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A private library with a public purpose

One of the odd things about the library that employs me is that we are an odd sort of public/private place. We are, in point of fact, private—the university is a private one, and we could, if we chose, keep the public out. But in common with a lot of private university libraries (but by no means all), we have lots of services available for the public as well. We probably have a little more wide open a policy than most places: pretty much anybody can use anything within the library any time we are open. We do reserve the right to throw people out or kick them off the computer or just stop helping them over at reference, but we rarely exercise that right. There are always half-a-dozen or more people just camped out at one of our computers, doing whatever it is they are doing. Some of them are regulars, in every day or nearly, some for hours and hours. I know some of their names; others are nodding acquaintances.

Several of them appear to be running businesses out of our library. Well, and by running a business I mean that they are using our internet connection to do all that internetty stuff, filing paperwork and sending invoices and so on and so forth. There’s a sense in which the guy who is writing his memoirs is running a business, in that he is hoping to make money from selling the thing. Or you could argue, I suppose, that the people in here studying for the bar exam are running a business, in some indirect sense. Or the fellow who is doing investment research. But that’s not what I mean—I mean that they are doing the things that they would do in a home office, only they are doing them here. And not doing them once a month when the DSL is down, either. Five days a week, in for a few hours to take care of business.

Now, I have to admit that makes me a trifle uneasy. On the one hand, I totally understand that once you have let people come in here and use the internet and the books and periodicals and so on, it would be very wrong indeed to restrict that use because of the content. On the other, we are an educational institution, we get lots of money from various groups and individuals (not least the students who pay tuition) in order to support the educational mission of the institution, and there is something not altogether kosher about our using our resources to support businesses with no connection to the University. Or with a connection, one might even say. And there’s some sense in which allowing free riders to better themselves, to learn, to get exposure to the wide variety of fields we cover, to even up the digital gap a bit, is all very nice, but allowing free riders to make a quick buck or two isn’t so heartwarming.

Still. If we were to have a policy saying that you couldn’t run a business out of the library, we would have to enforce it somehow, and that would be much, much worse than letting people do their things. Clearly.

I would be curious, at this point, to know what Gentle Readers think at this stage, before I go any further. I won’t stop here and put a blank space, but please just think, for a moment, about your response to the situation, formulate it as if you were going to respond, one way or another. You would be easy in your mind about the regular use of the academic library by unaffiliated patrons for profit-oriented businesses unrelated to the university. You would be uneasy in your mind, but would rather put up with it than enforce some sort of exclusionary policy. You think we’re crazy to allow random people to come in and get on-line anyway. Something along those lines.

Now, another point: I’m pretty sure one of the fellows is running a business selling dirty movies. I’m not positive, but I think that’s what is going on—anyway, let’s posit that he is, or at least that somebody could well be. He is not watching dirty movies; that we could very easily put a stop to, if we wanted. Nothing more salacious than an occasional publicity still gets on-screen; mostly he appears to work on a catalogue of some kind, inventory perhaps, getting titles and addresses and whatnot. Now, I am aware that he could be doing research for a book, or I could be misreading what I glimpse on the screen (and I do attempt not to be nosy, for my own peace of mind), or there could be a million other explanations for what he is looking up, printing, and writing. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that this guy is selling hard-core pr0n, yum yum, doing all of the internet and printer parts of the business on our machines. Does this affect your feeling about the policy? Because I have to say, it does affect mine. And I am not against dirty movies. I don’t think they should be illegal (any more than they currently are, and in places less), and from a logical, theoretical point of view I can’t make a real distinction between somebody who uses our stuff to run a business trading in smut and somebody who is buying and selling scrimshaw. And yet, the connotation is definitely there.

Now, another only distantly related policy issue. I happened to notice a fellow the other day who was drinking a beer while typing away. He appeared to be of age, and was not disruptive. He was a biggish fellow, and a cold beer on a hot day was liable to be good for him. In the absence of inebriation, is there some justification for preferring that our patrons drink a Coke rather than a beer? There is such a policy—and as my supervisor agreed, the policy effectively just asks patrons to drink their beer from a cup or mug, rather than drinking it from a bottle. The policy may have some justification (on a college campus, a policy that allows responsible drinking will lead to irresponsible drinking, and this is, after all, a library), but I can’t help thinking that what is behind it is a moral value that beer is worse than cola, even in moderation. And I don’t believe that. Any more than I believe that watching people fucking is worse than watching people fighting. And yet…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

Here's my first question: are you sure you don't work in a bar?


The specific facts definitely matter to my sense of a reasonable policy, and the most important is that there appear to be sufficient space and resources in the library that secondary uses or secondary users are not interfering with your library's primary uses by its primary users. As long as that remains true, I'd like to see your library remain very flexible.

As someone who has used the library and other resources of the university I live near while generally being unenrolled, I feel that it's more fair to describe folks like me as "people who are not part of the university community" than as a free rider. Leaving aside the money that I do in fact give to the university, and leaving aside the money that many students do not pay to the university, I am a local taxpayer who is directly subsidizing this private university due to its tax-exempt status. The university receives fire services, police services, road maintenance, and a host of other city services that I am forced to pay for instead of them. That gives me a fair claim on (some of) the university's resources, even if my claim is secondary. The university recognizes that claim in a variety of ways, and one of those ways is open doors to their library.

