September 26, 2023

Balancing Privacy & Innovation | Reinventing Libraries

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Joseph Janes

When I was a kid, I used to help out in my local public library. I spent a lot of time there, and my mom worked there, so I shelved and read the stacks. Over time they let me work at the circulation desk.

One of my early revelations came via a married couple who read voraciously, so much so that they would carefully write their names on the back endpaper of each book once they were finished with it. This meant that they wouldn’t check out the same book twice and also that everybody else in our small town knew what they’d read. (It was also among my first experiences at readers’ advisory; they had pretty eclectic but intriguing tastes.)

Those were far simpler days. Today, in a Patriot Act, see-something-say-something sort of world, they seem more than quaint. Privacy is a much more serious business, or at least it is to some of us. Now that we know that the National Security Agency is snooping on our phone calls and emails—and for all we know reading our minds—and that Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and every company in the known universe are hoovering up every scrap of data about us so they can more effectively fling ads at us in every possible medium, it’s time to have a think about privacy in the increasingly digital library.

This discussion involves two fundamental principles that underlie libraries and librarianship. The first is a respect for the intellectual freedom of our clients and communities, which is why there is near-universal coverage of library circulation confidentiality laws, a recognition that a free people must be able to choose and explore materials and ideas freely without fear of what people might think. I, for one, don’t want anyone pawing through my circulation records, though if they can make a coherent story about all the stuff I take out, I’d like to hear it.

Leading up to LJ’s virtual event, thinkers from the library world address how the digital shift is impacting libraries’ mission.

The digital shift has been upon us all for some time now, and the issues and realities are getting deeper and more complex as library service continues to be transformed by the multifaceted changes already in place and others on the horizon. In ongoing coverage, LJ continues to track the issues, report on solutions, and surface the deeper challenges for the profession.

Here, we begin anticipating our free forthcoming virtual event “The Digital Shift:,” brought to you by LJ and School Library Journal, to be held October 16. These essays are part of an exclusive series of articles to come in September and October that raise key questions about the new state of libraries.

In the meantime, reflect on the reinvention yourself, and register for the

Striking the right balance

On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind all that much if Seattle Public Library was able to use what they’re able to glean from my circulation patterns, and those of everyone else, in making decisions about collections or services or programs or branches or staffing or whatever. And that’s where the other principle comes in, that of collectivism. Libraries of all types and sizes are emblematic of the notion that we’re all in this together and better off and stronger together than we are individually. That’s so baked into the idea of libraries that it often fades into the background.

This presents us with a classic balancing act: How do we take advantage of what libraries could learn from their communities’ habits and tastes and activities without crossing the line into what would be perceived as misuse of personal data? This balance will take place against a refrain of shocked stories from the corporate arena—undoubtedly many people, including dedicated readers and library users, will find themselves appalled to discover what Amazon, say, can harvest from data about searches and purchases, or reading behavior and habits on Kindles, or who knows what.

The tools to accumulate and analyze this sort of transactional data are improving by the hour, and there will be competitive advantages of all sorts to their use. Thus, there’s an inevitability about this, not to mention a potentially serious detriment to libraries if they fall behind by being unwilling or unable to follow along. It’s unlikely we’d ever be able to compete with the ginormous commercial services in their use and reuse of customer data; that’s not an excuse, however, for not doing what we can with the resources at hand.

If that’s the case, then we must move forward, on our own terms. Why not allow people, now, to opt in, to permit access and use of relevant data to foster better libraries? Make it very clear what is happening and why and how, and allow our clientele simply and quickly to make and revise decisions about what can be used, as well as reinforcing our traditional safeguards. Use data as a supplement to cherished practices to understand tastes and interests and hitherto unseen connections and patterns in usage. I don’t know if this is a do-or-die situation, but I believe if we can do these types of things in a responsible and authentic way, we can position ourselves even more strongly as a trusted ally in the information lives of our communities.

It’s a long way back to small-town upstate New York circa 1975 and pencil marks in the backs of books. There are many more reasons to be genuinely worried, if not downright paranoid, about privacy these days. I think, though, that the reservoir of trust and respect most people have for libraries, and our long-standing commitment to the freedom to read and think without looking over our shoulder, will continue to serve us well, correctly and transparently managed, in the generations to come.

Joseph Janes is Associate Professor and Chair of the MLIS Program at the University of Washington Information School, Seattle, and author of the recent Library 2020

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