The Central Problem of Library 2.0: Privacy

Library 2.0 is a powerful idea that finds itself in an awkward predicament. It is an idea that has emerged out of what amounts to a separate discourse within librarianship, that of younger, web-centric librarians who have often have a sense that they are remaking the profession from the ground up for the digital future (and may be correct in having that feeling). The mainstream of librarianship, the older side of the profession, has by now heard of Library 2.0, but understands it poorly or not at all. That older side of the profession may be habituated to modes of practice that in some cases need to die off, but are also the bearers of much important knowledge – of principles and practices – on which the future of librarianship depends. The younger, web-centric generation of librarians is interested in this knowledge in theory, but to the extent that its discourse is separate and web-based it is not communicating with the older generation to the extent that’s necessary.

I’m an avid user of Web 2.0 types of sites. I use Livejournal, LibraryThing, Myspace,, and other sites with social-networking, personalized features and personal information sharing. I am rather addicted to those types of services. I am also at the older end of the user-base of those sites, and communicate more in my professional and private life with librarians of the baby-boom generation than with 20- and even 30-somethings. For that reason I see myself as something of a bridge between the two generational cultures in librarianship.

From the beginning of my involvement with the web, in 1996, I have felt strongly that libraries and the culture of librarianship must be extended into networked communication, with the principles of librarianship as well as the use of the “L” word firmly intact, to preserve the existence of a freely-accessible, non-commercial information and learning space as an alternative to the consumer capitalist information and entertainment space offered by media giants. I have raised questions about what the web medium does to the nature of communication and thought, but these questions have been aimed at directing the shift to the web with intelligence, not at simply avoiding it. I have also pointed it out when library-related efforts on the web have compromised their non-commercial nature without realizing it.

The basic idea of Library 2.0, to transform library services by making them more personalized, more interactive, and more web-based along Web 2.0 lines, has a logic to it that is ineluctable and exciting. I am strongly in favor of the Library 2.0 idea, but want to raise what I think is an important note of caution and consideration as we move forward with experiments with library services that are modeled on Web 2.0 principles. The difficulty that I think we have to grapple with in considering the Library 2.0 idea is that libraries and Web 2.0 services are based on serving two very different essential activities, and those activities have an opposite relationship to privacy.

Web 2.0 websites are, with some exceptions, based primarily on sharing information, but sharing information in a particular way: essentially, they are about seeing and being seen. Libraries are based on sharing information also, but in a different way: they are a place (virtual or physical) to find reading and to read. Reading is so necessarily private and so related to the process of thought as it has evolved over the centuries that its history is congruent with the history of the concept of the private, individual thinking mind in Western culture. In accordance with our conceptualization of the privacy of the act of reading, libraries have traditionally treated the privacy of readers as sacred. Privacy is a central, core value of libraries. This is the reason for librarians’ anger over provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act that can force libraries to reveal information about the reading habits of their patrons to the FBI and other government investigators.

Privacy has been an issue for policy specialists in the development of the web from its beginning, as the Electronic Freedom Foundation and others have raised awareness of privacy issues with respect to a host of internet technologies and practices. Many internet users share these concerns about their privacy in theory, but think little of sharing highly personal information on blogs and social networking sites. Most of these sites offer users a degree of control over how their personal information is shared with other users, offering them the ability to limit access to some information to an immediate network of “friends,” but these users are often unaware of who all of these “friends” actually are, and often publicly share information for the benefit of one imagined ideal viewer without considering the agendas of potential other, less than ideal viewers. It may sound disrespectful, but I think it’s true that users of these sites often lack the maturity that’s necessary to make wise decisions about personal information sharing. Additionally, the degree of control that these sites offer to users in sharing their information with other users shifts the focus away from the original reasons for being concerned about privacy, which had to do with the ownership and use of private information by private companies and its accessibility by overzealous and possibly misguided government investigators. A Myspace user may feel confident in her ability to control who can view her profile and bulletin board postings, but Rupert Murdoch still owns her data.

As serious as privacy concerns may turn out to be, the features of Web 2.0 applications that make them so useful and fun all depend on users sharing private information with the owners of the site, so that it can be processed statistically or shared with others. This presents a problem for librarians who are interested in offering Library 2.0 types of services. If we value reader privacy to the extent that we always have, I think it’s clear that our experiments with Library 2.0 services will have uncomfortable limitations. This is probably going to lead many librarians to say that privacy is not as important a consideration as it once was. They will say that the Millennial generation doesn’t have the same expectations of libraries in terms of privacy that older generations do, and that we should simply adjust.

