Librarians have long been interested in member privacy. It starts with the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, where it is stated that “Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.” The ALA understands that privacy is essential to the full exercise of the freedoms of thought, association, and expression, and has said as much (in different ways) since including privacy in its 1939 Code of Ethics for Librarians.

This Book Is Overdue. Image: OCLC

This Book Is Overdue. Image: OCLC

How libraries implement safeguards on privacy will vary based on that library’s skill and resources. Marilyn Johnson’s “This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All,” tells the story about the lengths some librarians have gone to protect the privacy of their members.

In 2005, librarians from the Library Connection  (a non-profit collective of local libraries that have banded together to share resources) received a secret “National Security Letter” as described in the Patriot Act of 2001 ordering the disclosure the identity of a specific computer user. These librarians ultimately succeeded in their challenge, but there were many months during which they couldn’t discuss the matter freely. At the time it was not even clear that the recipients could even discuss the national security letter with their own lawyers!

Canary in the Coal Mine…but in a Library?

Image: Jessamyn West

Image: Jessamyn West

Some libraries (and, later, even technology firms) reacted with strategies in their privacy policies…and by using tools called “warrant canaries.” These are signs or signals that, when they are missing, modified, or out-of-date, suggest that something out-of-the-ordinary has happened with respect to member privacy while remaining within the letter of the law.

Other libraries limit the information they keep on members so that, in the event they are forced to reveal information, there isn’t much to hand over. This turned out to be the case with respect to the Library Connection case I discussed earlier: the information that had been requested in the National Security Letter no longer existed at the time Library Connection was served with the letter.

New Strategies for New Times

These strategies are no longer enough to protect member privacy. The advent of the collection of Big Data by service providers, along with recent revelations about the NSA’s broad surveillance of Internet and telecommunications, means that individuals have to do more to ensure their own privacy.

Naturally, librarians have adapted. Librarians at the Watertown Free Public Library (near Boston) are working to help their members preserve their privacy when working online. With help from the Massachusetts ACLU,  they’ve created a three-hour workshop tailored to help librarians in Massachusetts understand and teach the privacy possibilities, along with an online toolkit. Libraries have installed this online toolkit on their public computers for all members to use, and some libraries are now teaching internet privacy workshops to their members.

What’s Your Library Doing for Internet Privacy? 

Ask them and show them this article…if they can’t help you now, then they’ll know what to do to help preserve their members’ privacy in the future.

Have you got thoughts–or had an experience–protecting your own, or someone else’s, privacy? Please share your insights here!