I remember when universities had very strict policies against commercial use of their Internet resources by anyone: students, faculty, visitors, etc. To the extent that those policies still exist, I suspect they are widely ignored. Without a simple ban on all commercial activity, which would now affect large swaths of many academic institutions, you're looking at a difference in degree rather than in kind. And running a business (the antithesis of a "quick buck", by the way) that is unrelated to the university's business at least does not jeopardize the institution's legitimate claim to tax-exempt status the way that a number of departmental activities tend to.

All that said, the fact that you have some idea what the guy is doing means that it can be a distraction to students engaged in the primary uses of your library. That would concern me. I'd prefer to see a solution that first involved better privacy for the computer users. Not because I care about this guy's privacy, but because I care about the general notion of privacy for people who are looking for sensitive information in libraries (a well-trod path to escape from domestic violence, for example).


I'd argue that one of the large issues that make the digital gap a problem is that people on one side of it can run businesses over the internet, and people on the other side can't. So yeah, I don't see a problem with people running businesses using your internet. And in fact, many libraries (public ones in particular, but I've seen private examples) set aside computer resources specifically for job hunters; I think one could argue that running a business is as worthy.

I don't care what the business does so long as it's legal, but I do care about what type of images are being flashed on screens in public spaces; if he can't run his business without sometimes bringing pornographic images to the screen, I'd have a problem with that. As a customer, I don't want to see that, I don't want my kids to see it, etc.


After the sensible points made by Michael and Jacob above, I'd add this: make sure that there is a well-understood policy in place for protecting the liability of the university. As a tech support minion, I don't usually care as much what a specific policy might be as that there is one and that it is as clearly communicated and as simple to enforce as possible. This is regardless of whether someone's selling pr0n off of your IP addresses -- but if they are, it intensifies the question somewhat.


Some clarifications may be in order:

  • He is not watching pr0n, at least that I have seen, and the images that I have seen are R-rated, and probably less distracting than the people nearby playing videogames or watching television.
  • I don't actually know whether the fellow in question, or any of the others, is a free rider in the sense Michael is talking about; he may be an eccentric millionaire who donated the money for the new dormitory or he may be driving here from the next state over and not paying our taxes at all. No idea. Nor do we want to restrict it based on any of that. I describe these people as free riders only in the sense that they benefit from the library while being outside its mission, much the way I am a free rider on my neighbor's flowering shade tree. We actually tend to refer to such people amongst ourselves as community users or as visitors, which don't sound like they have negative connotations, but then you can't hear our voices or see our expressions when we say them.
  • I, too, would like to see a clear policy for protecting the liability of the university. Boy, would I. I'm sure the fellows in IT would like to see one, too. Although nobody wants to enforce one, so there's that, too.
  • No, I don't work in a bar, but you can get coffee drinks and pastries across from the circulation desk. My advice is to steer clear of the cream-filled stuff; the apple turnovers are terrific but absurdly large.

As it happens, and this is coincidental, we are going to have a few computers with more privacy in the near future. At the moment, the students can use their laptops (or borrow ours) and achieve a good amount of privacy (except for the whole wireless thing, but privacy from people looking over their shoulders), but the community users can't get on the wifi and have to use desktop machines in relatively public locations. While that seems a reasonable sort of condition for free internet (and air conditioning), we are installing a few screens that will be more private. I'm interested to see whether our visitors try to hog those, or even discover them at all…

Thanks,
-V.


Huh. The only thing that you describe that I would have concerns about would be the beer--most universities I've worked at are quite explicit that alcohol is not allowed on their premises without a truckload of paperwork getting approval for it. That usually goes for the library as well.

But wrt companies making money by doing (legal) business off the university-supported internet connections--enh. The main problem is if the public is tying up the machines to that the students don't get the access they need. But you can cover that by having time-limited access to the machines, like in some coffee shops--you need a password to get on the machine, which you can get for free from the main desk, but it's limited by time to an hour, 90 min, whatever. You could give students a longer time limit than non-students while still providing a service to the community.

the second problem is either students or non-students performing illegal acts via the public computers--either selling drugs or contracting killers or sending spam mail, whatever is not legal to do. But that's a problem no matter who uses it, that your IT department should have some policies on.


Commercial use of university resources can be a big deal, depending on the funding source. There was at least one scandal at Caltech about a guy who was running a business out of his office, which I suspect was problematic at least in part because some of the equipment he was using for it was bought with NSF grant money. (And was surely also being used for the purposes that the grant stated, to be clear -- like, he bought a machine to use as a webserver for his research lab, and also used it to run his business, or whatever.) I don't know whether equipment bought on overhead money from grants has similar issues... Point is, unless your library is completely funded by money that doesn't come with any conditions about how it's used, there may be rules about how it's supposed to be used.

My personal feeling is that if the library wants to make its resources available to the community, without any limitations other than "don't do anything illegal", that's great, and I highly approve. But conversely, if there are limitations (like "no commercial activity allowed"), I think those rules should be enforced.


On the specific issue, since these machines are specifically for general use, I can't imagine that any grant or gift would make restrictions on their use. I don't know, but it seems unlikely. Certainly, if I were the library, I wouldn't accept such restrictions, and would find another source for that money.

Thanks,
-V.


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