This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, February 24, 1999

February 24, 1999 - Internet E-mail Reconsidered

In ancient Japan lived a wise old man. He had a son who grew up strong, handsome, and a good helper on the farm. His neighbors often told him, "How fortunate you are!"

"Maybe," the old man invariably replied.

One day, the son tripped over a root in the field and broke his leg. "How terrible!" said the villagers.

"Maybe," said the old man.

Two days later, the emperor's men came through, conscripting all able-bodied men. The son, clearly unable to fight, was passed over. "How lucky you are!" said his neighbors.

"Maybe," said the old man. And so on.

The point to this old Zen joke is that you never really know how things are going to turn out. So it's best to view sudden turns of events with equanimity.

Take Internet access at the library. Like most of the libraries in the country, we've tended not to place too many restrictions on how patrons use our terminals. Why? Because the technology is so new, no one is quite sure what its true purposes will turn out to be.

The only limit we've placed is one of time. We see Internet workstations as reference tools, and to make sure all of our patrons get some kind of opportunity to use them, we say, "you're limited to 20 minutes." If no one is waiting, we tend to be lax. But if somebody comes up and you've been there for awhile, you're expected to move along.

Such a rule is a little hard to enforce, of course. We can't afford to have our staff standing behind each patron making sure he or she watches the clock. But the rule is based on something it happens I put a lot of stock in: courtesy. The more polite everybody is, the fewer rules we need.

Although what gets the most, and usually sensationalistic, press about library Internet use is minors accessing pornography, the truth is, that doesn't happen very often. What happens far more often is that patrons tie up Internet workstations to do personal e-mail. And when we ask them to move along, I'm sorry to say that far too many people have been most inconsiderate. Rude, even.

Why is this a problem? Because we're buying more and more reference tools that are available only through the World Wide Web. Such tools tend to be far easier to use than print. Moreover, they are more current, and instead of buying multiple copies for multiple library branches, we can just buy one, and people can look at them not only from anywhere in our district, but even from home.

But if people are typing nice long letters to their friends, these tools aren't available to library users in-house. And although I'll admit that e-mail can be a very powerful research tool on occasion, it isn't generally used that way. Our purpose in providing these terminals was to provide access to a powerful new reference tool.

Some of our libraries provide courtesy telephones, for use by children who don't have money for a pay phone, and need to call for a ride home. But just as we're not in the business of providing free telephone service to all comers, neither is it our job to provide free Internet e-mail.

So, reluctantly, I've decided to recommend to our Library Board of Trustees that we find ways to block access to a variety of locations offering free e-mail. If possible, I may try to set up a single workstation for that purpose at each location, but you'll have to sign up for it, and time limits will be strictly enforced.

If you have strong feelings about this, now would be the time to let me know. Write me care of your local library, call me at 303-688-8752, or e-mail me (from home!) at jaslarue@earthlink.net.

Is this policy change a good idea?

Here's what I think: Maybe.

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