Privacy for the Public

That outdated hang-up librarians cling to might just be trendy, after all. 

June 10, 2015

Libraries are getting some welcome positive attention lately. The Ferguson Public Library has just been named Library Journal’s Library of the Year for being a creatively hospitable public space for a community in crisis. Scott Bonner, the library director, keeps sharing the warm glow by reminding everyone that this is what public libraries do every day. (What a class act.) During the recent debates about the Patriot act and the dramatic showdown in the Senate, a number of media outlets have pointed out the ways librarians have stood up for privacy as a condition for intellectual freedom ever since the act was passed. On the Media, for example, recently ran a segment about the way librarians were consistently critical of Section 215, which became known as the “library provision” after “hysterical” librarians irritated the attorney general by objecting vigorously. (It actually covered all kinds of records; this was the provision used to justify the massive collection of telephone metadata.) So libraries have been getting some good press lately for doing what they do.  

I was thinking about how the public perception of libraries compares to that of higher education, sparked by John Warner’s excellent blog posts analyzing the fallout from the changes in Wisconsin law that give boards greater power over tenured lines and decision-making about academic programs. But there are obvious differences. Nobody is told they will have no future if they don’t use a library. People don’t have to assume personal debt to use it. Few people feel libraries in general are elitist or bent on indoctrinating their children or are an intimidating and overpriced burden.

That’s not to say libraries aren’t suffering from budget cuts that reduce hours and collections. In many cases, staff have been let go or replaced by cheaper labor. You can lower the requirements for library jobs to a high school education and the hourly rate to minimum wage, knowing that some highly-qualified people are likely to apply anyway. But most people seem to think well of libraries. It’s a rare social institution that everyone feels is open to them, regardless of age or social status, and is a public good that doesn’t have to be made private to be made valuable. Yes, some communities have outsourced their public libraries to a for-profit company, but it’s not a widespread practice in an era of privatization.     

Curiously enough, librarians are far less sanguine about libraries. We fear irrelevance. We feel that we’re in competition with Google and Amazon and have to scurry to catch up because they are killing our market share. We need to provide an improved user experience even if that means letting go of outdated shibboleths about privacy.  

Well, guess what? Privacy is in. A recent poll conducted by researchers at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania found that people are not okay with the way companies collect their personal data. They just feel powerless to fight it. Likewise, Mitch McConnell misread the way the winds were blowing and assumed reauthorization of Patriot Act provisions would be a piece of cake, as usual. He was wrong. Maybe, instead of feeling we’re behind the times, inconveniencing our patrons if we stand up for privacy, we’re offering an timely alternative to people fed up with having to surrender their identities to be aggregated and used in unpredictable ways whenever they go online.

Worrying that if we don’t adopt the values of Silicon Valley, people will abandon libraries and turn to other, privacy-disabled sites is a red herring. We’re not going to get Amazon’s traffic by acting more like Amazon. We’re not threatened by Google (any more than everyone is). We have the potential to speak up for privacy and engage with a concern that these businesses have told us is irrelevant. (They lied.)  

Bobbi Newman, who is collecting a treasure box of resources about library privacy, has written an inspiring blog post about why she thinks privacy in libraries and their systems matters. Librarians like her and Alison Macrina, with her Library Freedom Project, are showing how libraries can be site of learning and affirmation for those concerned about the ways their personal data is being used, giving them tools to fight back. 




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