Saturday Feb 9 is National Libraries Day, so let’s get a bit funky. Since information is available at our fingertips, and e-books are increasingly popular, public libraries are scrambling to adapt and still appeal to the masses. The Library Services in the Digital Age Pew Research Center study said that Americans “would embrace even wider uses of technology at libraries such as these examples:
Access to technology “petting zoos” to try out new devices: 35% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 34% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
GPS-navigation apps to help patrons locate material inside library buildings: 34% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 28% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
Digital lending is coming to even small libraries, which is sweet because Kindle has remotely removed books like Orwell’s 1984 and proven in the past that just because you buy a book doesn’t mean you own it. When talking about the “first sale doctrine under siege,” and “if you bought it, then you should own it,” the EFF wrote that “without the ‘first sale’ doctrine, libraries would be illegal.” Well that would blow since libraries can be launching grounds for local hackerspaces; some host hackathons, and when a high school won’t allow you to volunteer to teach hacking, then some libraries will allow it. Even if your local library doesn’t yet have the budget to be more techie, or allow you to check out Kindle digital books, there are plenty of reasons to still love libraries.
The ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) project was a two year study about how college students use university libraries. One of the interesting tidbits from this project was “the near-invisibility of librarians within students’ academic worldview. As one student put it: 'I assume librarians are busy doing library stuff’.”
Some of those “invisible” librarians are hardcore privacy advocates. Once upon a time, librarians took on the law. The law did not win. “In August 2005 the ACLU revealed that the FBI used an NSL to demand reading material and Internet use records from the Library Connection, a consortium of 26 Connecticut libraries.” But the librarians fought the NSL and eventually “a district court judge in Connecticut ruled that the NSL gag order imposed on Library Connection was unconstitutional.”
In case you don’t know, then the ACLU explained that through National Security Letters (NSLs) “the FBI can compile vast dossiers about innocent people and obtain sensitive information such as the web sites a person visits, a list of e-mail addresses with which a person has corresponded, or even unmask the identity of a person who has posted anonymous speech on a political website. The provision also allows the FBI to forbid or 'gag' anyone who receives an NSL from telling anyone about the record demand.”
George Christian, Executive Director of Library Connection, wrote, "While we were gagged, Congress renewed the Orwellian named PATRIOT Act without our being able to contest the Attorney General’s repeated reassurances that the law had not been and never would be used against libraries."
The American Library Association (ALA), Oﬃce for Intellectual Freedom, has a site called privacyrevolution.org. “Librarians feel a professional responsibility to protect the right to search for information free from surveillance. Privacy has long been the cornerstone of library services in America. Why? Because the freedom to read and receive ideas anonymously is at the heart of individual liberty in a democracy. Librarians defend that freedom every day.”
“It’s time for Americans to take charge of their information privacy.” Privacy Revolution said that this is the situation: “In an information age, it’s vital to protect the impulse to be curious, read, and learn. Yet people seem resigned to the loss of their privacy rights because they see no recourse.”
According to this ALA privacy survey [PDF], “In the battle for privacy, libraries are the front lines. The freedom to read and receive ideas anonymously is at the heart of individual liberty in a democracy. It ensures a person’s right to gain knowledge and form opinions according to his or her own conscience.”
The next time you think libraries are outdated, since data is constantly at your fingertips, then realize that your digital footprints are tracked, profiled, data-mined and sold. “Libraries may turn out to be our society’s best bet in resisting government intrusions into privacy.” Christian also wrote:
In recent years, an ever larger portion of the information to which libraries provide access has come in electronic formats, from databases to electronic journals, downloadable e-books and audio books to digitized historical content. These trends will only continue, probably at an accelerating pace. Which leads us to the delicious irony that libraries may be the only safe place the public has to access these types of information. Libraries may be the only place most people can get to where the monitoring of access to online information is guarded against.
"91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities," the Pew study found. Would you like “access to technology ‘petting zoos’ to try out new devices? Of course, what geek and security freak wouldn’t? But it’s still mighty good to curl up with a real book in hand.
Because privacy still exists – at your local library, don't forget to be thankful for your library and privacy-fighting librarians on National Libraries Day!