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Rebooting library privacy

The upcoming HyperPublic conference has posted a provocation I wrote a while ago but didn’t get around to posting, on rebooting library privacy now that we’re in the age of social networks. (Ok, so the truth is that I didn’t post it because I don’t have a lot of confidence in it.) Here’s the opening couple of subsections:

Why library privacy matters

Without library privacy, individuals might not engage in free and open inquiry for fear that their interactions with the library will be used against them.

Library privacy thus establishes libraries as a sanctuary for thought, a safe place in which any idea can be explored.

This in turn establishes the institution that sponsors the library — the town, the school, the government — as a believer in the value of free inquiry.

This in turn establishes the notion of free, open, fearless inquiry as a social good deserving of support and protection.

Thus, the value of library privacy scales seamlessly from the individual to the culture.

Privacy among the virtues

Library privacy therefore matters, but it has never been the only or even the highest value supported by libraries.

The privacy libraries have defended most strictly has been privacy from the government. Privacy from one’s neighbors has been protected rather loosely by norms, and by policies inhibiting the systematic gathering of data. For example, libraries do not give each user a private reading booth with a door and a lock; they thus tolerate less privacy than provided by a typical clothing store changing room or the library’s own restrooms. Likewise, few libraries enforce rules that require users to stand so far apart on check-out lines that they cannot see the books being carried by others. Further, few libraries cover all books with unlabeled gray buckram to keep them from being identifiable in the hands of users.

Privacy from neighbors has been less vigorously enforced than privacy from government agents because neighborly violations of privacy are perceived to be less consequential, and because there are positive values to having shared social spaces for reading.

While privacy has been a very high value for libraries, it has never been an absolute value, and is shaded based on norms, convenience, and circumstance.

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2 Responses to “Rebooting library privacy”

  1. You clearly misunderstand the freedom granted you by greatleader:

    you are free to agree with greatleader

  2. David: If I’m reading you correctly, you’re making a two-sided point. First, anonymous inquiry is valuable, and protecting it was the old default. Second, despite the value of anonymous inquiry, there are reasons to establish a new default. I feel the tension between these two propositions, but I agree with them both. One reason I agree (not already in your piece) was articulated by Pete Warden in a recent blog post at O’Reilly Radar . Warden generalizes on recent examples of failed attempts to anonymize data. “Precisely because there are now so many different public datasets to cross-reference, any set of records with a non-trivial amount of information on someone’s actions has a good chance of matching identifiable public records.” I accept this conclusion in part because I support open data, work for it, and am convinced that we’ll see more and more of it over time. Hence, I accept that the opportunities for cross-referencing will only increase, and consequently that the difficulties of anonymization will also only increase. If anonymization had a secure future, I’d want to preserve it as an option (and would often choose it myself). But I see it slipping away as a side-effect of of our other successes with open data.

    You could say that there’s an optimistic argument for the new default, that for many users the value of networking surpasses the value of anonymity, and a pessimistic argument, that anonymization is becoming practically impossible. I see threads of both in your post, but I wanted to spell out the pessimistic argument further and show that it leads to the same conclusion.

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