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The P Word

I must have missed the privacy class in library school. I’ll admit to having been pretty taken aback the first time I heard heated privacy debates once I was out and librarianating. As far as I can tell, the two edges of the range of opinions on the topic are: “Privacy is a fundamental right and we are the champions of that right” on the one hand and “Privacy is dead, get over it” on the other. I have problems with both of these positions. The former seems paternalistic and the latter seems cavalier.

So do we, in fact, have a mandate to protect patron privacy regardless of the patron’s views on the topic? Personally, I don’t think so. I consider it part of my job to help people understand when they’re giving up pieces of their private lives, but then let them decide if they care or not. In fact, I think that holding on too tightly to the “guard everyone’s privacy with your lives” philosophy directly contradicts some of the other bedrocks of librarianship, such as making information easily findable, for example. How can we gush about comments, tags, ratings, and other user-generated content and at the same time prophesy in the name of privacy? How can we recommend social bookmarking? At an even higher level, how can we acknowledge that things like smart interfaces and personalized relevance ranking are the way to go (especially on mobile devices where space is at a premium and browsing result lists is painfully slow) while we simultaneously forbid our systems from using data about researcher-behavior?

No, privacy isn’t dead. And yes, I think education about this kind of thing is an important part of protecting the research process. But I think we can no longer afford the simplicity of preemptively guarding everyone’s privacy in every situation. I think we live in an opt-in or opt-out world. Whichever of those we choose as our default, the “opt” part of it should be clearly presented to our patrons so that they rather than we take control of their research experience. I also think that our jurisdiction over their privacy becomes even more tenuous when it spreads beyond the research experience.

Maybe it’s my experience as one who is fairly comfortable living online, maybe it’s my life as an educator in a beautiful Midwestern Ivory Tower. Who knows. But at least for today, my position is that we exist to educate people rather than to take away their choices.

Published inLibraries and Librarians


  1. ellbeecee ellbeecee

    I have some thoughts on this that are likely pretty similar to yours – but since I’m sitting in the airport waiting for my flight to be called, I’ll post more late – remind me if I don’t!

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