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Chronicle: “As Libraries Go Digital, Sharing of Data Is at Odds With Tradition of Privacy”

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an excellent article by Marc Parry on “As Libraries Go Digital, Sharing of Data Is at Odds With Tradition of Privacy,” noting that as libraries are beginning to collect and share patron data to build tools for recommending and discovering books, important concerns over patron privacy emerge, which threaten to hinder attempts by libraries to evolve into the digital age.

The article features great insights from Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, as well as David Weinberger, co-director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, who also started the LibraryCloud project, which aims to help libraries share anonymized patron data and other metadata to help build innovative digital tools for libraries. (I’ve been involved in some of the privacy discussions surrounding LibraryCloud, although largely in the margins).

The Chronicle piece also quotes from an article I’ve written on this tension between libraries’ desire to build innovative and helpful digital tools and the longstanding librarian ethic of protecting patron privacy. The article, “Patron Privacy in the “2.0” Era: Avoiding the Faustian Bargain of Library 2.0,” will be published in the Journal of Information Ethics some time next year, but here is the abstract:

As libraries begin to embrace Web 2.0 technologies to serve patrons—ushering in the era of Library 2.0—unique dilemmas arise in the realm of information ethics, especially regarding patron privacy. The norms of Web 2.0 promote the open sharing of information—often personal information—and the design of many Library 2.0 services capitalize on access to patron information and might require additional tracking, collection, and aggregation of patron activities. Thus, embracing Library 2.0 potentially threatens the traditional ethics of librarianship, where protecting patron privacy and intellectual freedom has been held paramount. The question is not whether libraries will move towards Library 2.0, but how they will do it, and whether they can preserve the contextual integrity of patron privacy and maintain their professional librarian ethic, while also providing enhanced services to their patrons. This article will provide an ethical examination of the emergence of new Library 2.0 tools and technologies in relation to existing ethical norms of information flow within the library context. By doing so, librarians and information professionals will be better situated to avoid—or at least renegotiate—the impending Faustian bargain regarding patron privacy in the “2.0” era.

This tension between patron privacy and digital evolution in libraries is complex, and extremely important to negotiate properly to ensure the that the digital future of libraries doesn’t needlessly sacrifice patron privacy. Much of my research agenda for the next few years will focus on this very problem.

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