It ain’t necessarily so

The publication Book Riot has been doing incredibly necessary journalism very skillfully around the latest rash of attempted and successful censorship of library materials and librarian voices. If you’re in the States and it’s not in your daily round of book news, whyever not?

They put out a great piece today on the mess in the Oklahoma City library system regarding abortion information. It’s really, really good, and probably headed for my fall intro syllabus.

But one sentence gave me pause: “[S]ome information privacy practices in public libraries emerged following the Patriot Act, which is why, for example, records of materials checked out by individuals are not saved and why it is shared computers are wiped of their histories between sessions.”

Oh. Oh, no. Oh, dear. Neither of these assertions is universally true, and the assertion about circulation records appears to be becoming steadily less true as CRM systems and assessment/analytics take firm hold. Usually the shared-computers thing is about available IT staff and budget rather than any sort of intentional retention plan, but a whole lot of libraries are strapped for IT talent and budget, so.

As for circulation records, I have direct proof of one academic-library system not deleting them! But long story short, libraries (both public and academic) that retain identified circulation records past materials return typically do so for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Patron convenience, commoner in public libraries than academic, but the academic-library consortium that serves my workplace explicitly names this as its retention rationale in its records schedule
  • “Assessment” and/or “analytics,” which is where CRM systems come into it
  • Academic-style research, which overlaps with assessment/analytics in tangled ways, as with “value of academic libraries” research
  • ILS settings that aren’t twiddled in favor of privacy
  • Isolated edge cases, such as special collections (where defacement and theft of materials by patrons are extra-serious issues)

In some libraries, it’s more than physical-materials circulation records—I don’t want anyone thinking “well, I never check out books, so I’m safe!” For academic-library-purchased ebooks and ejournals, identified or reidentifiable traces of patron information use can be left in proxy-server logs, which (I hear from e-resources librarians of my acquaintance) can definitely stick around a lot longer than they should. There’s also the whole question of what data the vendors are keeping, but that’s tangential to the Book Riot question, so I’ll let it go for this post, noting only that I wrote a big long thing about it that people can read, and they should also pay attention to Sarah Lamdan on the subject.

In response to a media query last Friday that went “Should people be concerned about their data privacy when it comes to searching for abortion-related resources?” I wrote the following paragraph about libraries:

If we are talking about libraries: yes, and as a librarian who strongly values information privacy I hate this answer, but it is the only honest answer I have. Too many libraries are retaining identified or reidentifiable search logs and identified circulation records far longer than they should. Too many vendors who sell online content access to libraries for use by patrons are using the same trackers and surveillance adtech as the rest of the web. I’m fighting my own profession to make it live up to its stated privacy ethics with everything I have in me—but it’s an uphill battle. Folks need to be aware that libraries, whatever our rhetoric as librarians, are not necessarily keeping them safe.

But I feel a bit of a filk coming on, so…

It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
The privacy mottos
In library grottoes
It ain’t necessarily so

And I’ll leave it at that, before I get myself in trouble yet again calling out specific people, libraries, and practices.

I broke my Twitter leave of absence to ping Book Riot’s Twitter about this. I repeat here what I said there: there’s lots of skeevy stuff happening, and I’m as good an option as most to talk knowledgeably about it. Give me a shout, Book Riot, if you would.