Choose Privacy Week 2013: Librarians and Journalists, Natural Friends but Sometimes Foes

Welcome to this year’s special online observance for Choose Privacy Week!  From May 1 to May  7, noted privacy experts and advocates will be providing guest commentaries that explore issues related to privacy rights, government surveillance, and the impact on our freedoms and civil liberties.  Our inaugural post is written by J. Douglas Archer,  Peace Studies Librarian, Hesburgh Libraries, University of Notre Dame and chair of the ALA-IFC Privacy Subcommittee.

Librarians and Journalists, Natural Friends but Sometimes Foes

Sometimes the best way to understand a problem fully is to compare it with its opposite.  We in the library profession strongly affirm the privacy and confidentiality rights of library users.  Yet at the same time we vigorously advocate for open access to government information, for as much transparency as possible in government operations.  What gives?

One crucial distinction resides in the nature of public and private information.  For instance, a public figure may control public documents containing information that could impact the lives and wellbeing of a few or a few million fellow citizens.  The average citizen usually has access to private information that only affects his or her closest kin.

Determining the line between the public’s right to know and the average person’s right to privacy can be extremely difficult.  American librarians argue from principles found in the Bill of Rights that individuals have the freedom to read and the corollary right to privacy because an informed citizenry is essential for a functioning democracy.   These rights permit persons to explore information, ideas and beliefs without fearing that big brother is looking over their shoulders.  They should only be abrogated in the most extreme cases.

At the same time, librarians argue that, for democracies to thrive, their citizens must know what their government is about, i.e., what are they up to when the doors are closed.  This simple typology presents us with two problems — determining what is private and should remain private and determining what is public and therefore should be made public.

Journalists face the same dilemma but from the other end of the spectrum.  They are first and foremost about getting the scoop, the story, the headline – exposing that which was unknown or hidden.  They have traditionally recognized a right to privacy but tend to reduce its territory to a minimum.

The two extremes are relatively easy to identify.  However, there’s always the in between, a shadow land, that defies such simple diagnostics.   Some public documents should not be made public (e.g, the schematic for a nuclear device), while some private documents should become public (e.g. papers documenting a plot to use such a device).  Defining the borders of that territory is a greater task than any one profession could hope to comprehend.

If reader privacy is a library thing, then government transparency is a journalistic thing even more than for librarians.  Here is a great, relatively unexplored opportunity – an ongoing dialog among librarians and journalists to clarify our sometimes complementary but too often antagonistic roles.

A few efforts have been made to initiate such a dialog.  For instance, Evan Davis, a business librarian at the Allen County Public Library here in Indiana, tried to organize a preconference at our Indiana Library Federation annual conference on this very issue last year but couldn’t recruit enough journalists.   A real shame.  Mutual exploration of the transitional space between the purely personal and obviously public could be invaluable for both professions and the public they serve.