ruminating about privacy

I was emailing with a friend this week and he was saying how it seems strange that librarans are so aggressive in their defense of privacy while at the same time the population seems to be more and more shifting towards openness and “hey here’s my list of books” behavior outside of their library. I always draw the line between what people reveal about themselves versus what their institutions reveal, or must legally disclose, about them.

I also often feel that one of the reasons we’re in this strange place is because many privacy issues are ones that technology could be solving for us. Yet, at the same time the technology we’re working with doesn’t allow us the granularity of making, for example, patron reading information available in the aggregate while still keeping the patron’s identity completely private. We have many patrons

Patron 1 wants to make sure no one ever knows what they are reading. Tells the OPAC to not keep his reading list. Knows his PIN. Wants to make sure the public access PCs don’t retain records of the sites he’s visited. Is a bit horrified that the library data we do keep isn’t in some way encrypted or otherwise protected.
Patron 2 wants to know every book she has ever checked out. Wants the library to leave the name of the book she has on hold on her answering machine. Wants her friend to be able to pick the book up for her at the library. Doesn’t remember her PIN and finds it vaguely annoying that she needs more than her library card number to use the OPAC.

A privacy solution that works for Patron 1 becomes a usability impediment to Patron 2. While libraries have the responsibility to keep both patrons’ data safe, they also have the responsibility to be usable and accomodating to both patrons. Technology, in my opinion, can address these issues but librarians have to a) embrace it b) request it from their vendors c) be willing to tolerate the learning curve that comes with any new technology.

I’m off to the tiny library today to help them with their slow automation project. In the meantime, these are the articles I have been reading about privacy lately. They’re about the information the mailman has, not the librarian, but it could apply to any of us at our job as well. The blog post is about an NPR story following a mail carrier on her route. She talks about what she knows about the world and the economy based on what people are getting delivered. She is supposed to keep people’s mail private, and she never mentions any names. Yet, there’s a lot of metadata in mail delivery, things the mailman knows. The blog’s author wonders how simple it would be to identify the people getting mail delivered from the information the mail carrier imparts. Feel free to read the rest.

3 thoughts on “ruminating about privacy

  1. i was just thinking about this…
    i appreciate that you consider this subject more than most of us (esp the tech aspect) but some librarians don’t explicitly make the distinction between the general value of privacy and then the right to privacy. they seem to want “privacy above all”. perhaps equating privacy and clearing of metadata?. patron 2 here isnt valuing her privacy in the same way as patron 1 is, though she may regard that as her right… and a hard fought for right. great topic.

  2. Privacy:

    The library I work in now keeps Customers’ hold out on shelves (where once they were in the back room) in the Public Area of the library for them to be able to pick-up at will and charge out via Self-Check kiosks. Many of our long time customers are not happy with this practice and no longer want to place holds on items because they believe having their items shelved in the public area is an invasion of privacy.

    To insure their “privacy”…we now print only the 1st four letters of their last names and the 1st initial of their first name. Then we wrap each and EVERY item in a piece of 8.5 x 11 piece of paper (sometimes recycled) and tape it closed! This insures (?) that no other customer can see what other customers are reading/requesting.

    Here’s the problem: many times customers have the same first 4 letters and first initial of their names…so people inadvertently pick up and look at other peoples requests, or nosy people will merely, pull off the wrapper to see if there is anything new & interesting that they want to order for themselves. Thus jeopardizing “privacy”.

    Time wise, it is now taking staff double the time to process holds. Resource wise, we are using double the paper (Sirsi automatically prints out a receipt w/ the customer’s full name and title on it), and excessive amount of tape.

    Personally, I believe that privacy, use of resources & processing time was optimum when we kept the Holds behind the Circulation Desk.

    So what’s a person to do…but move forward w/ the vision of “self-service” and Library 2.0 and hope that customers only peruse their own Holds.

  3. I think that it’s important to think about the reasons why the public’s perception of and concern for privacy might be changing. One obvious reason is that there are more and more requests for our personal information from various companies and organizations – often these “requests” are really more like demands (e.g., you can shop without a “Club Card,” but you’ll pay higher prices). Also, we are seeing more and more public examples of other people sharing their information (i.e., Web 2.0), and that’s an influence to start sharing ourselves.

    Giving library-patrons the ability to “opt-out” of various privacy-compromising services is a good thing to do, but it’s really not that different from what most commercial companies also offer. We would not be part of the problem, but shouldn’t we, as libraries, try to be part of the solution? Unlike private companies, our goal is not profit (and profiting from our users’ information). Rather, most libraries serve the public and are driven by principles (open access to information and intellectual freedom among them). As such, I think libraries could go a step beyond the rest of the commercial world when it comes to privacy issues. Rather than just have a small privacy statement hidden somewhere on our website, let’s have a visible, ever-present link to a entire page devoted to educating our users on the issue of privacy.

    A good book on the changing nature of privacy (and changing perception of privacy) is The Digital Person, by Daniel J. Solove.

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