyone should have access to everything,” says Dr Louise Cooke, “But it's not so easy if you're a librarian trying to manage the diverse needs of a range of users.”

Cooke is the Director of Postgraduate Programmes in Information Management at Loughborough University, and has been investigating issues around censorship of the internet in public spaces for almost as long as internet filters have existed. From art school students unable to view images of Michelangelo’s David on university PCs to teenagers who visit library terminals because they are uncomfortable looking up questions they have about sexuality at home, Cooke has plenty of case studies where filtering software has prevented legitimate queries on public computers.

“The starting point for me is that I have a strong allegiance to freedom of expression,” says Cooke, “It's a basic human right that underpins democracy.”

In 2006, Cooke began looking specifically at access to the internet in public libraries, and was surprised at how little was known about what individual libraries were doing at a national level. The UK government had realised early on that offering access to the internet could become an essential part of a library's role. By the time Cooke began her research, the People's Network initiative, a project supported by the New Opportunities Fund and the Big Lottery Fund, had already invested well over £100m on equipping libraries with public access computers connected to the internet in order to help those without connections at home experience the same access to information as those who had. But Cooke found the discussion around exactly what people should and shouldn't be able to view on library computers had been strangely lacking.

“Filtering software in public libraries seems,” she wrote, “To have ‘crept in through the back door’ with little more than a murmur on the part of librarians.”

Cooke observed that while colleagues in the US engaged in fierce debates around end-user rights in libraries, the professional ethics of UK librarians led them to be generally opposed to censorship, but awareness even of their own institution's Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) for connected computers was often vague.

“What I really wanted to do was to find out the facts,” says Cooke, “What’s being filtered, what categories are being filtered, and who is making those decisions.”

As a result of this line of thinking, Cooke and colleagues Rachel Spacey, Claire Creaser and Adrienne Muir from Loughborough University began the Managing Access to the Internet in Public Libraries (MAIPLE) research project. With backing from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), they began piecing together a comprehensive overview of how public access computers in libraries are used, and how librarians control what can and can't be viewed on them.

Meanwhile, as ever more government services — such as claiming benefits or applying for a student loan — move online and access to the internet becomes more and more important for daily living, so library services become more important to those who use them. For many institutions, it's an existential question: already over 700 library services have closed since 2009 as a result of funding cuts, and the Library Campaign estimates another 300 will be shut down by April 2016. Yet YouGov recently found that 47% of UK adults had visited a library in the last 12 months (compared with 48% in 2005), and the Carnegie UK Trust reported that 50% of those without an internet connection at home who accessed online information in public places did so at a library. Similar patterns occur overseas: internet access is widely agreed to be an essential modern library service.

“Our headline finding is that 100% of the 79 Public Library Services that responded to our survey have filtering software in place,” says Cooke, “But there is a real lack of transparency and awareness about it. Even the library personnel sometimes couldn’t tell us who’d made the decision to install it. In one or two circumstances they didn’t know it was there and almost always users had no idea.”

Library users reporting problems with filtering software included an author looking for information about field sports and military history buffs. But as a result of talking to librarians, she says, her own feelings on the subject have become more moderate.

“All of them had stories,” she explains, “From minor breaches of the AUP to incidents where the police had to be called because someone was downloading child pornography. Filtering is necessary to allow librarians to do their jobs effectively, but it should be set at the lowest possible level.”

The important thing, Cooke says, is that librarians and visitors have conversations about the level of internet filtering, so that there's transparency and awareness around the subject. Right now, she says, people who find legitimate search queries are blocked are often too embarrassed to find out why, and librarians rarely know how to change the background settings.

“What we did find out is how critical public library access is for people,” says Cooke, “It’s a lifeline for young people looking for jobs. It’s a complete myth that they all have smartphones and the internet at home.”

UCL's Chris Batt agrees. Batt was the original project lead for the People's Network in 1999, and remains an active researcher in the field of public access to information. While there are significantly fewer people without access to broadband at home or on their phones than there were 15 years ago, he says, the importance of library access for those who do not becomes even more pronounced.

According to the latest figures from the independent UK communications industries regulator Ofcom, 8% of people in the UK have never accessed the internet. In addition, 25% of households do not have a fixed broadband connection.

There's still much for libraries to do, however, to adapt to the digital world, says Batt.

“What I would like to see is librarians in their traditional roles as curators of information, but extending that remit to the internet,” he says, “So that they would be able to advise visitors on the best places to find online courses, for example, or other resources online.”

As libraries adapt to the disruptive influence of the internet when it comes to reading habits and research methods, Cooke says that the issue of appropriate filtering and censorship will only become more pronounced. Many libraries are now offering free WiFi and reading areas that include coffee bars, which could represent a further culture change in the expectations of library users.

But whatever the future for internet filtering, says Cooke, it should never be seen as a cost-cutting mechanism for managing in-library computers. It should be viewed a tool to help librarians work, and not as a replacement for responsibility.

“Over reliance on electronic baby-sitting should be avoided at all costs.”

More information about MAIPLE can be found on the project website.

Internet filtering has been in the news recently, with one in five most-popular websites being blocked.

MAIPLE can also be found on Twitter, @MAIPLEproject

The AHRC's events at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival focus on big data.

Article by Adam Oxford

Return to features