A Library Policy for Public Wireless Internet Access
In April 2005 the following question was posted to IOWALIB, the electronic mailing list of Iowa librarians:
"I am wondering how many libraries have a laptop use policy… Do we need to govern this type of computer use? Is it the same as our public computers? Are they different, or are they one in the same?"
This was one of those list postings that sparked much more discussion than the author intended. It was a particularly intriguing question for me as I'd been teaching a workshop on Internet access policy issues for Bibliographical Center for Research (BCR) for several years and was currently offering that workshop in eight different locations within Iowa. Yet this particular topic had never been something that occurred to me to discuss in the workshop, nor had anyone asked. So, in the next workshop, I broached the subject and, despite the fact that 90% of the libraries represented did not currently offer public wireless access, everyone was interested and debate was lively. (In several cases, the libraries in question had been considering offering wireless access in the foreseeable future and were looking to plan for the eventuality.)
When I received the e-mail requesting this article I was at the reference desk of the Smokey Hill branch of the Arapahoe Library District (ALD) here in Colorado. Knowing that the branch offered public WiFi access, I wondered if they had policies dealing with this issue and whether or not their policies covered everything that I thought should be covered. Once I found a copy on their Web site (http://www.arapahoelibraries.org/FamilyOfSites/InternetAccess.cfm) I read it and was pleasantly surprised. Not only did I feel that their policy covered everything I thought it should, I found that it was written so well that I highly recommend it as a model. Let's take a look at the parts of ALD's policy.
"Free wireless Internet access is available at Arapahoe Library District public libraries. You don't need a plug or phone jack, just turn on your notebook/laptop computer or other wireless device and start surfing."
In this case ALD is not only introducing the policy but using it to market the service by stressing the ease of which it can be used by the public.
ALD's policy goes on to list the equipment necessary for a person to connect to the WiFi signal.
"You will need a notebook/laptop computer or other wireless device with 802.11b or 802.11g wireless networking.
"If you are not sure if your notebook/laptop computer or other device has this functionality, please check with the manufacturer or supplier of your equipment. If your notebook/laptop computer or other device does not include wireless networking, you may be able to purchase a variety of external notebook/laptop pc cards and USB devices. The manufacturer or supplier of your equipment, or local technology merchants can help you find the right product for your notebook/laptop computer or other device."
You may notice that although these instructions are accurate they are by no means complete; nor should they be. Since there are any number of combinations of devices (laptops, PDAs, cell phones) and operating systems (Windows Me/XP/200, Mac, PalmOS) with which a patron might want to use your connection, you do not want to include detailed instructions. You may, however, wish to create these instructions as separate handouts, but they do not belong as part of your library's policy.
There are several issues you should also deal with in your policy. Most of these address limitations in the service itself and issues dealing with security.
Since the layout and the materials used in the construction of your building will have an effect on the ability of a patron to connect (and more importantly the number of hotspots you placed within your building) you should make a point to mention that not every location in the building may have access at any particular time.
"We have tried to make wireless access as available as possible in our libraries, but you may encounter some "dead" spots in a library where wireless reception may be limited. If you have trouble accessing the Internet or staying online please move to a different location within the library."
The next part of ALD's policy deals directly with the issue mentioned at the beginning of this article - whether or not someone using their own laptop should be following your library's general Internet access rules. Since they are using your library's connection, and are in your building, the general consensus is yes. In ALD's case they've stated this along with making a point to mention that the connection is not filtered.
Next, your policy should mention security issues. Public WiFi access is not secure - it isn't designed to be. Unfortunately, not all WiFi users realize this. Therefore you should explicitly mention this.
"The Library District's wireless network is not secure. Information sent to and from your notebook/laptop computer or other wireless device may be captured by anyone else with a wireless device and the appropriate software."
As with most other Internet access policies I've read in the past few years, there is usually a statement informing patrons that library will only provide limited hands-on computer assistance. In the case of connecting foreign equipment to your Internet connection, you will probably want to state that you will offer no assistance at all. I will add that, in my experience, individuals with wireless access devices will already know how to use them and will find no need to ask for assistance.
"Library staff is not able to provide technical assistance and no guarantee can be made that you will be able to make a wireless connection."
Lastly, as with data-related disclaimers in standard Internet access policies, you will want to disavow responsibility for patron data, and in these cases, patron hardware.
"The Library District assumes no responsibility for the safety of equipment or for notebook/laptop computer or other wireless device configurations, security, or data files resulting from connection to the Library District's wireless access."
As you can see from ALD's example, if you offer public WiFi access in your library there's not too much you need to add to your existing policies. With these few additions, you should feel comfortable in offering this valuable service.
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