I think that we shouldn’t accept this idea without examining psychological questions surrounding information sharing and information privacy, and face the fact that a decade from now many of these young people will not have the same attitudes about privacy and information sharing that they exhibit in adolescence and young adulthood. Their decisions concerning privacy on blogs and social networking websites are motivated largely by an interest in being seen, noticed, admired, and potentially in gaining a degree of fame within their milieu. While this is a motivation that’s strongly present in any adolescent, an opposite, limiting motivation to protect oneself by keeping personal information private is a motivation that, by contrast, may have to be learned from painful experience. This should tell us that the Millennials may not have reached the time in their lives when they will have learned to place a high value on their privacy. In considering where to compromise reader privacy in offering Library 2.0 services, we should not be too quick to accept the idea that privacy is a concern that technological and cultural change is leaving behind. In many ways our privacy is diminishing, but many people’s relative lack of concern for it may have more to do with lack of experience in life than a real change in values. It may also be that in some real way the place of privacy in our culture is changing, but it is a question that is not easily answered and shouldn’t be approached too casually. It may take more time before we know the answer.

I would like to see more discussion of privacy in relation to Library 2.0 innovations. I also hope we will be very conscious of the ways in which these ideas sometimes offer to introduce new, social purposes to libraries, beyond just offering new ways of fulfilling already-existing purposes. As we transform librarianship, how aware are we of the full implications of our choices?

40 comments on “The Central Problem of Library 2.0: Privacy

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  2. I’ve been following this idea for a while now. Clearly sites like amazon can “value add” features in part because their users have a lower expectation of privacy than the level that librarians set for their users. I think privacy used to mean “I get to set all the terms for the dissemination of my information” which I think many people were very comfortable with. Now with varying degrees of personal information being required for interactions with the online world, people are getting more used to giving out *some* personal information as a cost of online interactions.

    As libraries move into the online world, they are thinking, some of them, how to deal with privacy anew. If you have a website that people can log in to, then you can track their movements through the site. If you keep a holds list or a list of checked out items, then you have information about them that can, if you’re not careful be collated with their address and phone number and name.

    Our vendors have always been historically more lax about privacy than we at the library have, and the PATRIOT Act resistance had privacy of user records as one of its core talking points. At some level even if users want less privacy, the library has a responsibility to allow them more. But to what level? When I worked at a public library, we had staff who refused to wear nametags. Is that an acceptable privacy request — wanting to keep your name private from your patrons? What about aggregated data, where all patron personally identifying information is kept private but information — like how many times this book was taken out — is public information?

    As of now, many of the library 2.0 applications that are getting a lot of publicity are not built by libraries or librarians. As a result, we have to do what we have always done and translate our vendors’ expectations and assurances about privacy into language that makes sense to our patrons. However, our privacy assurances are about our tools and our services. I think it’s a grand idea if librarians (and parents, and friends) learn a but about MySpace and Facebook so they can help explain privacy implications to people who want that information. On the other hand, we can go overboard and start talking about the dangers of hepatitis to people who chew on toothpicks or choose to get tattoos. Is the fact that a person uses Flickr in the library, or to interact with the library, enough to make us have to go above and bayond Flickr’s own privacy policy?

    At some level the Library 2.0 model says that libraries interact more with the larger world of internet-enabled tools. This gives us responsibilities to understand and explain those tools. However, these are also tools that our patrons are using without us, so the responsibility of the library over all of the rest of society is unclear. What is clear is that many (most?) libraries don’t view books the same as they view digital information in many ways and have been slow to get up to speed with understanding privacy implications as you state — Murdoch owns the data of MySpace users the same way that OPAC vendors/consortia own the data of the library.

    ALA has been terrible as far as making their own privacy policies and practices match anything approaching what we would expect form their libraries. Obviously, they are NOT a library, but their lack of understanding of technologically-driven changes in dealing with user data is depressing to say the least.

