Whatever Happened To . . .

. . . privacy and the library’s creed to defend it with the proverbial pen that is mightier than the sword? I must’ve missed the memo explaining it all because this is the form that I had to fill out when I did a request for a book purchase with my library. Note all the personal information that is required.

All personal information is required & reviewed by a selector.

While I understand that the library has its reasons for asking for this personal information, please let me explain why somebody may find that these reasons need a bit of defending.

First, contrary to the ALA’s stand that ” it is much easier to protect [privacy] when a library has exclusive control over borrower records and a patron has direct control over the circumstances of reading”, I found the information asked on the book request form and its surrounding circumstances more worrisome than some of the information big corporations like Facebook and Amazon collect on me. This is because of three reasons:

1) Unlike information collected and aggregated over many people, the information on this form is specific to me, with my own identity attached to it. That is, while Amazon may know information about people who looked at a certain book on its site, it doesn’t disaggregate and use that information to the level of “this particular person, with this name and this unique ID”. Instead it uses the information at the level of “this many people, perhaps with these demographic and geographic indicators” looked at this book. I find that comforting, a comfort that is lacking here.

2) Unlike information collected by big corporations which are then examined by impersonal algorithms, the information I give on the book request form will be reviewed by a live person, a person with whom it’s not unfathomable that I may have contact in the future. While I don’t care that a selector is going to see that I would like to read Robert Levine’s book on intellectual property, I can imagine somebody else, who is perhaps requesting more personally revealing materials, may very well balk at being asked this information.

3) When big companies collect information about me, I know it’s because they want to make money off me, and I respond accordingly. In contrast, because I assume that libraries act altruistically and because libraries publicly proclaim the great value of privacy, when libraries collect information about me, I ask whether such information is absolutely necessary, whether such collection jives with the libraries’ public-minded, privacy-sensitive image.

Second, I find that in instance, the information the library asked for does not seem to be absolutely necessary. For example, while the libraries rightly want to know whether the person requesting the book is a member of its community, e.g. a student, it can get this data without retaining my unique account number. Instead, it can ask me to authenticate myself as a user by logging onto the system using my ID, the same thing I would do if I wanted to see content behind a paywall that my library has paid for. The advantage this has over the current form is that once I have authenticated myself, the process can proceed but without the me-ness information being attached to the form.

Next, why does the library need information on my department, my phone number, my status . . .  etc.? Sure, one may say that the library wants some means of notifying me once it has decided whether to purchase the book. If this is the case, however, then shouldn’t such information be optional? That is, if I want to be notified, then I can give the library my information. Otherwise, I can withhold it, choose to remain un-judged by a live person, and simply pick up the book when I see that it has become available in the catalog. If this is something done on my behalf, then why force me to do it? Why not let my self-interest and own choices guide me?

If this is not something done for my sake — for example, if the need to know my department is so that the department can cough up the funds to buy me the book — then a) why not explain how the library is using the information, and b) in how many cases is the information actually necessary? Just because it could be that my department pays for my book, this is not how libraries operate the vast majority of the time. Books are bought based on the books’ subjects, not the major of the person reading the book. Is this justifiable to make the yielding of this information required in all cases when only in a small fraction of the time that the information gets used?

With all that said, for the record, I care more about persuading my library to get the book for me than I do about not sharing my information with the staff, so I happily filled out the form.

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2 Responses to Whatever Happened To . . .

  1. Esa says:

    Privacy has become very fuzzy in the information age. And I don’t think there is such a thing as total privacy anymore, so it may just be a matter of what we feel comfortable with.

    • teasandbooks says:

      Yes, I agree. I would point out the obvious that the comfort level we’re speaking of is the comfort level of the person whose information is being collected, not the comfort level of the institution doing the collecting (). Lastly, although I did fill out this form online, I can see the form very much existing in paper copy and the same questions being asked being asked off-line.

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