Again with the Ebooks & Online Library Services & Patron Privacy

Defining a Less Polarizing Position

I was talking to my wife about my concerns over patron privacy and library ebook lending for Kindles, and she presented me with an argument that pretty well demolished my entire principled stance on this issue:

Ebook services for libraries don’t carry any really controversial or potentially dangerous stuff anyway. Ereaders are for fluff – all the data shows that pretty much no one uses them for serious reading or scholarship. There’s no real danger in exposing ebook lending records because there’s nothing there to get patrons in trouble in the first place.

Seriously, come up with a list of books that you think would be dangerous for the thought police to know you’ve read, and search your local library’s ebook catalog to see if any of them are there. (I bet they’re not.)

Still and all… It’s a matter of principle and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the thought of leaving this principle to the side, regardless of the pragmatic reality of a given situation.

This doesn’t answer my concern about integrating online catalogs with social media services like Facebook, as these services aren’t limited to just ebooks – they allow patrons to publicly display their usage of holdings in our print collections, too. My wife’s answer to that: if she reads something that she doesn’t want anyone to know about, she won’t post it on her Facebook page. She knows the internet isn’t at all private.

It’s a pretty simple solution.

My concern, though, is all the evidence that children and young adults who are currently in K-12 have very little concept or awareness of the dangers posed by the lack of privacy online – they don’t have the same discernment as my wife. They may not understand why sharing certain reading habits may not be the best idea.

But that’s something that can be taught. And many libraries are doing their best to teach it. As long as that educational component is a part of the system, we can guard against possible future dangers posed by exposure.

So I need to make it clear that I’m not intrinsically opposed to libraries using these shiny online social services. What bothers me is the ease with which we adopt them without even having a discussion about the ramifications for patron privacy, without arguing and debating and making sure we’ve at least considered these issues. If we choose to utilize these online social services despite the potential dangers to patron privacy, that’s fine – so long as we do it with full awareness of that danger and having fulfilled our bedrock responsibility to account for it.

For the past few months, I’ve been in an overwhelmingly cynical mood. It occurs to me that I’m probably not giving my fellow librarians nearly enough credit – it may very well be that many people are talking about these issues and I’m simply not privy to their conversations.

I can say that I’ve not seen this particular issue discussed much in our professional literature. I think it should be. This is one of the biggest issues facing modern librarianship.

But I still can’t shake the feeling that too many libraries are saying yes to these services without stopping to consider this aspect of it.

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