  3. Today someone from our campuswide IT department shared a concept they are looking into now: Identity 2.0

    Here’s a quote [cited] on that site:

    “The babies of the future, for example, will have a web address instead of a National Insurance Number. Hall said: ‘I have a vision that in the future when a baby is born you’ll get some sort of internet ID that is effectively your digital persona, and it will grow with you. It will actually represent you in some way – what you know, what you’ve done, your experiences. I guess you’d call it your URI [Uniform Resource Identity]. This is the thing that always identifies you. Every time you do something on the internet, it is effectively logged, building up this profile that is with you for your life. Then you have your life’s record, which can include any legal documents or photographs or videos that you might have, that you can pass on to your children. We will be able to build software that can interpret that profile to help get the answer that you need in the context that you’re in.”

  4. I think privacy is a central issue in both Library 2.0 and Web 2.0. So many of the sites we consider web 2.0 – Flickr, Bloglines, sites from 37Signals, Writely, etc. – offer varying degrees of privacy options. I can choose who will see my Flickr photos and Writely documents, just as I can choose who can comment on my blog or whether my Bloglines feed is public. Libraries and privacy are so closely associated – often by laws that mandate borrower privacy – that we cannot ignore the customer’s right to privacy in an Library 2.0 environment. Library 2.0 is about participation, but it is voluntary participation. We need to remember to allow our customers the options that other Web 2.0 sites like Flickr offer – varying and flexible degrees of openness.

  5. Just a follow-up to my earlier comment. If we, as librarians, begin to second guess our users and their privacy decisions then we are entering a slippery slope of parental-style oversight. At some point we must accept the fact that customers are responsible for their own decision making and that sometimes customers will make decisions that they will later regret. This may sound cold but we are in no position to second guess our customers’ privacy decisions, even if we do feel that they may regret those decisions at a later date. All we can do is allow them to make an educated decision regarding their privacy. We are neither counselor nor parent.

  6. I think that in a Library 2.0 environment we can continue to protect the privacy of our users in the same way that we always have. But you’ve raised an interesting point. Certainly we would want any social software applications that may share individual user information (book reviews, rating, tags, blog comments, etc) to be strictly voluntary on the part of the user.

    I also agree with Michael, we cannot and should not attempt to control what information users willingly choose to give about themselves.

  7. Thoughtful and provocative post about “Library 2.0”.

    But surely privacy is only one of the central issues. To maintain it is the central one is to create something of a straw man. That is evident from the responses so far.

    In any case, the changing attitude towards privacy and the consequences of that change are linked to deeper questions about what needs are fulfilled by the use of these technologiies and whether, indeed, they merely create and endlessly reproduce the needs which they themselves fulfill.

    Privacy aside for now,the major issue looming large is the content and meaning of Web 2.0 transactions viewed as a whole, that is, the overwhelming “infotainment” aspect of all of these applications and media.

    And, as such, how do they really fit into the mission of the library?

    It is not at all clear to me WHY exactly is it important for these things to be “incorporated” into the concept of the library. Nor is it obvious, how, if it does so at all, it enhances what libraries do and are. The assumption ofsome–being foisted on some of us others– that for some apparently obvious reason librarianship has to be “remade” in the image of so-called Web 2.0 only raises for me (and I hope many others possibly reluctant to admit as much) that there is a serious danger of profound “mission drift” for libraianship as we follow as strongly suggested the chimerical path of every new generation of communications/information technology and adapt to it as if it were the ineluctable voice of destiny.

    The fact that, for reasons to be explored elsewhere but not altogether obscure, younger librarians, like other members of their generation who spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen at work and at home, are more and more constantly playing with these Web 2.O facilities and obsessively engaged with them, even making the use of them the definition of their distinctive character, reveals only that they share in the experience of what I must venture to characterize as the fundamental emptiness at the heart of contemporary culture, filled, plentifully if always inadequately, with diversions, more and more of them “on-line”.

    I can only suggest here the cultural vacuousness to which I refer.

    Instead of neighbors and neighborhood, we have “friends” we don’t know who sign onto our “social networks” for reasons we cannot and probably do not even wish to fathom, but whose presence (the more the better, the more frequent the more appreciated) is somehow existentially reassuring. We don’t know our work mates, but we “know” somebody in, say, Thailand whose picture is on our friends list and whose “profile” we can read, along with their silly “test results” , their lists of their favorite music, their admissions of whether they like cats or dogs better or at all, what their astrological sign is and what their sexual proclivities are. At the same time we don’t know whether they are really the person they say they are, whose picture it is, whether their answers to questionnaires about interests, tastes, purposes , background, and situation are as represented or are merely represented as if they are.

