Libraries, the Internet, and September 11
First Monday

Libraries, the Internet, and September 11 by Judy Matthews and Richard W. Wiggins

Abstract
As the public clamored for information after September 11, libraries and librarians answered their call. This paper examines the response of libraries and librarians while noting some unexpected impacts on the profession.

Contents

Introduction
The New York Public Library Leads the Way
Libraries Nationwide Meet New Information Needs
Libraries and Librarians Help in Unexpected Ways
The Impacts Upon Librarians

 

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Introduction

As the terrible events of 11 September began to unfold, people in the affected areas of New York City, Washington D.C., rural Pennsylvania - as well as people across the United States and around the world - rushed to find information about the attacks. Some watched television in homes or offices. Others pointed Web browsers at trusted and familiar Web sites, from CNN to the New York Times to Google.

That the attacks and the subsequent war broke out in the era of widespread Web access and 24-hour news channels meant that concerned citizens had instant access to global information resources. One could read Tony Blair's list of particulars against Osama Bin Laden on the Web before it was described in a banner headline on page one of the New York Times. Or if one found CNN's truncated coverage of a speech by Blair or some other international figure, one could visit the C-Span Web site and review the unredacted speech online. Or one could read coverage in any major newspaper from around the world.

In the days and weeks after the attacks, people yearned for authoritative, reliable information about a wide variety of topics: terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, biological attacks, coping with grief, donating to victims' families, etc. Libraries played an important role in meeting this sudden demand for information on so many diverse subjects.

 

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The New York Public Library Leads the Way

Many libraries offered immediate access to information by organizing Web pages with pointers to freely-available Web resources. In effect, they built ad-hoc mini-portals on the disaster. Not surprisingly, the New York Public Library (NYPL) took the lead in building an authoritative list of sources, beginning soon after the Twin Towers collapsed [1]. At the NYPL Web site residents of New York and citizens around the country found pointers to city services, ways to donate to charity, resources for business owners and the newly unemployed, and more. Patrons in New York City and elsewhere could trust that these sources had been hand-picked by librarians.

NYPL spokesperson Jennifer Bertram says that reference librarians at the New York Public Library handled an especially broad range of queries. Just as search engine Google reported, a number of patrons sought information about Nostradamus. NYPL fielded a number of reference questions generated by classroom assignments for K-12 students. Adult queries covered other subjects. Parents wanted advice on helping children cope. One branch of NYPL found demand increased for its collection of audio tapes teaching English skills to Arabic speakers.

Of course, library efforts went beyond Web-based resources and public access to the Internet. Reference librarians at NYPL, at the public library in Arlington, Virginia, and elsewhere found themselves inundated with requests for information, not always from traditional patrons. NYPL organized special events at various branches, such as children's and teens programs, and meetings for New Yorkers for whom English is a second language.

 

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Libraries Nationwide Meet New Information Needs

Unfortunately, soon after the disaster numerous examples of bogus information appeared on the Internet: deliberate falsehoods such as the claim that Jews had been warned to stay out of the Twin Towers; hoaxes of one sort or another; even fraudulent donation scams. Libraries provided a way to find trusted sources on the Internet and beyond.

Other libraries in the United States put up their own lists of resources, tailored to local needs; many simply pointed to the NYPL pages for the bulk of their offerings. Michael Sauer, an Internet trainer, started his own list of resources and shared it on library mailing lists. Sauer says he began his effort as an exercise in XHMTL and Cascading Style Sheets; it evolved into a more complete list. He comments " ... use and linking to the site has just exploded, surprising me somewhat. I never intended it to be as big as it is, just that once I noticed people actually using the site I felt that I had to keep it up and keep adding to it."

The pattern repeated itself at public and other libraries around the country. In some cases, libraries offered their own links to authoritative resources. In other cases, they relied primarily on the mini-portals built by others, such as NYPL, the American Library Association, or Google.

Some librarians used the tragedy to educate patrons. Courtney Young, a librarian at Michigan State University, happened to be giving undergraduates instruction in use of a research library soon after the attacks. She explained what kinds of searches would work well in the library catalog, or various licensed databases, or in Internet searching. Young observes, "When I got to the point where I was explaining keyword searching, one of my students jumped ahead and did a search for 'bombs'. He immediately raised his hand and asked why he got books about Irish literature. This allowed me to demonstrate and explain how keyword searching works, and that the students would not find any books in the catalog about the day's events. It was also a perfect transition into the databases (particularly ProQuest and Lexis/Nexis for newspapers) as a place to find currently published information. The students quickly made the connection about publication cycles and information sources."

Another MSU librarian, Agnes Widder, helped a history professor find materials, including original government documents, on Anglo-Afghan wars of the 1800s.

In the immediate aftermath of the events, the public may not have thought of libraries as a source to tap for relevant information. Another librarian at Michigan State happened to be scheduled to provide instruction in use of the library just a few hours after the initial attacks. Kathleen Weessies said that not a single patron mentioned the attacks or asked about finding resources on it in the library. Yet, she notes, "video footage of the crashes and the buildings going down" quickly appeared online and that the "Napster-like network Gnutella lists dozens of clips available for download." She concludes "I think that many library patrons just don't consider librarians to hold relevant information about breaking-news type situations." As time passed after 11 September, people's information needs moved from immediate news to more detailed kinds of queries, and the proliferation of unvetted, untrustworthy material on the Internet increased the need for authoritative information.

