Balancing Privacy and Usability

As an Electronic Resources Librarian in a public library, I think about privacy a lot — it’s a massive consideration in the decisions and recommendations I make – both for the public and staff.

That said, I wear two hats in my position. On the one hand, my job is to evaluate and select electronic resources, and that means that I must consider each resource in light of how safe it is to use and how careful it is of user data. I must also determine if the resource is useful and accurate, and how easy and pleasant it is to use. These tasks aren’t always in harmony. The resource that is easiest and most enjoyable to use isn’t always the most privacy-conscious.

To the average user, usability and convenience seem more important than privacy. Most users are interested in features like wishlists, borrowing history, browsers that remember logins, and email notifications. They don’t think about the amount of data required to power these kinds of features, where that data lives, and who has access to it.

Users trust the library, and they feel like their data is safe with us. They don’t always understand that we aren’t the only ones who have access to personal information, and they ought to be wary.  That our users trust us so much is a good thing!  It’s also a big responsibility — that trust is easy to lose, and it’s our job to do our best to provide users with trustworthy, safe tools.  That’s only half the job, though. I believe that it’s also our responsibility to teach users (to the best of our ability) how to protect their own privacy – both while using the library and in general life.

It is possible to strike a balance and provide resources that respect privacy and offer some of those extra features our users want without sacrificing privacy. To do so, we must be committed to doing the work required to keep everyone safe and happy.

A privacy-forward eResources selection plan must include these steps:

  • We should select resources with care from the very beginning, balancing privacy and usability.  That means asking vendors questions, ensuring that we precisely understand how user data is used, where it is stored, and who has access to it.
  • We must work closely with vendors to ensure that they take privacy as seriously as we do — and terminate relationships with those that do not.
  • We must educate users about privacy – both in the context of the resources they use at the library and their lives in general.  The safest users are those who are capable of making their own decisions about their data.  Privacy education must be more than a single tutorial.  The subject should be incorporated into all eResources training, making privacy a natural part of using the library.
  • We must educate staff about privacy so that they understand the library’s values and can guide users.

It’s possible to balance privacy and usability successfully in a public library setting.  It takes careful selection, communication, and education.


AuthorStacy Tomaszewski

Stacy Tomaszewski is the Electronic Resources Librarian at The Alameda County Library (CA).