Lessons School Librarians Teach Others
American Libraries, December 2004. (Referenced in the 7th edition of the ALA's Intellectual Freedom Manual and now available online.) and chosen for inclusion in The Whole Library Handbook 4, edited by AL Senior Editor George Eberhart, scheduled for publication in early 2006 by ALA Editions.
School library media specialists (SLMSs) have stepped up to the plate to be primary policymakers, staff trainers, and experts on information and technology ethics in our schools.
We give the teaching of complex safe and ethical technology use equal or greater importance than teaching the simple “how-to’s” of technology use. Protecting one’s privacy, guarding one’s property, and stressing the safe use of technologies, especially the Internet, is now one of the most important ways we “safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions” as the ALA Code of Ethics asks that we do. We have accepted as part of our mission and charge the ethical education of our students and, to some degree, their parents and our fellow educators.
We have one role that has grown in importance, teacher, and another that has grown in complexity, watchdog. It has always been a part of our job to help ensure copyright compliance by both staff and students in our districts, not just through training, but by monitoring as well. This is not a task most of us would choose for ourselves, but one that is thrust upon us because of the resources we control. Being asked to make unauthorized copies of print and audiovisual materials, to load software on more workstations than for which the licenses permit, or to set up a showing of a videotape that falls outside of public performance parameters is not an uncommon experience. In these cases, we have learned to quietly, politely and firmly just say “no” and explain how such an action violates not only the law, but our personal and professional ethical values as well.
But the SLMS’s ethical leadership extends beyond being the “copyright” cops for our schools. We have four other major “ethical” challenges we face on a daily basis.
1. Encouraging intellectual freedom in a filtered environment
To a large degree, CIPA (the Children’s Internet Protection Act) has taken the decision to use or not use Internet filters out of the hands of local decision makers. Districts who receive federal funding, including E-rate telecommunications discounts, must install and use an Internet filtering device to be in compliance. Yet a strong commitment to intellectual freedom on the part of the SLMS is possible even in a filtered environment.
Internet filtering can have a wide range of restrictiveness. Depending on the product, the product’s settings, and the ability to override the filter to permit access to individual sites, filters can either block a high percentage of Internet resources (specific websites, email, chat rooms, etc.) or a relatively small number of sites. In our role as proponents of intellectual freedom, we strongly advocate for the least restrictive settings and generous use of override lists in our school’s Internet filter. We make sure that at least one machine that can access the complete unfiltered web is available to the SLMS so that questionably blocked sites can be reviewed and immediately accessed by staff and students if found to be useful. We ask that when anyone requests that a specific Internet site be blocked, we treat the request like any material challenge.
SLMSs also have the ethical responsibility to help ensure patrons use the Internet in acceptable ways by:
• Helping write and enforce the district’s Acceptable Use Policy.
• Developing and teaching the values needed to be self-regulating Internet users.
• Supervising, and possibly limiting, computers with Internet access and making sure all adults who monitor networked computers are knowledgeable about the Internet.
• Educating and informing parents and the public about school Internet uses and issues.
• Creating learning environments that promote the use of the Internet for accomplishing resource-based activities to meet curricular objectives.
2. Preventing plagiarism made easier through digital resources
It’s hard to remember, but intellectual property theft existed prior to electronic cutting and pasting, peer-to-peer music sharing services, and free term paper sites. It’s just that the speed, availability, and ease with which digital property can be copied have all led to greater instances of piracy, plagiarism, and even disdain for copyright laws.
The SLMS teaches students to respect the property of others as well as protect their own property from the abuses of others. Students need to know that copyright law protects their own original work and that they have a right to give or not give permission for others to use it.
But the major challenge for the SLMS is helping teachers stem the tide of plagiarism washing through our schools that has been exacerbated by new technologies. One study reports that more than half of those high school students surveyed acknowledged downloading a paper from the Internet or copying text without proper attribution.
While we need to acknowledge this is a serious problem, educators often spend too much effort trying to “catch” plagiarism in student work. Our best SLMSs plan with teachers to find ways of preventing plagiarism before it happens. And this can and should be done in a number of ways:
• By teaching what plagiarism is, when and why to paraphrase, when using another’s words is appropriate, and how to cite all formats of sources.
• By having a school or district-wide “cheating” policy that includes the definition of and consequences for plagiarism.
• By creating “assignments worth doing,” making sure they are relevant to students’ lives, ask for creativity and originality, and are assessed in thoughtful ways.
3. Growing concerns over privacy and confidentiality because of networked information
As SLMSs, we help students become knowledgeable about technology issues related to privacy both so that they can protect their own privacy and honor the privacy of others. Students need to understand that businesses and organizations use information to market products, and that information is often gathered electronically, both overtly and covertly. Students need to know that a stranger is a stranger, whether met on the playground or on the Internet and that personal information shared with a stranger may put themselves and their families at risk. Students need to know that schools have the right to search their files when created and stored on school owned computer hardware. Students need to be taught to respect the privacy of others: that just because information is displayed on a computer screen doesn't make it public; that information inadvertently left accessible does not mean that it is appropriate to view it.
We help the school set good guidelines. Helen Adam’s booklet The Internet Invasion: Is Privacy at Risk? (Follett’s Professional Development Series, 2002.) lists specific school topics related to privacy, and the SLMS should understand the privacy issues surrounding each and be able to help make good school policy related to them.
4. Need for information evaluation skills of materials on the "free" Internet
The Internet and online services have given us access to an unimaginable spectrum of opinions, now readily available to students and staff in even the smallest of school library media centers. Scholars, pundits, crazies, and 7th-graders all can and do publish “information” online, often undistinguishable by appearance from reliable information. The information presented by businesses, non-profits, “think-tanks,” and other sites may be accurate, but heavily biased.
While the availability of misinformation or biased opinions is often confusing or can lead researchers to make choices or form opinions that are embarrassing, there is a profound and very serious dimension to this issue as well. Increasingly students are using the Internet to meet personal needs and for school assignments that ask them to solve genuine problems. Making good consumer choices, health decisions, and career choices are a part of many districts’ curricula. Gaining historical background and perspectives on social, scientific and political issues through research is a common task expected by many teachers.
We teach our library users to be able to evaluate information for themselves. Were I the Grand Panjandrum of Libraries, I would instantly add Johnson’s IXth Statement to ALA’s Code of Ethics: We teach our library users to be critical users of information.
Established guidelines for the accuracy and reliability of information, understandable by even our youngest students, include the concepts of authority, age of the information, verifiability, and bias.
5. Closing the ongoing digital divide
The SLMS advocates for liberal access to electronic resources for all students in a school. Home access and public library access to information technologies alone will not close the “digital divide.” We serve on building technology teams and advocate for access to technology for all students. Too often technologies are acquired and sequestered by individual departments, grade levels or teachers within schools. The SLMS voices the need for non-departmental (library) access to information technologies that are available before, during and after school hours. Our “whole-school” view puts us in a unique position of knowing which children are getting technology skills and access in our buildings.
Doug Johnson is the Director of Media and Technology for the Mankato (MN) Area Public Schools and author of Learning Right from Wrong in the Digital Age: An Ethics Guide for Parents, Teachers, Librarians, and Others Who Care about Computer-Using Young People. (Linworth, 2003) and contributing author to Ethics in School Librarianship: A Reader (edited by Carol Simpson. Linworth, 2003.)