Privacy Advocacy Guides for Libraries: An interview with Erin Berman and Bonnie Tijerina

Erin Berman and Bonnie Tijerina are the project leaders on the IMLS grant project, ‘Privacy Advocacy Guides for Libraries.’ The project is focused on the creation of a series of guides that focus on providing hands-on techniques for better protecting the privacy of the library as well as the privacy of library users. 

The privacy guides are intended to be more digestible documents for practitioners, which offer advice and resources to be used in a library by both staff and administration. Over the next few months, work is underway to test out the privacy guides by selected participants in academic, public and school libraries to further refine and fine tune the guides.

The grant objectives state: 

  • Turn privacy literature and guidance into useable and straightforward guides
  • Help librarians become privacy advocates, giving them clear guidelines and discussion points for engaging with library leaders, vendors, boards, local government, and other stakeholders about privacy related topics
  • See an increase in libraries creating privacy policies, performing audits, negotiating privacy conscious vendor contracts, and educating users about privacy and security
  • Engage librarians to bring their expertise to the creation of the advocacy guides

The grant is led by Erin Berman (Division Director of the Learning Group, Alameda County Library) and Bonnie Tijerina (Affiliate researcher at Data & Society), who agreed to be interviewed via email.

Privacy gauge

What inspired you both to write this grant around creating privacy field guides? 

Erin: Bonnie and Michael Zimmer led the IMLS grant, “Library Values & Privacy in our National Digital Strategies Field guides, Convenings, and Conversations” in 2018. 

Bonnie: The grant included hosting convenings of librarians around the country to talk about privacy. The culminating event was the Library Values & Privacy Summit in New York City which brought together folks from within and outside the library field to examine current privacy concerns in libraries and to come up with concrete next steps. What came out of the convenings and subsequent report was that librarians cared about privacy conceptually but didn’t always know what they had the power to do practically. 

Some felt they weren’t “techy” enough or they weren’t in a high enough position of influence while others felt they didn’t have the time or the basic step-by-step guide to help them make even a small difference. 

Erin: We saw this beyond just Bonnie and Michael’s grant. Through my work with the subcommittee, I kept hearing that libraries didn’t have practical privacy tools. Those that had a high level of interest, time, and funding could invest in learning. Those without didn’t do much. People were asking for hands-on, simple to use guides. Didn’t necessarily want to be privacy experts but wanted to be able to make concrete steps towards addressing privacy issues. 

I loved these lines in your grant application- “Libraries are often ill-equipped to be the privacy champions the national organization says they are. While a plethora of information exists about how to institute privacy policies and procedures in libraries, it is difficult to navigate and hard to use.” Why do you both feel the libraries are ill-equipped?

Erin: Many libraries are trying to meet another core value, access. They have enough funding and staffing to do that and that alone. There might be interest in adopting a more stringent privacy routine, but don’t feel like they have the resources to make a change. Privacy is a huge topic with many different facets. There is a lot of literature about privacy out there, but not as many guides that can tell you specific actions to take… that any library can take (big, small, rural, academic, school, etc.)

Bonnie: To go along with this, a typical pushback privacy advocates in libraries get when they bring privacy concerns to their libraries is that they don’t have the resources to dedicate to this. Directors might think that money needs to go to retraining all staff or buying new equipment but actually there’s ways to make a different through small changes and a little investigation of how things are currently done. We hope the guides show staff and administrators ways to be privacy-minded without having to move resources away from other priorities. 

I’ve found talking to people about privacy in general to be fascinating, since I find privacy to be a nebulous idea for many people, especially how I’ve thought that each individual views privacy and private information differently. Could you speak to some of the challenges around creating field guides around a complex topic like privacy?. 

Erin: The first thing we did was to break down the huge issue of privacy into smaller topics that people expressed interest in throughout our discussions. I agree with you in that privacy is in many ways, up to the individual. I’m a firm believer that individual privacy is up to the individual. We can educate people about how their information is being used, but ultimately it’s up to them to decide how to share their information. However, a library is ethically and legally obligated to uphold the privacy of our users. That means there are some real actions libraries can undertake to be good stewards of the information provided to us. 

We’ve tried to build these guides not around specific types of technology, but broader concepts of privacy. You’ll be able to access guides on the following topics:

  • Digital Security Basics
  • Data Lifecycles
  • Non-Tech Privacy
  • How to Talk About Privacy
  • Privacy Audits
  • Vendors and Privacy 
  • Privacy Policies 

Each guide gives the reader a short amount of background information and then an exercise they can do in their library. We’re hoping we’ve broken down the topics into manageable chunks so that no library worker feels overwhelmed. Libraries can take the pieces that work for them.

Bonnie: What was more challenging for us was to make these guides as useful as possible to public, school, and academic libraries. We know some topics are more discussed in some types of libraries than others and we know each of these types of libraries has their own unique issues. But, we’ve also found that at their core, these privacy concerns share a lot of similarities. We brought on authors and reviewers from all three types of libraries to help us fill in any gaps. And, we have test libraries who represent different types of libraries in hopes of making the final versions useful to as many libraries as possible. 

I like in the application that you acknowledge many tools/projects addressing larger institutions and not always thinking about smaller or medium range institutions. Was this inspired by something one or both of you have experienced directly with other projects?

Erin: I’ve seen privacy tools that come out for public libraries, some for academic, and almost nothing for schools. A lot of the resources seem to be geared for libraries that are large and have control over their purchasing or even their IT systems. Some of the resources are long pdfs or power point presentations. 

They assume that the library worker has the time to review all the materials and then try to figure out what to do with it. There isn’t a whole lot out there that just tells you, “do this, then do that.” We know that the vast majority of the libraries in our country are not huge urban systems, but smaller libraries. They often get overlooked by the larger systems that are creating the resources in the first place. 

It’s a huge challenge to try and make guides that work for schools, academic, and public libraries, but we felt the basic concepts of privacy hold true no matter the type or size of library. We are recruiting lots of different types of libraries to give us feedback on these guides with the hope that there’s something in there for everyone. 

Bonnie: We’ve always thought of this project as supporting as many libraries as possible. Truly making librarianship a privacy-minded profession, we knew we had to make it possible for as many libraries as possible to participate. Our hope is that there is something useful or helpful for libraries no matter the size and type. 

Any new or surprising things you have noticed or learned through this grant project?

Erin: Having a good graphic designer makes a huge difference! When you see this complicated information designed in an approachable guide it makes the information much more accessible. I’ve also learned a lot more about the specific needs of different types of libraries. I’m looking forward to the testing round where we get to hear directly from library workers who are trying the guides out on site! 

AuthorVirginia Dressler

Virginia Dressler is the Digital Projects Librarian at Kent State University. Her specialty areas are project management and digitization, working primarily with the university’s unique collections. She holds a Master's of Library and Information Science from Kent State University (2007), a Master's of the Arts in Art Gallery and Museum Studies from the University of Leeds (2003) and a certificate in advanced librarianship (digital libraries) from Kent State University (2014). Her research areas include privacy in digital collections and the Right to be Forgotten. She is author of Framing Privacy in Digital Collections with Ethical Decision Making (Morgan & Claypool, 2018).

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