    Admittedly, these facilities and activities (involving blogs, social networks, tagging, etc.) are, of course, endlessly distracting, engaging and amusing, leading the user away from the concrete, immediate world through labyrinths of hyper-reality and info-glut only to end up absorbing from them an inordinate amount of energy expended frivolously with little to show for it except the passage of free time and the more and more acute need for perpetual reassertion of the always threatened sense of one’s reality except as the lonely individual at the computer terminal whose life has been sucked into an endless game of show- and-tell.

    Polishing one’s profile becomes a substitute for personal development,; anonymity in the expression of a plethora of private information becomes a substitute for privacy; identities are created as brands and logos (and thereby falsified and reified); cleverness, the intellectual coin-of-the-realm of the blogosphere becomes a substitute for the power of argument and the persuasiveness of evidence.

    In this context it is frightening to see how, in the rush to be Web 2.0 compliant in all things, weare being forced to swallow whole a concomitant virtual system of value- assessments of all things (e.g. books, ideas, blogs, people) based on what is essentially a grand popularity contest for on-line attention. Something like the “Nielson ratings” (to use a relic from the TV age which -still existing –set the tone of this) becomes the measure of all things.

    In my view this is the setting in which a new kind of personality, a new character type, (associated with Web 2,0) based on the constant vacillation between voyeurism and exhibitionism generates a powerful field of new norms of behavior and values which has what can only be called a displaced, exaggerated and frustrated erotic charge, highly rationalized but profoundly narcissistic in what, clinically, could only be seen as a fundamentally pathological way. We are dealing here with what seems to be, in effect – though one hesitates to characterize it as such because it is so widespread that it is becoming largely normalized — a social- psychological paraphilia, fueled by and exploited by the infotech industry and other forces which profit from it.

    Therein the desire of the individual to attract “eyeballs” to their blogs, picture galleries, friends lists etc. mirrors exactly and tellingly the voracious competitive search by commercial , market -driven, interests for “eyeballs” for their advertising, promotion, marketing, PR. It’s as if to say, “We’re all in the same business now” — attracting
    attention. The desire to be seen by others is, for individuals, the flip side of the compulsion to see, because our personal value is now measured the same way as in the market-driven world of commerce.

    The idea of “social networking” impoverishes the notion of society. These frameworks are “social” only in an artificial sense in which society is equated with a network of indifferent, atomised nodes and is drained of all meaning except that of alienated individuals with illusions of connection based on elective affinities, imagined rather than real, addicted to having to constantly , compulsively, prove to themselves they exist and are meaningful through the mobilization of strategies of attracting attention.

    I am talking here of the over-all value-matrix of the experiential world of Web 2.0. If this sounds over-reaching, I would maintain that it was a entirely literal whenearly on in this generation of participants, one bloggart came up with the quip “Blogito ergo sum”. In my view, it has proven to be more than just a play on Descartes, but a new and accurately self-descriptive credo.

    The Web 2,0 evangelists and their flock are not only intrinsically narcissistic but consumerist (i.e. defining one self in terms of what one consumes) in the sense that “customization” of services for the “customer” a la Web 2.0 is an end, a good thing, in itself and anything that further serves customization becomes imperative and valuable, no matter what is being customized and to what purpose or at what cost . Tinkering endlessly with customization of on-line services, the hallmark of Web 2.0, is what counts for meaningful activity, the alpha and omega of practice, in the creation of an identity that shuts down if the power goes off or the computer crashes, or is sabotaged by identity theft or surveillance.

    The much touted inter-activity and customizability of Web 2.0 applications have nothing to do with — and indeed make increasingly irrelevant — any assurances of the integrity of information, its validity, its authority, its quality, etc. the very things with which librarianship has concerned itself.

    That is , in the end, why one must question the urgency of re-tooling librarianship to make Web2.0 the new library paradigm, the centerpiece of library activity. One must first question whether any civilizational purpose is served by institutionally encouraging the new character type which has as its values such an indifference to truth, integrity, coherence, validity, quality.

