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 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.
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.