February 17, 2018

Kindle Library Lending: A Triumph of Practicality Over Principles

The lending of library ebooks through the Amazon Kindle will likely expose the growing hollowness of some core principles of librarianship.

Here are two extracts from September 22 draft documents that the ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy E-book Task Force has begun circulating about ebooks:

ALA policies apply fully to e-books, including those that promote values such as intellectual freedom, commitment to access, respect for confidentiality and privacy, freedom of information, service for the public good, and ethics and professionalism. (From Ebook Principles for the Library Community)

[Library lending] (p)romotes privacy and free expression rights for individuals, as librarians would insist on them in the provision of e-book services. (From Talking Points on Library Lending of Ebooks)

Little of this applied in the Kindle deal, particularly regarding privacy and confidentiality. There was no significant effort by librarians or by ALA to insist on the promotion of privacy, which is a core principle of librarianship, according to ALA.  If this major ebook program with a commercial behemoth involving 11,000 public and school libraries could be implemented without assurances of privacy, then how solid is the principle? Is reader privacy worth fighting for or isn’t it?

Throughout the Kindle rollout, librarians were in the dark, powerless. The most sought after piece of information since the initial Kindle announcement in April has been the purely practical consideration of how the checkout process would work, not whether Amazon would share and safeguard the longstanding and invaluable ethical concerns of librarians when it comes to the anonymity of reading.

The joy among front-line librarians about Kindle lending is more than understandable. They now can give thousands of unhappy patrons a resounding ‘yes’ when it comes to their Kindles. But their influence over the privacy policy of Amazon is nil. And it will likely remain at zero, even as Amazon becomes more deeply enmeshed in library operations and as librarians actively enable that role.

Unfortunately for libraries, this means abandoning principles about record retention that are spelled out in ALA’s policy manual (section 52.4.4), including the discomfiting ideas, in light of the Kindle deal, that libraries “assure that vendor agreements guarantee library control of all data and records” and that libraries “dispose of library usage records containing personally identifiable information unless they are needed for the efficient and lawful operation of the library.”

How do these principles reconcile with a patron having to sign into their Amazon account — which contains name, address, credit card information — before they can finish checking out a book to their Kindle? How do these principles reconcile with a partnership with a company that has amassed its wealth and power in large part through data aggregation and data mining?

OverDrive at least has gone on record to say that it does not retain any personal information about a patron. Amazon says nothing beyond what is posted on its website, whether pertinent or not. But that is what juggernauts do, they roll on without regard for the niceties of others, inexorably broadening their own footprint as Amazon did today with the introduction of the Amazon Fire and the cutting of Kindle prices.

Yet the decisions about a growing number of reading records, however detailed they may be, now rest with this juggernaut. Ceding control of any patron records is a long-term loss for libraries.

For example, Amazon does not promise to demand a warrant or even a court order if asked to turn over customers’ digital book records to the government. On its website, Amazon says it releases account and other personal information when it believes the release “is appropriate to comply with the law; enforce or apply our Conditions of Use and other agreements; or protect the rights, property, or safety of Amazon.com, our users, or others.”

If some day, for expedient reasons, Amazon disgorges information about library loans, to what degree will it harm a patron or the reputation of libraries? As a profession, can librarians say they have effectively dealt with this question? Can any librarian even say with confidence what Amazon’s record retention policy is?

The only real hope is that the numerous state privacy laws, with their regard for the library context, will be updated. The model for this is the California law passed in July, which updated circulation of records laws in order to keep confidential electronic as well as written patron use information and borrowing records. The information cannot be disclosed by a public library or a third party that stores information for the library, according to a summary by the California Library Association (CLA).

In the case of United States v. Rumely in 1953, Justice Douglas warned that unless the purchasers (or borrowers) of publications remain anonymous the “subtle, imponderable pressures of the orthodox” would lay hold and “fear of criticism [would go] with every person into the bookstall.” Douglas’s opinion remains highly relevant and reminds us why librarians in the past have zealously defended the privacy of reading and why it should always be, not a second thought, but a paramount, practical concern.

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley (mkelley@mediasourceinc.com) is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.



  1. Laura Isenstein says:

    Why is privacy even an issue with lending of Kindle e-books? Kindle users already give Amazon their information and the vast majority don’t think twice about the privacy issue, including me. Being able to borrow vs. buy is a cost savings and that is the main attraction to library borrowing for Kindle users.

    In this new era of social networking,e-commerce, etc. I think the library industry needs to address and become comfortable with differing levels of privacy for different situations that are beyond the control of the library.

  2. Laura makes a good point. Does the fact that patrons have already given up privacy by registering the Kindle clear the library of responsibility? Also, libraries are purchasing the right for their patrons to use Overdrive’s materials, but aren’t really lending the eBooks. Overdrive is. The library does not gain ownership of any assets. Just the right to use an independent, for-profit service. Does this free the library from liability? If we make a good faith effort to inform our patrons about the privacy issues inherent in using Kindle lending, is this sufficient?

  3. But the point is, Patrons HAVE to give up privacy to access these, and as market driven publishing heads more in the direction of digital, certain editions and books will likely be less available in analog. So we are turning reading into, essentially, an exercise for those who can afford it. The new scribal class will be on GoodReads, carry Smart Phones (yes I’ve got one), and borrow books on their Kindle because it’s cheaper– not because they can’t afford to buy books. They may be willing to give up their privacy– but as Librarians, we should not be supporting a reading medium that requires that. I’m not a Luddite, and there are ways to work e-books seamlessly into the mission of public libraries, but there are so many social issues with this besides privacy I don’t even know where to start, other than to say, if you think everyone owns a Kindle, a computer, or even a book in this country, I can direct you to some destinations that would truly be paradigm shifting for you.

  4. Just wanted to comment and say nice page, great to read from people who know this area.

  5. Well, why doesn’t the agreement *spell out* the privacy requirements, with penalty clauses big enough to make an uncomfortable difference in Amazon’s bottom line if invoked? Then it becomes Amazon’s duty to its stockholders to see that their records are protected in accordance with the contract. I’m sure that librarians can help them figure out how to do that. The cost to Amazon would be tiny — unless they don’t follow through — and they might find a competitive advantage in applying some of those principles across the board and telling the world about how much they’ve improved (and their evil competitors haven’t :-).

    Standard Terms and Conditions are an opening position for negotiation, not fate.

  6. I’m hearing the arguement in many places “but the customer already gave information to Amazon”, as if that has something to do with the library. I understand, practically speaking, that the customer in question is already willing to share information with Amazon. However, libraries should have, it seems to me, a higher bar than that. The important question is about what libraries should do and what relationships libraries should engage in, not what relationships customers have already with vendors. Personally, I buy the occasional thing from Amazon and I shop a great deal online. I bank online. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t value privacy, my own or that of library customers. And I agree with Mark that this is just where we’re starting, not necessarily where we’ll end up.

  7. Michelynn McKnight says:

    Some libraries lend Kindles which are registered to the library.

    In that case Amazon would only know that that library borrowed the document – not who used it. The name of the reader would still be unknown to Amazon.

    Vendors have always known what books libraries bought.


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