Friday, 13 February 2009

Libraries Helping Bush Fire Devastated Communities

Even though the threat of the devastating Victorian Bush fires is not over, it is fantastic to see that the local libraries are already considering the ways they can assist in rebuilding the effected communities. According to the local library email traffic "Local Government Victoria is working with affected councils on a range of resourcing, service and infrastructure issues, including libraries." This is encouraging, as it recognises the role all libraries (but especially public libraries) play in community building. The need for a FREE PUBLIC place (a third place) where people can come together, access and share information, or just be, is important in any community. For communities that have been so devastated it is vitally important.

However, to meet the more immediate needs of the effected communities, I agree with Julian Shortland (a Sydney based Library Technician) who emailed the following:

"One thing public libraries can do ASAP is ensure their IT people remove their blocks on Web 2.0 services such as Facebook, Myspace, bebo, etc to allow users who's PCs have been destroyed to post updates that they are still alive to put their friends' minds at rest, and to see if their friends have also survived. While many survivors may have their mobile phones and PDAs, they do not have their chargers, so these devices are now flat. Also, www.meebo.com needs to be unlocked to allow people to access MSN, Yahoo, AIM, ICQ and similar chat products without installing extra software."

It is ironic that while librarians are busy talking about how to use Web 2.0 technology and how to encourage social networking and community building, that so many of their local IT departments are busy blocking these things. I know of more than one Chief Librarian who complains of the obstacles their Council IT department puts in front of them; blocking them from offering social networking services.

It begs the question why, and I guess this can be divided into three broad categories:

A. Trying to keep bandwidth costs down,
B. Risk mitigation; protecting the local council against the "misuse" of the Internet terminals in public libraries, and
C. It is easier to say no than to make things happen.

But does it have to be all or nothing? Is there are smarter third way that opens up the use of social networking / Web 2.0 services in public libraries while still putting some parameters around things? Regional Library Services (where they control their own networks) appear to be more flexible in this respect. Rather than block things, maybe a better approach is to open up services within a code of conduct framework that patrons are asked to first sign up to. Monitoring and blocking patrons when they then breach the code of conduct would help protect against misuse. I am reminded of the ALA's Report to President-Elect Obama [PDF file], which asks now President Obama to:

* Support legislation and fund programs that include Internet safety education, as opposed to Internet blocking and filtering;
* Oppose any further filtering/blocking requirement for the E-rate and other programs; assure protection of First Amendment rights and other civil liberties in the online/digital environment;
* Support vigorous enforcement of existing child pornography laws; increase public awareness about reporting child porn and other illegal Internet activities.

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