by Jami Haskell, Information Architecture, Taxonomy and Metadata Librarian
EPA, Washington, DC

Since libraries first had a presence on the World Wide Web, the online world has expanded from a one-way communication tool to an environment that allows enormous opportunities for interaction and collaboration. At the Washoe County Library System (WCLS), our Vision Statement promises that “we will reach out creatively with innovative services, connect people and resources, [and] be a destination for discovery.” Our library system supports the notion of the library as a commons; we believe it is important to provide an environment that brings our users together. Online environments are an increasingly important area for providing and supporting community. In order to provide an effective community, we must allow our users to interact not just with the library but with each other. This can be accomplished by allowing our users to post comments, questions or other content to our public web environments. For example, blogs can be used for book discussion groups or book reviews. Also, our library can take advantage of web services such as Flickr or YouTube to promote or highlight our libraries and their programs. This type of outreach will reach people who may not ever visit the library web site, but instead might find us through these other areas. In addition, these web sites share a common ability for users to both post material and/or to post their thoughts. By enabling our users to talk to us (and each other) directly, we improve not only their present experience with the library, but also gain valuable feedback that can be used to improve our future resources and services.

When suggesting that the library expand its presence on the web to include social networks such as MySpace or Facebook or that we implement blogs that are open to user comments and user-provided content, I was met with cautious enthusiasm from my library administration. While they, too, had been reading and hearing about how effective these newer technologies can be, they were concerned about the liability that might accompany allowing users to comment or create their own content. In addition, they were concerned with which library staff would be responsible for the management of these resources on the web and how to ensure that they were managed as consistently as possible. As we all know, with the opening of avenues that support freedom of expression comes much responsibility. Because we are a public institution, we have a responsibility to provide equal access to our services and resources. If we are to deny participation in a library-created environment, we must have a public declaration of the criteria upon which we make that decision. For this reason, content moderation in online forums is an issue. In this case, we needed to be sure that we implemented social software technologies responsibly, fairly and without legal liability.

To address these concerns, I worked with the library's Web Services Team to develop a policy which would address appropriate use as well as provide guidelines for content moderation. As with any library policy, we began by looking at our existing library policies and by researching what other library's had created to serve the same purpose. When researching library policies, we found seven policies, or drafts of policies, related to our topic.

Newton Free Library Blog Policy
Public Library of Science Terms of Use page
Orange County Teen Blog
Longview Public Library Blog Ettiquette
St. Petersburg College Library
Free Range Librarian Draft Blog Policy
LITA Blog Policy

We adapted our policy in large part from the Newton Free Library's Blog Policy. However, rather than creating a policy specific to blogging or to social networking web sites, we chose to write an all-encompassing Social Software Policy to address the concerns raised within collaborative and social online environments. We defined social software as “any web application, site or account created and maintained by Washoe County Library System (WCLS) which facilitates an environment for library staff and library users to share opinions and information about library related subjects.”

I'm a big believer that a general code of conduct policy can go a long way for a library system. In a sense, we use these behavior policies to moderate the users of our physical library. We wanted to be sure that the policy for participation in our online environments met the criteria for our physical locations. This includes disallowing things like obscene or racist behavior, personal attacks, insults or the use of threatening language. In addition, we felt that it was important to recognize that there are unique considerations within online social spaces. For one thing, while the web is in many cases ephemeral, the words published by our users on our web pages would be visible to not only our library community, but to web users everywhere. They would not be erased when the user left the site as their words fade when they exit our buildings. Because of this fact we made sure to make note of specific types of expression that we would not publish, specifically libelous statements or private information about individuals provided without consent. In our physical environments, we do not allow advertisements for commercial entities nor do we allow the buying/selling of goods or services. However, within an online environment, especially within free web sites, there are many advertisements and commercial users that attempt to solicit business from users. In order to avoid a violation of our library's position, we specifically state that the library will remove all commercial promotions or spam content that is submitted by library users. We also included the right to remove comments unrelated to the content of the discussion and hyperlinks to materials that are not related to the discussion as these are common characteristics of spam content. Lastly, as a measure of intellectual responsibility, we reserved the right to remove plagiarized statements and materials.

Our policy was approved by the Library Board of Trustees on May 16, 2007. Since that time we have implemented a blog for our Librarians' Choice Book Reviews, a library MySpace page and a library Flickr account. Each of these accounts is managed and moderated by a different library staff member. The implementation of the library policy has helped each of these staff members to gauge when to edit or remove content. In most cases user participation has not required moderation. However, the removal of spam has been justified by our policy and our staff feels confident in identifying and removing unwelcome solicitations.

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WCLS Social Software Policy

Social Software is defined as any web application, site or account created and maintained by Washoe County Library System (WCLS) which facilitates an environment for library staff and library users to share opinions and information about library related subjects/issues. WCLS recognizes and respects differences in opinion. Comments, posts and messages are welcome and will be reviewed before publishing. The following will be removed before publishing:

• Obscene or racist content
• Personal attacks, insults, or threatening language
• Potentially libelous statements
• Plagiarized material
• Private, personal information published without consent
• Comments totally unrelated to the content of the forum
• Hyperlinks to material that is not directly related to the discussion
• Commercial promotions or spam

By posting content, the user agrees to indemnify WCLS and its officers and employees from and against all liabilities, judgments, damages, and costs (including attorney's fees) incurred by any of them which arise out of or are related to the posted content. Forums and messaging may not be used for commercial purposes or for organized political activity.

WCLS reserves the right to monitor content before it is posted on all their social software web sites and accounts, and to modify or remove any messages or postings that it deems, in its sole discretion, to be abusive, defamatory, in violation of the copyright, trademark right, or other intellectual property right of any third party, or otherwise inappropriate for the service. WCLS also reserves the right to edit or modify any submissions in response to requests for feedback or other commentary. Notwithstanding the foregoing, WCLS is not obligated to take any such actions, and will not be responsible or liable for content posted by any subscriber in any forum, message board, or other area within the service.

If any user does not agree to these terms, they are not to use the service as violation of the terms can lead to legal liability.

Adapted with permission from the Newton Free Library blog policy (http://www.newtonfreelibrary.net/Services/blog_policy.htm).
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Currently Jami Haskell is at the EPA in Washington DC, Information Architecture, Taxonomy and Metadata Librarian.


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

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Original Publication Date: 
November 1, 2009
Legacy Article Number: 
375