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, Last.fm, 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?