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The Privacy Advisor | How your neighborhood library protects your privacy Related reading: Hong Kong's PCPD issues data security guidance



Modern libraries face the unique challenge of providing free and equitable access to services while also protecting the privacy and intellectual freedom of their patrons. Protection of privacy is particularly relevant given the surge in digital and e-services that modern libraries now provide. Public library data shows that electronic circulation is growing steadily as physical material circulations (i.e., books, CDs and DVDs) are in decline.

Today’s library user wants a more dynamic experience that makes otherwise unaffordable technologies accessible to all. This is why we are seeing expanded e-book collections and streaming video services, as well as more tactile experiential offerings, like 3D-printing studios, sushi-making classes, power-tool-lending programs, vinyl printers, Arduino kits and musical-instrument-lending programs. With so many new ways to engage with the public, libraries increasingly contain valuable information about their patrons’ likes and preferences. As these services shift from being physical records to a digital profile, it becomes clear that there are increasing challenges to protecting privacy and that much of it has to do with patrons trading some personal information for convenience and accessibility. 

Intellectual freedom and privacy at the library

Some additional background about libraries would be helpful in understanding why privacy and intellectual freedom are particularly important to librarians. First, intellectual freedom is a core value of librarianship. Not only are individuals free to study any topic of their choosing, but they also have the right to do so without interference from the state. Apart from code-of-conduct requirements, which facilitate the enjoyment of libraries as public places for all, generally, what you do at the library is your business.

Second, the right to privacy goes hand-in-hand with intellectual freedom. Consent matters. A library’s privacy policy typically outlines how a patron’s personal information is collected, retained, used, disclosed, stored and ultimately disposed of. The governance of that information is on a consent-based approach, whereby patrons can refuse to have their information released unless in the interest of aiding law enforcement in the investigation of a crime or to assist staff in the administration of the library. These are central values of librarian culture, and they are challenged somewhat by the expanded services offered by contemporary libraries.

Expanded library services pose (manageable) challenges for privacy protection

There is that basic exchange of personal information (i.e., your name, where you live and how old you are), which enables you to register for a library card and obtain the right to borrow from a library’s standard physical collection. There is also, however, a transactional element to library services whereby each additional service requires the individual to consent to that particular exchange of information.

Signing up for a journal subscription? Register with your name and e-mail address please or, better yet, your social media account. Want to access an audiobook? Sure. Just visit the third-party vendor page, and confirm that you’re a registered library patron. These exchanges of personal information are not inherently problematic as long as there are steps taken to protect patron privacy and those steps are understood by library systems, patrons and vendors. Best practices, including data minimization and comprehensive data retention schedules, serve to protect the personal information of library users in these situations.

It is not always apparent, however, if libraries have the resources to conduct such due diligence in relation to the acquisition of these assets. While digital services are expanding, library funding has remained flat or only shown modest growth in recent years. A looming recession could mean less funding for libraries, which is exacerbated by the increased use of libraries during an economic downturn.

Privacy issues arise, however, if libraries are not clear on how vendors will use and retain patron information, particularly after the termination of a service. If the original contract signed between vendor and library is silent on what happens to data after concluding a contract, library patrons may be exposed to unknown uses of their data. Unclear or nonexistent breach notification protocols can keep libraries in the dark about any compromises to customer data that is shared with third-party vendors. If a vendor is unclear about what information is collected in the first place, that can create difficulty for libraries in the protection of patron privacy and the maintenance of intellectual freedom.

Reconnecting the dots: Privacy and intellectual freedom

It is particularly important for libraries to devote resources to the protection of patron privacy because of the importance of intellectual freedom as a library value. It is a part of the core advocacy that librarians engage in. As the American Library Association indicates in their commitment to intellectual freedom, “ALA actively advocates in defense of intellectual freedom — the rights of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Intellectual freedom is a core value of the library profession and a basic right in our democratic society. A publicly supported library provides free, equitable, and confidential access to information for all people of its community.”

One of the many good things about librarian culture is this sense of protecting the private thoughts of the individual from the state. It is somewhat ironic that this quintessential (and also essential) government service is a vociferous advocate for individual privacy. While library culture tilts heavily in favor of protecting the “citizen from state” intrusion, that same culture can be mobilized to advocate for “customer” privacy as well in relation to third-party service providers.

More awareness of how information can be collected by third-party vendors and a better understanding of access to digital services and emerging technologies would create a better-informed public that is aware of how their personal information is being used. The opportunity exists for the protection of privacy, and there is perhaps no better place in our community to preserve that than through the local library.

Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash


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