As the weeks have unfolded since the events, many libraries around the country have scaled back on their Web efforts to provide specialized information resources about the attacks and terrorism. For instance, after the attacks, the Monterey (California) Public Library offered this preamble to their collection of resources (at http://www.monterey.org/library/sep11.html):

"The Board of Trustees, staff and volunteers of the Monterey Public Library are shocked and deeply saddened by the events of September 11. We offer these information resources in sympathy to everyone affected by this tragedy, and in honor of those who lost their lives."

More recently, the Monterey library scaled back its unique organizing efforts:

"The Library is your community resource for information and answers about the terrorist attacks, relief efforts, the U.S. response, history, policy choices, local impacts, and related issues.
One web page can no longer cover this wide range of topics and daily events. For a few key links, click here. For information on any subject, contact the Reference Services Desk at 831.646.3933 or RefDesk@ci.monterey.ca.us."

 

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Libraries and Librarians Help in Unexpected Ways

The New York Public Library, like many public libraries, provides public Internet access at various branches. After the attacks, the NYPL also helped New Yorkers use the Internet to reach loved ones or search for new employment. Although NYPL's own Internet service was affected by the loss of a Verizon switching center at Ground Zero, service was soon restored to open branches. Many New Yorkers lost their access to the Internet at work or at home, so public Internet terminals became a vital lifeline.

Librarians also helped meet unexpected information needs. Suddenly members of Congress wanted in-depth analysis of modes of terrorist attack; some congressional offices used the services of university librarians, who performed searches and sent results back over the Internet.

Information needs took on new and unexpected forms. Members of the Music Library Association distributed on the Web a list of classical selections that might calm the nerves of a frightened public.

 

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The Impacts Upon Librarians

It was not only an anxious public that benefited from these efforts. The New York Public Library's Jennifer Bertram reports that many staff librarians found that being able to assist New Yorkers with information and other needs helped the librarians themselves cope with the horrific events. Many librarians reported a sense of being useful in a time of crisis, or of helping others in a time of very real need.

Not only librarians near ground zero felt this sense of comfort from helping others. Michael Sauer reports that "it has been somewhat therapeutic to me. It has helped me deal with what happened and re-focus me on my life and job." NYPL's Bertram says many staff had similar feelings. One librarian said "It has been a tremendous help to me to help others in this time of need."

Not all impacts on libraries and librarians were salutary. Immediately after the attacks, a public librarian in Delray Beach, Florida, recognized news photographs of some of the hijackers, and immediately called the police. Kathleen Hensman's action violated Florida's law protecting the confidentiality of patron activities - and would have violated the law in 47 other states as well as the District of Columbia [2].

Few spokespeople for the library profession are willing to directly challenge Hensman's actions. The American Library Association has posted an FAQ attempting to outline its position on patron confidentiality in a time of the perceived need to alter notions of privacy rights in response to the war on terrorism [3]. ALA also offered librarians advice in light of the Patriot Act's provisions forbidding disclosure of an investigation to someone alleged by the government to be a terrorist [4].

Yet disturbing questions remain:

  • Whose decision is it to call the police when a librarian feels she or he has encountered possible terrorist uses of a library? If I library insists that all staff members go through the director before calling police, what happens when a librarian decides to make the call without approval?
  • What constitutes evidence that a patron is a terrorist? If a teenaged patron is obsessed with information on anthrax or bomb making, can a concerned librarian turn that patron in to the police?
  • Will state laws providing patron confidentiality remain on the books, but ignored? What district attorney or attorney general will prosecute a well-meaning librarian "helping in the war on terrorism?"
  • Will the government's desire for information on terrorists be limited to specific searches of known targets of investigations, or will the government pursue digital dragnets, asking to surreptitiously examine circulation records, Web site usage logs, and search engine logs? How will libraries and the profession respond to such requests?
  • After the attacks, a number of government agencies removed from their Web sites information on sensitive topics, such as the locations of U.S. nuclear and hazardous chemical facilities. In some cases, agencies asked libraries to remove related materials, whether print or CD-ROM, from their physical holdings. Librarians are accustomed to building and maintaining their collections based on the information needs of their patrons, not the mandates of government agencies. How will libraries and librarians respond to these new government edicts? What will the effects be on the citizenry's ability (and duty) to remain informed?

Libraries and librarians responded to 11 September in myriad ways that provided much-needed information and support to the public. The ensuing months and years will challenge the profession and its ethics in myriad other ways, some of which we can only anticipate. End of article

 

About the Authors

Judy Matthews heads the Physics-Astronomy Library at Michigan State University.
Web: http://www.lib.msu.edu/matthe20/
E-mail: matthe20@msu.edu

Richard Wiggins is a senior information technologist in the MSU Computer Laboratory. He writes frequently about Internet topics for national publications.
Web: http://richardwiggins.com
E-mail: rich@richardwiggins.com

 

Notes

1. See http://www.nypl.org/branch/response.html.

2. Source: David E. Rosenbaum, 2001. "A Nation Challenged: Questions of Confidentiality; Competing Principles Leave Some Professionals Debating Responsibility to Government," New York Times, (23 November).

3. See http://www.ala.org/pio/crisis/qa.html.

4. See http://www.ala.org/alaorg/oif/alertusapatriotact.html .


Editorial history

Paper received 3 December 2001; accepted 3 December 2001.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

Libraries, the Internet, and September 11 by Judy Matthews and Richard W. Wiggins
First Monday, volume 6, number 12 (December 2001),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_12/matthews/index.html





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