Why Privacy Matters: Choose Privacy Week 2019

By T.J. Lamanna

This year’s Choose Privacy Week is focused on inclusivity – the need for every patron to feel that the library is a welcoming experience for them. Part and parcel of inclusivity is making sure that we are protecting our patrons privacy rights. The need to implement practices that bolster our privacy policies cannot be overstated, and I would like to take a moment to discuss why.

Before we can delve into why privacy matters, it’s important to have a working definition before we proceed. For my purposes I will define privacy as the right for one to transfer, consume, produce, or otherwise interact with information without fear of intrusion.

I think, as a baseline, that there doesn’t need to be any overarching reason that our patrons shouldn’t be protected. Privacy should be on by default. Our person need not offer any reasons why they need to keep their reading habits or internet searching private. Ultimately, though there are myriad good reasons why patrons privacy should be protected; we shouldn’t expect one as reason to safeguard that information. There is no justification necessary for libraries to implement policies and technologies to protect their patrons. Libraries have the ability to be bastions of privacy in a world where all metadata is up for sale. We can be a safe haven for our communities. Privacy matters because we have a duty to allow our communities free pursue of their ideals.

We can do actual harm to our community and patrons if we aren’t fulfilling our duty in protecting the privacy of our patrons information. It could be outing an LGBTQ+ teen to an unsupportive household. It could be stopping someone from checking out a book on an eating disorder because they are to shy or ashamed to have anyone know they needed it. There are no reasons for either of these issues to arise as long as we create and enforce strong privacy policies. Privacy here also means creating tools to allow people to find information on difficult subjects without having to share their need with another individual. You can create guides as to how to find these books in the stacks or online and you can invest in self-scanners so patrons can check out materials without having staff see what that item is. Privacy matters because someone’s life could be on the line.

Privacy in libraries isn’t just about safeguarding patron records or internet usage. It’s about making patrons feel welcome when they enter the building, that they know that their pursuits are their own, and that we’re there to assist them without judgment. Privacy includes the physical realm, beyond not snooping on what people are reading. The movements of patrons through a physical space is another type of information that patrons have the right to keep private. Those of us with camera systems should take extra care with our privacy policy to make sure we are upfront about why we have it and how it will be used. Feeling secure in our physical surroundings is just as important as our ability to navigate freely though digital content. Knowing someone has the ability to watch you reduces that sphere of freedom you should feel inside a library. And while we all understand why some libraries have implement security or police details, I think we must keep it in our mind how our patrons react to such an intrusion in their zone of freedom. Privacy matters because without freedom of movement we cannot have freedom of speech.

Privacy is about trust. When our patrons walk into our building or use our digital resources they are trusting us. If there is a better reason to fulfill our duties to protecting our patrons, I don’t know what it is. This trust is about more than the technology we implement to anonymize our patrons. This trust is fundamentally a human one, our patrons are trusting us. They are trusting libraries. They are trusting library staff, and this means there is a responsibility to make sure everyone in your building understands the need of confidentiality. This means talking to them about discussing patron records for non-library purposes. It means talking to them about when to interact with police officials. It means making sure they have an understanding of why keeping our patron data confidential is a priority of the library. Privacy matters because without the public trust, we wouldn’t exist as institutions.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard from within the library community too many horror stories about staff or volunteers not understanding the implications of privacy policies in their library. Some may want to gossip about what a particular patron is checking out. Some may have prejudices that push them to eavesdrop on certain demographics of patrons, or worse and potentially call the police. Our libraries are not immune to the prejudices of the world at large. We’re guilty of it too, but creating, maintaining, enforcing a comprehensive privacy policy. If privacy is taught as default that will help keep our most human flaws in check. Privacy matters because no one will feel welcome if they feel observed.

Privacy matters. Privacy allows us free movement across the intellectual spectrum. It allows us the freedom to pursue whatever topic we find call to us. Privacy gives us the ability to pursue our passions without fear of surveillance or oppression. What can be more liberating and inclusive than that?

T.J. Lamanna is Emerging Technologies Librarian at Cherry Hill Public Library. He is a member of the Privacy Subcommittee and has worked extensively with the Library Freedom Project.

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