    Although there is much more to be said about all this, I can ask at this point: “Who benefits?” In the end, in the framework of global capitalism, it is clear that Web 2.0 has the potential to be the means for manipulative interests (whether individuals or corporations or political entities) to colonize and exploit to an even greater degree than presently the life-world of multitudes drawn into the on-line life in ways which , even while actual conditions of human existence deteriorate around them,are not only not felt as oppressive, but which are voluntary, even diverting, and whose compulsive and unfree character is the better hidden the more effective it is.

    Should the library be the promoter of the values-matrix of Web 2.0? Should the library association be transformed by Web 2.0 technology because it has mass-appeal?

    Should librarianship scramble to be in the vanguard of the religious zealotry of Web 2.0 evangelism, in which a revamped “New Age” ideology is trucked out now as the myth of the Global Computer as a collective consciousness of the world (see high-priest Kevin Kelley’s sermons on this)?

    I think we have reason, at the very least, to look much more critically at the hype around Web 2.0 before we convert to Library 2.0 — attempting to re-model libraries as temples of the religion of illusions of power based on connectivity alone — instead of just assuming the transformations it portends are positive or inevitable.

  8. On this topic, check out article in today’s
    New York Times:
    June 11, 2006

    For Some, Online Persona Undermines a Résumé

    When a small consulting company in Chicago was looking to hire a summer intern this month, the company’s president went online to check on a promising candidate who had just graduated from the University of Illinois.

    At Facebook, a popular social networking site, the executive found the candidate’s Web page with this description of his interests: “smokin’ blunts” (cigars hollowed out and stuffed with marijuana), shooting people and obsessive sex, all described in vivid slang.

    It did not matter that the student was clearly posturing. He was done.

    [Go to full article for more…]

  9. I was thinking about that NYTimes story from my previous comment and I was thinking that maybe just maybe the world will change a little because of the openess that many young people have on these sites. Sure a lot of them are posturing – there’s always been posturing long before the days of the Internet – but a lot of young people are simply being open about themselves and their lives. I wouldn’t want to censor them myself or have them censor themselves because they may not get a job. I think maybe in the future, organizations will be run and hiring decisions made by people who really put themselves out there online.

  10. What a great discussion – one that I’m having internally as I decide what persona I want on the web. Should I put my real name on this comment? (I did, but only my first) Which e-mail address do I use? etc. If I had a book to sell or consulting business to promote I might be more inclined to put myself out there. But I feel uncomfortable with the idea of being “googled” with my personal thoughts popping up. Yet, I want to be a part of the conversation!

  11. Privacy is going to be a huge issue with all Web 2.0 services in the future. The only way a Web 2.0 service can be “free” is by complete loss of your privacy, because all Web 2.0 “free” services rely upon displaying targeted advertisements, which, in turn, relies upon having software read your messages, documents, and other content in order to determine just what advertisements to display.

    And as your private information gets centralized in the hands of a few service providers, it becomes easier for the government to get its hands on it because there are fewer subpoenas to execute…

    I have been working on an alternative model of collaboration called “Kerika” which addresses the privacy issue head-on (see If you are interested in protecting your privacy, I would recommend you take a look at Kerika.

  12. Excellent thought-out article, Rory!

    I am doing ressearch in this areas for 2thinknow, an innovation think-tank of sorts. This is an emerging area, some problems are natural with all Web 2.0 ‘cultural shifts’.

    In our research we believe there will be a large future problem with people later regretting what they did online when they were younger.

    We believe this is partly reduced when there is a nexus connection between online & offline identities, and when proof of identity becomes more part of sites.

    (People tend to consider more what they say when they know they are telling people who know them in the real world.)

    But vertical communities like the ning Library 2.0 community, are such communities.

    I also put an analysis of this here
    Vertical communities/shared interests

    We believe vertical communities formed in part around real world relationships, and a circles of trust model witll deliver Web 2.0 ultimately.


    Christopher Hire

  13. Excellent thought-out article, Rory!

    I am doing ressearch in this areas for 2thinknow, an innovation think-tank of sorts. This is an emerging area, some problems are natural with all Web 2.0 ‘cultural shifts’.

    In our research we believe there will be a large future problem with people later regretting what they did online when they were younger.

    We believe this is partly reduced when there is a nexus connection between online & offline identities, and when proof of identity becomes more part of sites.

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