XXI.5 September + October 2014
Page: 78
Digital Citation

HCI public policy issues in U.S. libraries

Jonathan Lazar, Mega Subramaniam, Paul Jaeger, John Bertot

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Cultural institutions such as museums, archives, and libraries often adhere to specific public policy requirements relating to the presentation of digital interfaces and information. With a mission of universal service to their communities, libraries must navigate unique public policy challenges related to interaction design. Meeting this mission can be difficult, given the wide range of educational backgrounds, levels of literacy and digital literacy, languages, disabilities, and other factors represented among library patrons. Efforts to promote an environment of inclusive technology access and universal usability in this context provide many important lessons about the impacts of public policy.

back to top  Insights


The modern era of public libraries began in the mid-1800s, as public libraries were built around the U.S., funded through tax funds and private donations. In the U.K., public libraries began to develop in a parallel manner and timeframe. These libraries were built with the general mission of service to all members of the community—the idea of providing the greatest access to the largest number of people became known as "the library faith." At the same time that public libraries were first being established, school libraries were being created in communities to support the educational needs of public school students. While their materials and resources were targeted more to the curriculum and young people's needs, school libraries were built with the same mission of access for all students.

Over the past 150 years, public and school libraries have constantly evolved to meet changing community needs and provide information and services through the newest formats and technologies. The current era of libraries began in the mid-1990s with the rise of the World Wide Web. The rapid movement toward online resources, communication, and interactions—along with the widespread need for access to and education about using the Internet—has helped shape the contemporary library into the only social institution that provides free public Internet access, support, and education. Providing access and training also has translated to key roles in supporting access to social services, job searching, online education, and other Web-based social functions.

back to top  Technology, Policy, and Library Services in the Digital Age

As the long-running Public Library Funding and Technology Access survey studies (which began in 1994) documented, libraries in the U.S. quickly adopted Internet access and achieved nearly 100 percent public access in the early 2000s [1]. Since then, libraries have continued to add new resources and new means of providing access, such as digital library collections, e-books, and mobile devices, and providing access 24/7. A significant portion of public and school library staff time now goes to digital literacy training and facilitation, both through formal (such as sessions or classes offered on a specific technology or skill development) and informal sessions (such as just-in-time assistance).

Libraries play very different roles, based on community needs, cultural norms, economic resources, prevalence of literacy, and other factors. A library often becomes a community center and a center for government and social services. For instance, in the Netherlands, the widespread technology and social support roles of public libraries have led to many social service agencies being moved into libraries. As another example, school libraries in Australia were the anchor institutions for a program that ran from 2009 to 2013 that gave all public school students a free laptop to use for their education and provided all of the necessary training and support [2]. Public libraries also play other substantial roles, such as creating "digital petting zoos" that enable patrons to experiment with emerging technologies such as 3D printers, tablet devices, e-readers, and other devices. These services not only assist patrons in learning a range of technology skills but also expose patrons to new technologies to which they would otherwise not have access.


The American Library Association in the U.S., and other similar entities around the world, have developed professional standards for the delivery of information, services, and education about the online environment and related technologies. In addition to professional standards and best practices, both public and school libraries are generally heavily governed by public policies. In the U.S., such policies are generated at the local, state, and federal levels. At all levels, policies affect materials and resources and how they can and should be accessed and used, with school libraries being expected to help with local and national educational programs, such as Common Core State Standards [3], and public libraries being expected to fill a wide range of social needs, from access to e-government, to assistance in applying for social services, to children's storytime. Some policy issues can be a mix of all levels; in different places, libraries may be required to filter or block Internet access as a result of local, state, and federal policies, or some combination. Or they may have no filtering requirements at all.

Policies at the local, state, and county levels tend to shape the funding of the library, the hours it is open, staffing requirements, and, in many places, the content of the library (how much is spent on what kinds of resources or even an approval process for the resources acquired). Policies at the federal level tend to influence the resources as well, often dictating what records must be kept, what kind of materials cannot be made available, and the privacy protections of patrons. Federal policy also tends to establish the primary guidelines for access to the collections. As such, information access and interface design in libraries are shaped by U.S. federal laws, including the Rehabilitation Act, the Homeland Security Act, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), the E-government Act, the USA PATRIOT Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and many others, as well as an assortment of state and local policies. These policies raise many issues of access and design in their implementation in public and school libraries. As can be seen in the subsequent examples, in attempting to achieve inclusive technology access and universal usability, libraries must balance the unique needs of their communities and the directions provided by policy. For instance, even when no laws or policies require services to be offered in multiple languages, many library websites in urban areas or areas with large immigrant populations offer digital services in multiple languages, including Spanish, Russian, Hindi, and Korean.

