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BFTP: Personal Use of the Internet

A Saturday Blue Skunk "feature" will be the revision of an old post. I am calling this BFTP: Blast from the Past. This post originally appeared November 27, 2005.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a line from Frances Jacobson’s book, I Found It on the Internet. [A second edition has been published in 2010!] She worries libraries suffer from comparison to the Internet in students’ minds when, “Libraries become places to look for information other people want you to find, not for information that you yourself find intrinsically compelling or valuable.”

On our state media association list, a Minnesota media specialist recently asked a question all of us have asked at one time or another:

     …what do you allow students to do on the Internet? I started the year (in a high school) with a pretty loose policy, then had to step it up to no games, videos, quizzes, chat rooms, email, discussion boards, IMing, etc. Now I am battling eBay and anime sites and I am tempted to squash Internet use for personal things altogether.
     However, I also had a student today looking at different religions and I get students researching signs of depression and serious topics that they should be able to learn about on their own. I need to find a balance between no personal use and free access.

Below is a snippet from a book chapter I wrote for Carol Simpson’s Ethics in School Librarianship: A Reader which summarizes my answer to the above question:

The pursuit of information by students to meet personal needs should be encouraged in schools. Life-long learning strategies, practice in information evaluation, and experiences in building effective communication strategies are all reinforced when students use information technologies to meet personal goals.

As library media specialists and technologists, we need to lighten up a little in regard to what students are doing with the Internet in our libraries and classrooms as well. The Internet has vast resources that are not directly related to the curriculum but are of high interest to students at all grade levels. Information about sports, fashion, movies, games, celebrities, and music in bright and exciting formats abounds.

The use of the Internet for class work of course must be given priority, but computer terminals should never sit empty. And there are some good reasons to allow students personal use of the Internet:
  • It gives kids a chance to practice skills. After all that’s why we have “recreational” reading materials in our libraries. Do we really subscribe to Hot Rod or Seventeen because they’re used for research? If we want kids who can do an effective Internet search, read fluently, and love to learn, does it make much difference if they are learning by finding and reading webpages on the Civil War or Civil War games?
  • It gives weight to the penalty of having Internet access taken away. The penalty for misuse of the Internet is often a suspension of Internet us privileges. As a student, if I were restricted to only school work uses of the Internet and had my Internet rights revoked, I’d pretty much say, “So what?” and wonder what I had to do to get my textbooks taken away as well. But if I am accustomed to using the Internet each morning before school to check on how my favorite sports team was faring, the loss of Internet access as a consequence of misbehavior would be far more serious.
  • It makes the library media center a place kids want to be. Many of our students love the library for the simple reason that it is often the only place that allows them to read books of personal interest, work on projects that are meaningful, and explore interests that fall outside the curriculum in an atmosphere of relative freedom. Kids need a place like that, and we should provide it – even at the Internet terminals.

Granted, my thoughts on this are idealistic. Recreational/personal use of the Interent in schools can and does cause problems. But we risk losing kids as library users, both now and as adults, if we take a hard line approach. Unless you only want kids in your library when they HAVE to be there, it must be cool and meaningful place to be.

Where is the happy medium? Is there one? How would you answer the question 'What do you allow students to do on the Internet?"

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Reader Comments (5)

If our goal is management and control, of course the easiest solution would be to remove the internet and any books not directly aligned to curriculum. Since no one with half a brain would want that we have to instead live in that awkwardly messy ground where we live now.

I hope that the adults in the building would model the type of behavior that would be appropriate. Good teachers know exactly when to bring in personal interests and pursuits either as part of the curriculum or simply to build trust and community.

I think part of the secret is to make these non-academic curriculum times more transparent so people don't surf privately. Just a culture that honors our personal interest and even allows time during the day to pursue them.

November 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDean Shareski

I've been currently struggleing with this same isssue recently.

On the one hand students who do not have internet access at home can do their social and personal internet usage before or after school or perhaps during lunch break in a high school.

On the flip side when I open it's the same group of students every day bogarting the computers and not letting others access.

My question to the librarian who denies acces to students except for school assignments- Why do you not want them to use the internet in the library? What did they do that was wrong?

Finding a happy medium is a skill that I guess I still need to master.

November 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Cardon

Something I read today in my collection development textbook came to mind when I read your post.

Librarians tend to take one of two positions. The first is as a protector and the second is as an advocate. The first position strives to protect students from themselves, from others, and from ideas. The second strives to help students identify, evaluate,retrieve, and use information(pg.164)
Bishop, K.(2002) The collection program in schools.

November 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDottie

In the past, our bandwidth was so narrow that we had to limit Internet use to school assignments. However, that issue has been resolved, somewhat, so this year I started out letting the kids play Internet games on the computers before school. This was okay (computers full every morning, same students) until the research project onslaught began. I started having to ask students to get off the computer to allow another one to use it for school work. I don't have time to be the computer use monitor because I'm the only one in the library before school. Now I'm not allowing games on the computers at all but I have provided some board games which have become popular. I do allow students to search for information for personal use and Google Earth has been a popular tool for exploration.

November 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSandra Carswell

Thanks, Dean. Sage observations and advice as always.


Hi Andrea,

I haven't heard the term "bogarting" since I smoked!

Have you considered setting time limits on machines if they are in demand? I know public libraries do this.


Hi Dorothy,

Interesting distinction. I guess you know what category I fall in (and hope most librarians do as well).

Thanks for sharing this,


Hi Sandra,

I am hoping you might re-think the games ban. See:

But I DO sympathize with your situation,


November 23, 2010 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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