Ebook Lending for Kindles & Patron Privacy

Back in November, I wrote about some serious concerns I have regarding library-based social sharing platforms and patron privacy. More recently, I find myself harboring similar concerns about ebook lending for Kindles.

I’ve never actually checked out an ebook from my library. So the other week, when I was asked to help a patron check out an ebook for her Kindle, I was taken aback when we reached the step where she was required to sign in to Amazon using her personal Amazon ID. This step raises an important question:

What happens to the record of this transaction in Amazon’s database?

If you sign in with your Amazon ID, I find it difficult in the extreme to believe that Amazon doesn’t keep a record of it attached to your personal account. Amazon’s entire business model is based on data mining and analysis, tracking customer behavior. Once Amazon has a record of a transaction, I find it doubtful they would ever agree to purge it.

So I’ve begun a project to try and track the life cycle of ebook lending records on the Amazon side of things. I’ve been largely unsuccessful thus far – there doesn’t seem to be any definitive or reliable information on this.

Libraries – public libraries in particular – hold patron privacy sacrosanct. Look at how we reacted after 9/11, when the FBI and NSA used the USA PATRIOT Act to demand patron usage records from libraries: we took drastic steps to stop keeping any such records, so we could legally say, “Sorry, we don’t have that information to give” and protect our patrons.

Kurt Vonnegut summed it up perfectly in one of my favorite quotes:

I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and destroyed records rather than have to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

-Excerpted from his memoir, A Man Without a Country, (© 2005, Seven Stories Press, NY.)

We believe that people must be free to read as they see fit, that this is essential for the maintenance of an informed democracy and for the possibility of self-improvement. We believe that people won’t feel free to use libraries if they’re afraid that their usage may one day be held against them.

So the possibility that libraries may be offering a service to patrons which results in a persistent record of the transaction that lies outside of the library’s control deeply bothers me.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use these modern tools and make them available to our patrons. Kindle ebook lending serves a genuine patron need, and social sharing technologies have tremendous potential to both expand the reach of the library and better empower patrons to become active participants in their library community.

I understand the desperation that many libraries feel to prove their continued relevancy to their communities, and the pressure we feel to keep up with the newest tech. No one wants to be seen as obsolete – especially not when popular support is so crucial to our continued funding. I understand the responsibility we have to meet patron demand.

But have we become too eager to give people what they want?

We have an irreducible responsibility to protect patron privacy. We have an obligation to perform due diligence on all library services and processes, to ensure that we’re not endangering that confidentiality.

When it comes to Kindles, social sharing services, and many modern technologies – I’m afraid that we’re failing in our due diligence. We eagerly offer them to our patrons but fail to ensure that we’re adequately protecting them as we do so.

I’m afraid that in the long run, this failure will have far worse consequences for our society than constraining our eagerness now to not fall behind with technology.

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