Headline: Alaskan Library lets down Patron

I’ve been watching this story (article) with a growing level of frustration. Not with the user, nor with the police (who were simply doing their job), but with the Palmer Public Library in Palmer Alaska.

First, can anyone give me a good reason why a library’s wifi service should be only available during business hours? Perhaps we ought to shut off our web servers along with the lights as well.

I’ll admit that this situation brings up some interesting issues. Obviously the Palmer Public Library usage policy forbids after-hours access. They have a plan in place to shut off access at night, though they’re waiting until they find a technician to do it: *hint* maybe your parking-lot superpatron could help you out there, guys. But that is a flawed policy, and is also nowhere to be found on their website. It’s important to remember that Internet usage policies don’t hold business hours, so no matter what time a user hops on, they are still subject to those rules of governance.

This could have been a fabulous public relations opportunity, but the Palmer Library took a big pass. Worse, it didn’t come to the defense of this user who may very well be saddled with some real criminal charges. Yes, he may be arrested for playing Risk in the parking lot of his town’s public library. But, the fact that the user in question was using the service for gaming is completely inconsequential. Since when do libraries pass judgement on our user’s activities and choice of material?

This user has been let down by his library.

So, what should the Palmer Library do if it is so inclined?

First, they should notify the police and the district attorney that a) using wifi after hours is permitted and b) the user’s laptop should be returned immediately and c) charges should not be filed against the user because there was no theft of service involved.

They should then re-evaluate their Internet usage policy and make any changes necessary to remove any ambiguity regarding hours of operation and make sure language is included that allows for after-hour usage.

Then, if it were up to me, I would see what kind of wifi coverage the parking lot was getting, and have additional access points installed if signal strength was spotty. I might even place some signage in the lot to advertise the hot spot.

Finally, I would invite that user to the library to talk about his experience as a moderator on the site, Conquor Club. I don’t know what’s going on in Palmer, Alaska, but I imagine that there might be other library users who’d be interested.

Identifying our most valuable users and taking advantage of their expertise should be ever present in our minds. So when I read a story like this where a library simply stands back, takes the easiest and safest path, I get mightily frustrated.

What a waste of a great opportunity. And what a lack of cojones.

[Update – 3/2/2007 23:13]

I just happened across this update which includes a comment from the library director at Palmer who did admit that Tanner was breaking no rules regarding service but was violating a city ordnance by loitering in the parking lot. Palmer’s director was mainly concerned about overage charges if someone tried downloading a lot of data.

Two words: traffic shaping.

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