Library User Privacy in the Age of Social Networking Fanaticism

There are some librarians who want to empower library users by giving them the freedom to expose all of their library borrowing records to the world. Or they want readers to share their book selections and DVD rentals with complete strangers. And I have very mixed feelings about this.

I love getting comments on my blog. And I think library patrons would enjoy being able to link their borrowing records to some social networking widget that lists all (or some) of their books on our library site or embedded within the online catalog or launched out into cyberspace and posted on Twitter or Facebook or LibraryThing or wherever and to comment on what everyone else reads or watches. So on this, I agree with the empowering librarians; I think it would be a fun thing to do.

I would love for my patrons to share their thoughts and ideas with others who may despise them and use those thoughts and ideas as weapons to wage personal attacks, and possibly combine those attacks with the minimal research needed to attack my patrons at their homes or at their places of business. Because I love freedom.

As you can see, I have no faith in mankind to behave with civility. So my role as a protector of borrower privacy is pretty much set in this framework: "I will protect your privacy because you don't understand the dangers associated with losing it."

And so these empowering librarians think I'm an ass. But I feel somewhat validated by the Digital Books and Your Rights: A Checklist for Readers posted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Although this is meant for e-books, I think it also applies to me.

The first item asks:

1. Does it (your e-book reader/service/tool, etc.) protect your privacy?

There's a lot of flexibility within that question with a variety of options to opt-in or opt-out, if you bother to read it all, but my point is that the question doesn't ask, "Does it give you options for protecting your privacy?" No, it doesn't ask that. As a librarian, I feel it's my duty to protect your privacy.

Now, again, I understand that the empowering librarians want patrons to be able to share their reading lives with others, and I think they should. But I think patrons should do that somewhere else and not on library websites. There are more than enough places online where library patrons can have their privacy violated without adding the library website or online catalog into the future claims of liability and class action lawsuits.

But even if we held a vote and the empowering libraries won and we fully educated our patrons and gave them all the tools they'd need to make smart decisions about what personal information should be shared online and how to protect the rest of it, and then allowed our patrons to create accounts and post comments about their favorite books alongside our catalog records, the Electronic Frontier Foundation says this is still not good enough to protect the privacy of our library users:

a. Does it limit the tracking of you and your reading?

Just as readers may anonymously browse books in a library or bookstore, readers should be able to search, browse, and preview digital books without being forced to identify themselves. To see whether a digital book provider is limiting tracking, ask whether it:

Purges all logging or other information related to individual uses as soon as practicable, which in most instances should be no less than every 30 days.

So what does that mean? Does the EFF think it's a bad idea to let library patrons leave comments that can identify them if they remain on the library website for longer than 30 days? But libraries already purge all user data as soon as the materials are returned.

c. Does it give you control over the information it collects about you?

Readers of paper books can control information collected about them by, for example, buying books with cash. That freedom should not disappear as books go digital. Readers who want to assert some control over their own information should consider whether the provider will:

* Allow you to delete your books and ensure that this deletion removes any record of the purchase; Me: Libraries already do this for you.
* Allow you to control what other local or remote computer users can see about your reading, possibly through the use of separate password-protected "bookshelves" or other technical means; Me: Libraries already do this for you.
and
* Establish a method to allow private reading of purchased books and private giving of books, such as allowing you to anonymously transfer or "gift" purchases to someone else (including transfer to other accounts you control), with no record of the fact of the original purchase, Me: Libraries already do this for you.

The EFF raises 15-20 concerns simply on this question of electronic privacy. All of which are already satisfied by current library policy. In fact, the EFF uses libraries as the example by which we should compare e-book privacy... Libraries are the positive example!

Physical books have many natural protections for reader anonymity. For example, you can:

* browse through the stacks of your local library or bookstore without anyone tracking what you are looking at, what you pull off of the shelves as you browse or what pages you review;
* read a key part of a book that you own or borrow from the library multiple times, or not at all, with no one knowing.

So libraries are already designed to protect privacy. We don't tell anyone what you're reading and we delete what it was after you return it. So why do the empowering librarians think it's a good idea to give library users 20 different ways to screw up and lose it?

About the only thing we do wrong is that we write your name on these huge slips of paper that poke out of your book while it waits for you to pick it up. And also, from what I hear in the break room, all the circulation clerks laugh at everything you checked out.

And we all make fun of how you're dressed.

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