The USA PATRIOT Act has created a complex dynamic between libraries, civil liberties, and national security.

Libraries also struggle with issues of privacy. Libraries consider intellectual freedom a foundational principle that pervades all aspects of their services. In the digital age, many materials, such as e-books, online transactions with government agencies, patron records, browsing behavior via a library's computers or other devices, and/or tracking software on a library's network, leave traces of an individual's information and can impact the ability of libraries to protect patron privacy. Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act (as specified in 2001, with the most recent reauthorization in 2011) compelled libraries to relinquish patron records when presented with a National Security Letter and/or warrant. Libraries were further prevented from reporting that they were in receipt of such a request. Libraries are limited in disclosure to the director, any staff required to provide the information sought, and legal counsel. There is no records retention requirement in the USA PATRIOT Act, however, and libraries can and do destroy patron records—typically upon return of the borrowed materials. The USA PATRIOT Act has created a complex dynamic between libraries, civil liberties, and national security that is an example of the various forces shaping library policies related to interaction design. Here, we provide two other examples of public policies shaping the user experience in libraries—accessibility and filtering.

back to top  Accessibility for Patrons with Disabilities

Public and school libraries are required in many countries to offer accessibility for people with disabilities [4]. In the U.S., public libraries and their physical and electronic resources are required to be accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act (both Title II-State and Local Government, as well as Title III-Public Accommodations) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (as government entities), as well as relevant state disability laws. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates inclusion in all aspects of public education, also cover school libraries. Most disability rights laws internationally are modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act, extending similar rights to library access for people with disabilities in many other nations.

These laws affect the library structures, the technologies provided by the libraries, the physical materials in the library, and the electronic materials made available through the library. As the majority of resources acquired by many libraries are now digital, access and design issues are of significant importance in terms of accessibility. Library computers, websites, databases, digital libraries, e-books, and mobile devices all need to be accessible to comply with the range of U.S. federal guidelines. Such digital technologies and resources offer important new ways by which to provide content to patrons with print disabilities, so compliance with these policies is essential to ensuring equal access. In the past, an individual with a print disability (someone who has trouble seeing printed materials, physically handling printed materials, or cognitively processing printed materials) was often referred to the State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which could provide materials in large-print, Braille, or audio format. However, as public libraries move to more digital content, it's an opportunity to provide a wider range of materials at the local public library for patrons with print disabilities.

Students cannot acquire and develop digital literacy skills if they are unaware their Internet access is being filtered.

In some nations, the accessibility of library technologies and materials is part of broader policies to promote the online access and inclusion of members of a number of disadvantaged and underserved populations. In Ghana, accessibility for persons with disabilities through libraries is part of both the nation's Library Connectivity Project and its Disability Employment Project.

To promote the accessibility of their technologies and resources, libraries must consider accessibility in the information technology design process, as well as the acquisitions and procurement processes. This has presented problems for many libraries, such as those that discovered the inaccessibility of some e-book readers only after purchasing them. Procurement processes need to include accessibility evaluations, and libraries need to come up with long-term IT accessibility plans.

back to top  Filtering

There is a societal obligation to ensure the safety of patrons using the technology resources in public libraries, especially for patrons who are under 13. In this era where participation in social media and online networks among children and youth is recognized as a potential channel to acquire digital literacy skills, the situation surrounding access to the open (unfiltered) Web continues to be debated in the U.S. The E-Rate program provides discounts (ranging from 20 to 90 percent) to schools and public libraries to build and/or strengthen their Internet infrastructure [5], recognizing the power of the open Web in teaching and learning. On the other hand, there is Federal-level policy such as CIPA, which requires schools and libraries that participate in the E-Rate program to block or filter inappropriate materials. It should be noted, however, that the use of filtering varies substantially between schools and public libraries. Whereas public schools universally filter due to E-rate requirements, public libraries vary in the use of filters based on E-rate participation, state law, and library policies. Schools and libraries participating in the E-rate program must have policies such as acceptable use policies (AUPs) that dictate what will be blocked and/or filtered and determine what constitutes unauthorized disclosure of personal information among young patrons [6]. Schools have additional requirements, such as monitoring children's online activities. These competing policy frames (as coined by Ahn, Bivona, and DiScala [7]) provide the typical conundrum faced by libraries that juggle between "expanding access to technology" and "restrict[ing] ... use of new tools" [7].


