Choose Privacy Week 2015: Toward A Set of Best Practices to Protect Patron Privacy in Library 2.0

by Michael Zimmer

In today’s information ecosystem, libraries increasingly incorporate interactive, collaborative, and user-centered features of the so-called “Web 2.0” world into traditional library services, thereby creating “Library 2.0”. Examples include: providing patrons the ability to evaluate and comment on particular items in a library’s collection through discussion forums or comment threads; creating dynamic and personalized recommendation systems (“other patrons who checked out this book also borrowed these items”); using blogs, wikis, and related user-centered platforms to encourage communication and interaction among/between library staff and patrons; and interfacing various library collections and services with relevant Web 2.0 platforms, such as Wikipedia, GoodReads, and even Facebook.

Along with these user-centered technological enhancements, many libraries also commonly face challenges on how to provide the most powerful and efficient library management systems to help inform data-driven decision-making. Thus, libraries are increasingly turning to rapidly evolving cloud computing solutions to satisfy their technological needs in order to best serve patrons, while taking advantage of new opportunities for cost savings, flexibility, and enhanced data management. These cloud services are typically provided by third parties who have built robust solutions to help libraries deliver resources, services, and expertise efficiently, and encourage patrons to participate in a network that empowers them to socialize and leverage the power of the community of users. Examples of cloud computing platforms for libraries include OCLC WorldShareEx Libris Alma, and BiblioCommons.

The transition to cloud computing in libraries, however, has the potential to disrupt longstanding ethical norms within librarianship dedicated to protecting patron privacy. Traditionally, the context of the library brings with it specific norms of information flow regarding patron activity, including a professional commitment to patron privacy. In the library, users’ intellectual activities are protected by decades of established norms and practices intended to preserve patron privacy and confidentiality, most stemming from the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights and related interpretations. As a matter of professional ethics, most libraries protect patron privacy by engaging in limited tracking of user activities, having short-term data retention policies (many libraries actually delete the record that a patron ever borrowed a book once it is returned), and generally enable the anonymous browsing of materials (you can walk into a public library, read all day, and walk out, and there is no systematic method of tracking who you are or what you’ve read). These are the existing privacy norms within the library context.

The move towards cloud computing platforms threatens to disrupt these norms. Much of cloud computing is based upon—indeed, built upon—encouraging increased information flows and the tracking, capturing, and aggregating of data about users’ activities. The prevalence of open flows of personal information on and across cloud and Web 2.0 platforms have prompted general concerns over the impact on user privacy. In order to take full advantage of Web 2.0 and cloud-based platforms and technologies to deliver services, libraries will inevitably need to capture and retain personal information from their patrons.

Writing nearly 20 years ago, before Library 2.0 could have been contemplated, Leigh Estabrook argued that retaining patron data could help libraries improve their services: “in the name of one good—keeping patron records confidential—we are sacrificing another: targeted and tailored services to library users.” More recently, Peter Brantley has argued, perhaps provocatively, that: “In today’s digital world, libraries cannot guarantee the absolute privacy of our users. But, more importantly, for our own purposes, we shouldn’t want to.”

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Media and cultural critic Neil Postman warned, “Technology giveth and technology taketh away,” and I suspect he would view the emergence of Library 2.0 and related cloud-based library represent a modern-day Faustian bargain: these powerful Web 2.0-based tools hold the promise to enhance traditional library services with innovative and personalized features, while at the same time, they pose a potential threat to the library’s traditional protection of patron privacy. Thus, it appears that libraries are at a crossroads on how to best leverage Web technology to enhance their services and whether to loosen restrictions on collecting and retaining patron data to enhance these services.

