June 20, 2024

Librarians Discuss Privacy, MOOCs, and More at LITA Top Tech Trends Panel | ALA 2013

Clifford Lynch and Char Booth

Clifford Lynch and Char Booth at the 2013 LITA Top Tech Trends panel at ALA Annual

With the continuing travels of Edward Snowden keeping the National Security Administration’s (NSA) surveillance habits in the news, the discussion during Sunday’s LITA Top Technology Trends 2013 panel at the American Library Association’s Annual Convention turned frequently to the future of privacy, and the role that libraries might play in protecting their patrons.

“We’re privileged. The idea of having anonymous reader privacy is baked in to who it is we are,” said panelist Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive. “If you want to know what books people have bought, it’s really easy to get that from Amazon.com. But it should be very, very hard to get that from us.”

Kahle—who worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2007 and 2008 to successfully fight the FBI’s demands for information about users of the Internet Archive—suggested that it may be time for libraries to take another step toward protecting patron anonymity.

“We also should be working on anonymous writing,” he said. “This is a little bit more controversial, but the country is founded on things like Common Sense, which now we know was [by] Thomas Paine. At the time he was anonymous.”

In addition, he suggested that libraries could take steps to ensure that they do not become instruments of the NSA in the future.

“Delete your IP addresses [to protect the privacy of] people that are coming to your websites,” Kahle said. “It’s a little challenging to figure out how to do this, [but] EFF has some tools, and the Internet Archive has been deleting IP addresses. IP addresses are personally identifiable. They’re toxic waste, they cause conversations with the authorities that you just don’t want to have conversations with. Trust me. So if you just don’t have [them], they tend to go away pretty easily. Maybe we should start offering email addresses to people. OK, it won’t be as spam-filtered as Gmail, but it also won’t have a direct plug into the NSA.”

Kahle was joined on the panel by Char Booth, instruction services manager & E-Learning librarian for Claremont Colleges Library, CA; Aimee Fifarek, IT and digital initiatives deputy director for the Phoenix Public Library, AZ; Sarah Houghton, director for the San Rafael Public Library, CA; Clifford Lynch, executive director for the Center for Networked Information; and Gary Price, founder and editor of FullTextReports.com and LJ infoDOCKET. Lorcan Dempsey, chief strategist and VP of OCLC Research, moderated.

“What I’m hearing from our users is the upset nature that they feel about the surveillance state,” Houghton said. “That can mean many different things. It could mean some dude with Google Glass on his face, it could mean security cameras, it could mean the vengeful librarians at the CIA going through what you’re posting on Twitter.”

Houghton said that recently a video of an elderly woman accidentally driving backwards down a San Rafael sidewalk had surfaced, and even after seeing the video, she had trouble spotting the security cameras that had taken the footage.

“I knew exactly where to look, and I still can’t find those cameras. They’re so well hidden, but they’re there, and they’re constantly recording what’s going on in the street…. It’s a reality that we’re being surveilled all the time, and we’re not really thinking about it.”

As people become more concerned about being monitored and recorded, there will be increasing pushback and demand for transparency. Houghton said she expected to see the emergence of societal cues for people to indicate that they are using recording devices such as Google Glass. And the need for digital literacy education will continue to grow.

Price pointed out that librarians should be aware of the privacy policies of their vendors, in order to keep their patrons informed. Specifically, he pointed to a common ebook transaction: When patrons check out an OverDrive title using a Kindle device, Amazon retains a record of the transaction, and associates it with the user’s Kindle. Many users may not mind, but patrons who expect their library reading records to remain private should be informed that these records are being retained by a third party, and that they must be manually deleted.

“It’s not just about privacy, in this case, it’s also about transparency to the user,” he said.(Price recently wrote a commentary explaining his position in more detail.)

Silver linings

2013 LITA Top Tech Trends PanelBy contrast, Lynch noted that the emergence of new ways to clarify identity on the Internet is a “cheerful” development. The use of Author ID’s and persistent digital identifiers is a “huge trend coming out of a lot of different places, to really rethink the way we handle the management of identity and factual biography and to really build that into a scaffolding for knowledge and scholarly work on the network…. This kind of development—which I think begins to bring together a lot of historically siloed work—is going to be tremendously important in organizing the scholarly and creative output of people in the 21st century.”

On another positive note, Fifarek cited her recent work with the Digital Arizona Library (DAZL) project, noting that many states and municipalities are now following the lead of Colorado’s Douglas County Libraries, and creating ebook and digital content platforms that allow libraries to procure and manage content long-term, including perpetual licenses from small presses, local publishers, and self-published authors.

“It really is a place where libraries can shine if we make the mental move from consumers of technology products and content to encouragers, producers, developers of platforms of content,” she said. “It’s a very powerful mind shift.”

And Booth envisioned a future in which MOOCs become more standardized pedagogical tools—a process that libraries should become a part of.

“If you have a course that’s enrolling thousands of people, what kind of content is being delivered through the course? What types of educational materials are being featured in the course? How are those materials identified, how do people in the course have access to them, what are the approaches to informational, digital, and other types of literacy?” Booth asked. “What I think librarians can do is make allegiances and reach out to the people who develop these classes within their campuses and communities and make sure that these matters are being considered and addressed in their course design.”

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.


  1. Jan Elkins says:

    As a librarian I support protecting customer information. However, as a person, I could care less who knows what I read. I have over 300 friends on Goodreads and regularly post book reviews on Facebook and Twitter. I really think most people are pretty comfortable with their information being out in the cloud. I think librarians need to be careful not to come off like a bunch of wackos. We don’t want to look like folks who are two steps away from wearing Reynolds Wrap berets. Personally I think we need to take a step back and think about what our customers really want and not just what we think they want. I have seen no signs that the majority of my customers are overly concerned about their privacy. Times have changed and we need to change with them. We need to protect the information about customers in our systems but as for the rest of it, I think a person is responsible for protecting their own information outside the library and it is not appropriate for libraries to become too involved.

  2. I agree that persistent digital identifiers will continue to become more prevalent. There are still many issues to solve around security and features of identifiers, but the need for them is clear.

  3. This will be the subject of a presentation I give at a conference later this year, but let’s touch on it now. Libraries have long been bad at publicizing ourselves, but I’ve seen us slowly getting better at it in recent years–in the physical world, that is. We still stink at outreach and PR in the virtual world. A few libraries are doing it well, and I think more will begin to as they start to think of their web presence as a true branch. Let’s rent some adspace on community websites, put ourselves in Wikipedia, make our libraries findable on the Web in places our users already are, put stuff on Craigslist, etc.