In a recent survey conducted by the American Association of School Librarians, the following types of sites are filtered/blocked in over 40 percent of the surveyed school libraries: social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.), online chatting (IM), games, video services (such as YouTube, SchoolTube), personal email accounts, and peer-to-peer file sharing services such as Dropbox [8]. A variety of methods are used to filter content, such as filtering software that are URL based (over 70 percent), keyword-based filtering (over 60 percent), and blacklist sites (over 45 percent) [8]. The filtering software may block sites based on a variety of algorithms, such as the content of ads on the site, pop-ups, blog-like interfaces, questionable vocabularies, and many others. The issue gets even muddier as some libraries and schools restrict access to staff as well. Furthermore, there isn't any transparency of filtering presented in user interfaces.

In public school libraries, where computer labs are available and the teaching and learning of digital literacy most commonly takes place, filtering may be required by school district and federal policies. Due to lack of transparency in filtering, students cannot acquire and develop digital literacy skills if they are unaware that their Internet access is being filtered and are not aware of the mechanisms behind the filtering. These young people are presented with what appear to be search results similar to what they will encounter when they do a search out-of-school, at home, or using their smartphones. The blocked sites are not visible in the search results, and a student will know only when the link is clicked and a message stating that the site is blocked appears. In other cases, students may type in a URL or click an external link on a page and will get a similar message. Since the mechanism and algorithms used for filtering are often not shared with librarians and are often not intuitive, they cannot explain the reasons for such blocking to these young people. For example, sites like GoodReads and Shelfari, which encourage book reviews and reading, may appear on the search results at some libraries, but access will often be denied. This confuses students and limits their ability to assess the credibility of Internet content, since, logically, a site about book reviews should be an educational site they are encouraged to visit!

back to top  Summary

Technologists often discuss the intricacies of implementing a technology within a certain technological context—the existing operating systems, protocols, languages, and operating systems in an environment. When discussing public policies related to interaction design, it is important to understand the context of the application area and the various balances and trade-offs. For example, in the area of electronic medical records, there must be a balance between protecting the confidentiality of patient medical records and sharing records among staff for better understanding of a patient's medical condition. In electronic voting, there is a need for balance between the security of the voting process and the usability of the voting process, and ensuring that votes were cast as intended.

In cultural institutions such as libraries, the balance is often between providing open access to all information to all people in all formats, and public policy demands related to the filtering of information (to limit access) and limiting privacy (letting others know what was accessed). These are not completed debates with a final outcome, but rather are ongoing debates about societal goals. As such, it is important that all interaction design professionals and researchers get engaged with their public libraries and school libraries and help inform the policy debates.

back to top  References

1. Bertot, J.C., Gorham, U., Jaeger, P.T., and Taylor, N.T. Public libraries and the Internet 2012: Key findings, recent trends, and future challenges. Public Library Quarterly 31, 4 (2012), 303–325.

2. Thompson, K.M., Jaeger, P.T., Taylor, N.G., Subramaniam, M., and Bertot, J.C. Digital Literacy and Digital Inclusion: Information Policy and the Public Library. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2014.

3. The Common Core State Standards, the product of a major, multi-year state-led initiative coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers [9], is a United States-wide effort to establish rigorous standards for language arts and mathematics content and practices that catalyze the improvement in the achievement of all students and prepare them for success in college and career.

4. Lazar, J., Jaeger, P., and Bertot, J. Persons with disabilities and physical and virtual public library settings. In Public Libraries and the Internet: Roles, Perspectives, and Implications. J. Bertot, P. Jaeger, and C. McClure, eds. Libraries Unlimited, Santa Barbara, CA, 177–189.

5. Federal Communication Commission. E-Rate: Schools and Libraries USF Program. 2014;

6. Federal Communication Commission. Consumer Guide: Children's Internet Protection Guide. 2013;

7. Ahn, J., Bivona, L.K., and DiScala, J. Social media access in K–12 schools: Intractable policy controversies in an evolving world. Proc. of the 2011 American Society for Information Science and Technology 48, 1 (2011), 1–10.

8. American Association of School Librarians. School Libraries Count! Supplemental Report on Filtering. 2012;

9. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. Common Core State Standards. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington, DC, 2010.

back to top  Authors

Jonathan Lazar is a professor of computer and information sciences and director of the undergraduate program in information systems at Towson University. He also serves as the SIGCHI Chair of Public Policy, and was recently the Shutzer Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, researching connections between disability rights law and HCI.

Mega Subramaniam is an assistant professor at the College of Information Studies and associate director of the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on enhancing the role of libraries in fostering the mastery of new media literacy among underserved young people.

Paul T. Jaeger is an associate professor and diversity officer of the College of Information Studies and co-director of the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland. His research focuses on the ways in which law and public policy shape information behavior, particularly for underserved populations.

John Carlo Bertot is a professor and co-director of the the Information Policy and Access Center in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. His research focuses on the intersection of technology and information policy, with an emphasis on public libraries' use of and involvement with the Internet.

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