Anecdotally, many librarians appear divided on how to address this tension between preserving traditional librarian ethics and offering Library 2.0 services. My own discussions with librarians and staff at a major U.S. library system on the development of Library 2.0 platforms revealed considerable disagreement on whether collecting and using patron data was an acceptable tactic in order to provide enhanced patron services, and participants at a recent symposium on Library 2.0 shared unease on how to balance the two sides of this dilemma (for example, view the presentations at the 2009 Library 2.0 Symposium hosted by the Yale Information Society project here and here). For some, like the developers of the prototype LibraryCloud, a multi-library data service that aggregates and delivers library metadata from various partner institutions, the potential of Library 2.0 should lead libraries to make use of all available and permitted data in order to help further the interests of their users, as argued by David Weinberger: “They will do this because it advances the values core to the mission of libraries, and thus advances the value of libraries.”

While pursuing Library 2.0 might provide a path to advancing many of the core values of the mission of libraries, such as access to information, other core values, such as privacy, necessarily become imperiled. No clear and simple resolution to this ethical dilemma has been forthcoming, and professional guidance has been minimal. My analysis of over 630 professional trade press articles discussing Library 2.0 and related services revealed privacy was only discussed substantively in 47 (7.5%) articles, and of those, fewer than 10 (1.6%) had in depth discussion or suggested possible solutions to mitigating the inherent concern. Thus, we are left with little guidance on how to address the new ethical and policy challenges that arise with the emergence of Library 2.0.

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Where does this leave us? As an information policy and ethics scholar, my first reaction is to point to the need for a comprehensive assessment of the motivations, design, deployment, and impact of Web 2.0-based tools and technologies within library settings. At the Center for Information Research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, we have started just such a project. Earlier this year we launched a pilot research study to help us understand how libraries are implementing third-party cloud computing services, how these implementations might impact patron privacy, and how libraries are responding to these concerns. The results of the research will include a summary report of findings, and the development of a set of best practices to guide future implementations of cloud computing in public library settings, with the goal of finding a suitable balance between the need to provide cost-effective technology-based services while also protecting patron privacy.

But more than just scholarly research, we need a more pragmatic approach. For those familiar with my broader research agenda, you’ll know that I’m very dedicated to an approach called Values-in-Design, a pragmatic intervention within design communities and environments to ensure particular ethical values – such as privacy, autonomy, justice, and freedom – are considered in the initial design of new media and information technologies, rather than retrofitted after deployment. With a Values-in-Design approach, ethical values like privacy are translated and considered in relation to various technical variables and choices, through a combined exploration between technical designers, practitioners, and ethicists. Engaging directly with developers and managers of Library 2.0 systems can provide greater clarity of how the ethical value of privacy is conceptualized and operationalized within these systems and their use.

This is why I’m extremely happy to be a collaborator on a project managed by the National Information Standards Organization (NISO), a non-profit standards organization that develops, maintains and publishes technical standards related to publishing, bibliographic and library applications, to develop a Consensus Framework to Support Patron Privacy in Digital Library and Information Systems. The project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, supports a series of community discussions with advocates, practitioners, and technologists, on how libraries, publishers, and information systems providers can build better privacy protection into their operations. The grant will also support creation of a draft framework to support patron privacy and subsequent publicity of the draft prior to its advancement for approval as a NISO Recommended Practice.

Through these activities — combining scholarly research with pragmatic collaborations among practitioners and designers — we can work towards creating best practices for protecting patron privacy in the Library 2.0 era. Together, we can provide greater understanding of any gaps in how issues of patron privacy are understood and addressed within the broader implementation of cloud computing within libraries. The results of these types of projects will be applicable to the entire library and information professional community, providing conceptual clarity to issues of patron privacy in the Web 2.0 era, while promoting the innovative use of technology to facilitate discovery of knowledge.

 

Michael Zimmer, PhD, is a privacy and Internet ethics scholar. He is an Associate Professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he also serves as Director of the Center for Information Policy Research. With a background in new media and Internet studies, the philosophy of technology, and information policy & ethics, Zimmer’s research focuses on the ethical dimensions of new media and information technologies, with particular interest in online privacy, social media & Web 2.0, Library 2.0, and internet research ethics.

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