Posts tagged ‘privacy’

Blazing Trails, pt. 4: Rocky terrain

Sorry for the delay in posting this. Like everyone else on the planet I got sucked into Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I’m a librarian, it goes with the territory! I’ll try to post a review at a later date, but now, back to our regularly scheduled program…

This post is part 4 of a series. Earlier parts are here: part 1, part 2, part 3

Based on my last post, you might think I’m going to tell you it’s time to ditch the Library Bill of Rights, or something. I’m not. I still believe that freedom of access to information is a necessity, and a durable core value. But I do think we’re in for a rough ride over the next few years, and that some of the things we have long associated with libraries may not be as durable as we think they are.

Here’s one example: privacy. This is another core value for libraries, and again, I think it still has merit. But our society is changing drastically on this issue. People are willingly sacrificing their privacy for increased connection to others. I’ve talked about this a bit on this blog, and I suspect it will be an ongoing topic for me. I think libraries still have a duty to protect the privacy of our customers, but what does that look like say, 5 years from now, when customers may not only have the ability to save their reading history in our system, but to share it with others? When some customers choose to make their information public, does that erode our ability to protect the privacy of others? In theory, it shouldn’t, but in practice it might. As the expectations of our customers morph, we may have a different role to play. I can imagine that there may come a time when lives lived fully in public are the norm and people think our protective measures are officious and unnecessary. What then? Do we stand our ground or move with the current of prevailing thought?

Here’s an even bigger shift for libraries: Amazon.com recently reported that ebook sales have outpaced hardback sales for the past three months, and that trend appears to be increasing. That’s HUGE. In a relatively short period of time, ebooks have taken hold and carved out a significant portion of the book market. And Amazon expects ebook sales to outpace paperback sales sometime this year. This has tremendous repercussions for libraries.

Most libraries, whether public, academic or private, are built in large part to store and provide access to physical books and other materials. Our facilities are designed for this purpose. Our Integrated Library System software is designed for this purpose. Our policies and procedures and a good portion of our work are designed to manage and further this purpose. How quickly is that going to change? I don’t know. I know we’ll have some time to transition, that there will be demand for printed books even after ebooks become the dominant format. But this is a much bigger shift than deciding when to stop ordering VHS tapes and focus on DVDs. How are we going to handle it? Are we prepared to make that transition at all? Most librarians I know have a VERY strong attachment to books that is deeper than just sentiment or nostalgia. Will we be able to transition along with our communities, or will we have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, away from our beloved print books? (And this is actually an optimistic scenario, assuming that the authors, publishers, retailers and libraries will be able to work out ebook rights that will allow libraries to offer free and easy access to customers. The options we have right now are not great. What if libraries get cut out of the mix entirely and DON’T have a viable way to offer free and easy ebook access to customers?).

And what about our buildings? If you are fortunate enough to be building or remodeling a library right now, and you want that building to be viable for 10-15 years or more, you have to consider now how the building might be used if we shift our collection focus primarily toward electronic formats. Do we want to merely adapt spaces that were meant to store physical materials, or can we envision a flexible space now that allows us to adapt every couple of years to changing needs? I’m concerned that we are too locked in – if we’re all using the same 3 library furniture vendors, where is the innovation going to come from?

This is partly what I meant when I quoted Annie Dillard in my last post. I’ve been walking around my library lately, just trying to picture it without most or all of the book stacks and I’m having a really hard time. I consider myself an “idea person” but this one has me a bit stumped. I think I’m generally very open to change and am a fan of ebooks, so I don’t live in constant terror of the great ebook takeover. But I still have a hard time conceiving a library that’s not built on books. Books are a “bearing wall” in our library, as in most others. They are part of our identity. I’m not sure I’m prepared to kick that wall out!

I know that we have a rough road ahead, and pretty soon we’re going off-road entirely and the ride will get even bumpier. We are working hard just to keep our seats, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for looking ahead and trying to see what’s around the next bend. It’s a good thing, then, that we’ve sent out our scouts…

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August 2, 2010 at 11:02 pm 5 comments

Public and Private

I’m reading Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus. Terrible title – makes it sound like a boring textbook – but the book is fantastic. I’ll write about it in more detail when I’m finished, but I came across a blog post that dovetails nicely with some of Shirky’s points as well as recent events, so I thought I’d mention it now.

Author Jeff Jarvis writes a blog called BuzzMachine. He writes about news and media and new media, but he’s also written about his battle with cancer. In this post he writes about the value of sharing information:

Yes, I believe we have a right and need to protect our privacy – to control our information and identities – but I also want the conversation and our decisions to include consideration of the value of sharing and linking. I also want to protect what’s public as a public good; that includes our internet. We have plenty of privacy advocates. I want to be a publicness advocate.

Libraries have always been great advocates of privacy, and I think that’s important. But in the wake of all the recent Facebook privacy controversy, I think this is a really valid point to make. Do I think that Facebook (or any other site) ought to make clear what’s public and what’s private, and not change those settings for people without their knowledge or permission? Absolutely! But people also have the ability to trade a measure of privacy for greater connection online, and the potential benefits of sharing are tremendous.

One of Shirky’s big points is that there is a great deal of social value, and often even civic value, in what people share online, and to denigrate social media tools as time-wasters or navel-gazing is to miss the point. Jarvis is opinionated and outspoken and has been blasted for oversharing the details of his health problems, but he is quick to point out the support, encouragement and valuable information he wouldn’t have received any other way than through responses to what he puts out in public. As a general rule, I think free-flowing information is good, and that it’s the responsibility of each person to determine for themselves what they do or don’t want to read, watch or experience.

As librarians, what’s our role? A lot of these decisions and transactions happen outside of our purview and without our input, but we can be vocal within our spheres of influence, advocating for more transparency in privacy controls and for keeping information free and accessible. And we can certainly help educate our customers so that they are well-informed when it comes time to make those decisions for themselves.

June 21, 2010 at 9:12 pm

Privacy, usability and the path of least resistance

Going back to the issue of privacy – I saw this post at ReadWriteWeb and it confirmed something I’ve suspected for awhile: that although many people claim to be concerned about their privacy online, many of them never use the options available to them for managing their various profiles. In fact, nearly 60% of the people in the study cited didn’t know if their profiles were public or not. This is a perfect example of what Kevin Kelly calls “triumph of the default.” The vast majority of users are stymied by the sheer number of choices available, so they don’t choose (or they choose by not choosing).

I’m exploring this in my work right now with usability testing. We have software and services that are pretty robust and have a lot of features, but most of those features never get used. We’re trying to determine which options are the most useful to most of our customers so we can set intelligent defaults. We don’t want people to have to be super-users to get good results from our site, but it can be difficult to find the balance between ease of use and quality of results. This is one of the reasons we do iterative testing. Test, tweak, test again, tweak some more…the hard part is knowing when to stop.

July 1, 2009 at 8:00 am

Location Awareness and Privacy

I ran across this post at the Pop!Tech blog and it got me thinking…how much are people willing to sacrifice their privacy in order to get something they want? With all of the social networking services out there, people are willingly giving up a measure of privacy all the time. I suspect many of us don’t even think about it until something goes wrong. Still, everyone has their limit. A lot of new technologies walk the borderline between cool and creepy, and the whole field of location awareness has such potential for abuse. I’m not even sure where I draw the line for myself, but it’s something I’m pondering more and more.

FYI: this article in Wired mentioned in the Pop!Tech post is also worth a read.

May 29, 2009 at 6:06 pm


"To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong." - Pearce

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