April 19, 2018

Always Watched | The Digital Shift 2015

TDS_bigbrotherAt Library Journal and School Library Journal’s October 14 virtual conference, The Digital Shift: Libraries Connecting Communities, “Always Watched: How Being Surveilled Online Impacts Us All and What Librarians Can Do About It,” attendees were reminded that government and commercial surveillance is an issue of increasing importance for libraries and users alike, and librarians need to consider issues of privacy more than ever.

Moderator Bonnie Tijerina, Data & Society Fellow at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York City and Founder of ER&L (Electronic Resources & Libraries), feels that it is crucial to look at the roles libraries can play in issues emerging due to technological development; to think about both “the kind of world we live in and the kind of world we want to live in.”


Neil M. Richards, Professor of law at Washington University School of Law, MO, explained that while the enduring values of privacy and free speech have always been important to librarians, in an online world it is particularly important to think about how the two fit together. In his recently published Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age (Oxford Univ. Press), Richards looked at surveillance in light of what a society needs in order to grow and thrive.

Current technology, he noted, is engineered to create records and preserve drafts. But part of the way we make sense of the world is by thinking, reading, and speaking about issues; protecting the privacy of that process is an important part of free speech. “This zone of intellectual privacy…is essential if we’re to generate new and interesting and possibly destabilizing ideas,” Richards said. “Remember, most of the ideas that we’ve come to cherish the most in our society were once heretical, deviant, destabilizing”—the notions that all people are equal, that they should be able to explore their religious beliefs, that people should be in charge of the government rather than vice versa.

If we’re being watched, said Richards, our intellectual explorations can be “chilled and deterred,” citing references from the National Security Agency (NSA) to the FBI; from George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 to a British study showing that university faculty would put more milk money into a break room “honesty box” if the accompanying sign showed eyes, rather than flowers. He emphasized, “I think if we care about things like freedom of speech and individuality and dissent, and even eccentricity and plain weirdness, we need to cultivate spaces in which those characteristics can develop”—and that means a commitment, inside and outside of libraries, to intellectual privacy.


Michael Robinson, associate professor of library science and head of library systems at the University of Alaska–Anchorage and chair of the privacy subcommittee of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC), offered a timeline of ALA activities around privacy and surveillance. Over the years, ALA, an organization with a tradition of protecting reader privacy, has focused mainly on government surveillance of what people read. But as big data grows bigger and bigger, noted Robinson, what about commercial surveillance?

The IFC founded Choose Privacy Week in 2010, encouraging libraries to develop programs and activities around online privacy. In 2013 the Edward Snowden surveillance revelations helped drive awareness of the scope of online surveillance by the NSA and other government agencies, as well as the underlying network of commercial surveillance; Adobe Digital Editions’ transmission of reader data in 2014 also raised red flags. When IFC updated its privacy toolkit—an online set of resources for libraries for online privacy best practices—in 2014, Robinson was struck by how much information it contained. He wanted to break it down into smaller, more actionable pieces, and in June 2015 the IFC published Library Privacy Guidelines for Ebook Lending and Digital Content Vendors.

“Overall what it’s trying to do,” explained Robinson, “is balance privacy protections against personalization and big data. The idea is to try to put the user at the center of making decisions. It emphasizes transparency on the part of libraries and vendors towards the users, so they understand—and can make choices about—how much privacy they’re willing to give up for convenience.” It’s not prescriptive, he noted, but rather the first step in a conversation between libraries and vendors.


For the past few years Melissa Morrone, supervising librarian in New York’s Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) information commons, had been thinking about issues of digital literacy, inclusion, and privacy. In 2011 she worked with Seeta Peña Gangadharan, a program fellow at New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI), to research the digital literacy of marginalized people and their attitudes toward privacy and online surveillance. “Out of that came, among other things, evidence that that library staff too have questions and varying levels of familiarity with privacy tools and how data flows online,” said Morrone.

Partnering with OTI, the Metropolitan New York Library Council (Metro), and the Data & Society Research Institute, Morrone received funds through a Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian professional development grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) for a project on digital privacy and data literacy in libraries.

The team has developed training workshops at BPL and Metro covering concepts and practical hands-on learning. All BPL librarians are required to take the training, as are BPL technology resource specialists, who teach almost all the library’s public technology classes. Other interested staff members are welcome to attend as well. In 2016 Metro will also provide training for staff at New York City’s other two library systems, as well as academic and other types of libraries. Common questions, at the workshop, said Morrone, include: “How do I know whether a website is genuine or a spoof site?” “How do websites know where I’m located?” “If I’m using a library computer, can the library tell what sites I’ve visited?” “Is there any way to increase my security while I’m on an open wireless network?”

So far, said Morrone, feedback on the workshops has been positive. “People have enjoyed the data flows exercise, which has gotten a lot of them thinking about the Internet in ways they hadn’t before. They’ve also found it extremely helpful to be in a forum with colleagues and [staff] working in other branches and departments, to talk about library policy and how to answer questions we get from the public.”

Also as part of the grant, Morrone’s team is building a companion tech support website at dataprivacyproject.org that will serve as a repository of software resources and how-to guides. Through the site, librarians and other community members will be able to consult with tech experts about problems and concerns surrounding digital privacy, surveillance, and data profiling in a library context. “I want to emphasize that while this project is funded by a professional development grant and has to do with training library staff,” Morrone noted, “the end result will be better guidance and instruction for library users.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.
Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library Journal, Stronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.


  1. why do librarians care about online privacy when they dont do anything for in person privacy? we need screens that people can use on computers and when they are sitting at tables or at chairs so that they can protect themselves from unwanted attention of others. why arent libraries working on that right now instead of worrying about online privacy?

    in person privacy needs more attention!

    • anonymous coward says:

      Or what about more private reading pods so people can’t see what they’re reading at the library?! Or, why don’t we have curtains blocking off each row so no one can see who is browsing what section?! Covered parking garages so no one can see who’s parked there? Masks for all program attendees so no one can see who’s using us?! (also, stilts so we can know the true height, and voice modulation so we don’t know what they sound like).

      Sorry, couldn’t help it. Sometimes, when you visit a PUBLIC institution, you can’t be completely private. People could still see what you’re typing- they should still stand awkwardly close behind you and see what’s on your screen.

    • if someone is watching another person typing, the library staff should stop them. they should also stop people from making unwanted contact which breaks their privacy in the shelves or at the study tables. personal privacy isnt totally given up in public. you do have a right to be left alone and not spied on and the library should help that.

      i think reading pods are a good idea. libraries should offer clothing so people can cover themselves so they can enjoy the library anonymously. public space doesnt mean you are asking to have your privacy invaded.