"Libraries should be seen as a safe place," Hermann Rösch said yesterday. He was speaking at a meeting convened by the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals (CILIP) and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) to discuss libraries and privacy with an eye on the future.
Since the dawn of the internet libraries have struggled to explain why they're still needed. A key element is that librarians don't simply throw an undifferentiated pool of information out there and expect people to cope. Instead, they select, order, and organize information. It's what Google and Wikipedia also say they do, but librarians will tell you their work is different and more complex than either. Karen Coyle, who's been writing and talking about these issues for decades, has a nice summary of the equalizing effect of libraries in providing access to knowledge - the giants on whose shoulders Isaac Newton said he stood in order to see further:
Oftentimes, the library has a role in providing those giants. In a small library, what the library owns will necessarily be a subset of the knowledge on a topic. In a large library, where the number of documents on a topic is way beyond the capability of most researchers to absorb, the organization of the materials will determine what researchers discover. Even if collection development were a perfect process, with unlimited funds, unlimited space, and absolute neutrality, the library in some way has an effect on future knowledge.
Coyle goes on to ask why counting sales or links is seen as neutral while "attempting to make a selection of the most important works in a subject area within a limited budged is looked at askance." The notion of algorithmic neutrality has been thoroughly challenged, most recently by University of Maryland professor Frank Pasquale in his book Black Box Society. Algorithms *launder* pre-existing prejudices, Pasquale writes, because the results of those prejudices are already embedded in the historical data they analyze.
The idea that seemed to emerge from yesterday's meeting was that libraries can stake their place in the world by becoming explicit antidotes to the noise and data leakage that pervade daily life. To do this, they need to resist being coopted into the commercial datasphere. As so many said, intellectual freedom - reading, writing, thinking - requires privacy and the mental silence that is vanishing from the world as advertising invades more and more public spaces where it used to be possible to be alone with your own thoughts.
As Deborah Caldwell-Stone, head of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, said, "Libraries are generating far more data than they used to." Old library: unrecorded searches of the card catalogue; unmonitored browsing in the stacks; paper records of borrowing that did not need to be kept once the book had been returned. New library: web analytics, social media to connect to patrons, apps, widgets, cookies...just think "smartphone". All of these were designed for the data-hungry commercial market.
It was in Rősch's kick-off to this discussion that he noted that German law libraries are thinks of libraries as "the third place", a *trusted* place. Knowing that what you are reading is not being monitored is crucial. Studies last year noted a post-Snowden chilling effect on Google searches.
Libraries have key decisions to make on behalf of their users. Should they embrace supporting services their patrons may want without understanding the privacy risks? Or should they decline to facilitate the "sharing economy"? Many libraries operate at the behest of governments with backing from corporate sponsors, a multi-sided relationship that leaves them with questionable power to decide their fate.
What Caldwell-Stone proposed was "principled procurement" - that libraries should use the bargaining power of prospective customers for platforms such as Biblio Commons to dictate licensing clauses such as how, with whom, and when data may be collected and shared. They should be aware of the spying inherent in social media buttons, or the digital rights management that protects ebooks such as Kindle or Adobe. The American Library Association Code of Ethics states the principles it regards necessary for intellectual freedom. Among them is the right to privacy, yet it's being chipped away simply by failing to understand the implications of the technology they install, sometimes with little choice. Alison Macrina, through her Library Freedom Project, has been trying to reverse this trend by training librarians to use open source software and privacy-enhancing tools: Tor, PGP, private browsing settings, content filtering configurations, and so on.
"It's not that people don't care," Macrina said. "It's that they feel despair that it's too far gone and there's nothing they can do." Her own goal is to "show librarians that immediate change is possible". She sees all these things - filtering, the almost exclusive use of proprietary software, data leakage - as "existential threats to libraries".
The standard media image of the librarian is stuffy, glasses-wearing, rule-bound, and traditional. And yet: the principles of intellectual freedom that they stand for and are passionate about are, in our time, contrary to the direction of travel of both governments and businesses. The library as sanctuary, where one can take safe refuge from the noise and monitoring outside, is truly radical while being completely traditional. Are they ready for this fight?
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.