Privacy Protectors: Crucial Contributions by Librarians

Books and authors are celebrated on September 5th at the Library of Congress’ annual “National Book Festival” in D.C. Smaller celebrations will be held in communities throughout September. So now is an opportune time to recognize the critical role libraries and librarians play in creating environments where people can freely explore ideas. Librarians and the American Library Association (ALA) have a history of fighting censorship and surveillance efforts no matter the source of those efforts. As the ALA notes on its website “…it actively advocates in defense of the rights of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment.” (www.ala.org, “Intellectual Freedom.” Full disclosure — I have a relative who is a private sector librarian and whose work I greatly respect.

Now some, or maybe even many, of you might be saying, “Ok, literature’s important but really, libraries and librarians? So “old school” — who needs or uses them anymore?” The answer is: more and more people all the time in new and vibrant ways.

If you haven’t visited your local public library recently, do so, as you might be in for a surprise. Public libraries have transformed into multi-media environments. Yes, there will be the bookshelves filled with hardcopy books and people sitting and reading books and magazines. But there will also be rows of computer terminals all being used by people for varied purposes, e.g., doing research or reading online materials. And library users are checking out books using computer terminals.

However, all of this technology creates additional records with the real possibility of them being misused. For example, what if I was using a library computer for research for a blog on terrorism? An all encompassing request to my library for any and all searches done on terrorism could sweep me up in that request. Who knows what the outcome of that would be?

All library users, whatever media they’re using, need to be able to do so without being concerned that the subjects about which they’re reading will be vulnerable to scrutiny by others.  Making online resources available to everyone in a community raises new and complex privacy issues for libraries. So how can library users feel safe in continuing not only to borrow books, but in using the available online resources?

The ALA and its Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) recognize the tensions created by the widening use of online resources in libraries. They tackled this complex problem by developing new privacy guidelines for librarians for e-book lending and digital content vendors.  As Mr. Michael Robinson, Chair of the IFC Privacy Subcommittee, recently explained, the guidelines
“… represent our [ ALA’s] attempt to balance the need to protect reader privacy with the needs
of libraries to collect user data and provide personalized services, while respecting and protecting the individual’s right to make their own informed decisions in regards to the privacy of their data, particularly in regard to how much privacy they are willing to trade for convenience or added benefits.”(“New Privacy Guidelines Encourage Libraries and Vendors to Work Together to Protect Reader Privacy,” August 4, 2015).

Why were these new privacy guidelines needed? Because libraries obtain these online resources through licenses entered into with commercial vendors. Doing so requires that “…most e-book and digital content vendors collect and use library patron data for a variety of reasons, including digital rights management, consumer analytics, and user personalization.” (“Introduction” “Library Privacy Guidelines for E-book Lending and Digital Content Vendors”).

The ALA’s new privacy guidelines address the need for libraries and these commercial vendors to “…work together to ensure that the contracts and licenses governing the provision and use of digital information reflect library ethics, policies, and legal obligations concerning user privacy and confidentiality.” (“Introduction”, “Library Privacy Guidelines for E-book Lending and Digital Content Vendors”)

Being able to access online resources and information is a tremendous asset for library users. Doing so without fear of surveillance and scrutiny is critically important.  Librarians are being given the guidance to help them continue protecting the confidentiality of library users’ activities while also learning to navigate the novel issues raised by technology. It is not an easy task and librarians and the ALA are to be commended and thanked for their willingness to do so.

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