Privacy and the Library, Part II

This is Part II of a continuing series on privacy and libraries. Read Part I here.

“Lightning striking the Eiffel Tower – NOAA” by M.G. Loppe. Public Domain. Wikmedia Commons.

On November 13th, a coordinated series of terrorists shook Paris (and the suburb of Saint Dénis).  I received a call from my mother the morning after the attacks, asking about my several French friends.  Lucky for them, my friends are not Parisians and were hours away from the attacks.  But many people weren’t so lucky, and this tragedy continues (and will continue) to affect individuals and whole communities.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, discussions of privacy began to emerge. Intelligence officials from several countries and organizations noted that monitoring for terrorist plots has become increasingly difficult due to the increased use of encrypted communications.  Some call “backdoors” into encrypted communication software, and other means of infiltrating private citizens’ communications.

These people hope to prevent terrorist attacks by stopping the terrorists during the planning stage.  It’s a noble idea – and it very well could save lives.  But we must weigh if that tactic will be wholly successful – and even if it has a good success rate, if we are willing to sacrifice our privacy for such a result.

I don’t really think I can make a final decision for either the whole world, or even a country.  But I will say that, as a librarian, I have interesting insights into this privacy debate.

Libraries are in a unique position to monitor their patrons.  We often have data on where they live, their phone numbers, their names, etc.  We have the ability to record what they read (at least what they check out), what videos they watch (either via streaming or on the library computers).  The software we use could even tell how long they spent on reading ebooks, what pages, if the patron browsed or read deeply.

Even with all this potential to monitor our patrons, libraries refuse to anything but the bare minimum for library security (basically, making sure the materials are returned to allow other patrons to use that material).  In my position of acquisitions graduate assistant, I have already been in meetings (and other various long conversations) with vendors about how it’s illegal and/or ethically dubious for their software to collect certain forms of information about our patrons – and it’s certainly inappropriate to then give the library that information because we cannot legally or ethically record that information.

Librarians have decided that monitoring people’s information use is not ethical (and certain states in the United States, at least, have decided it’s not legal).  When considering further monitoring of citizens (by public or private institutions), perhaps consider what and why libraries collect – and if that’s somehow relevant to how other institutions are collecting.

Tower of Babel

Learn a New Language

Tower of Babel
“The Tower of Babel (Vienna)” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I was once told that I have a facility for languages.  I think the more correct statement would be that I have a facility for the French and English languages.  I’m an English native speaker and, perhaps because of that, I’m good at English.  And yes, I was a quick study at French.  Forays into other languages were less successful: I only remember one word of Arabic; I can sometimes read Spanish and Latin, but that’s only because I read French; and my Mandarin has slowly eked up from 20 words to maybe 50 (and I only have a shaky grasp on some of the words).

Even if I have yet to become tri-lingual, I have now done pretty intensive looks at language-learning software that libraries often license.  The two big ones are: Mango Languages and Rosetta Stone.  Then, I have tried out a few cheap (free when I got them) apps; and I’ll discuss two herein.

So, here are some personal thoughts on these language learning programs.

  1. mango MMango Languages was the first language learning software that I tried.  It’s an excellent first program to start with: it’s easy, fun, has short but effective lessons.  I promptly learned quite a few words of Arabic from it.  (Which I forgot after stopping the lessons.)  It has a more limited selection of languages.
  2. Then, I tried a free app that can be downloaded onto your phone or tablet – Duolingo.  This one duolingogets stunning reviews from most users.  Like Mango, it’s fun and easy and very accessible (no library card needed).  I had one friend who competed against his father and sister, trying to master French faster than either of them.  One friend has picked up some French and German from this app – so it’s pretty successful if you work with it.  Duolingo continues to add new languages to its repertoire, but I unfortunately left the platform when it was only offering Spanish and French – and I had a desire for languages that I couldn’t learn in high school.
  3. My most successful endeavor has been through my library’s subscription to Rosetta Stone Advantage or Rosetta Stone: Tell Me More.  While Rosetta Stone comes under fire for not Rosetta Stoneproviding instruction on grammar, the software has strengths as well.  My Mandarin vocabulary vastly improved due to Rosetta Stone’s system of displaying a word and then having the user choose the matching picture.  And Rosetta Stone Advantage has one activity where the user listen to a sentence, and then the user input what was said.  I might have had to listen to the sentence 20+ times but I slowly got better at understanding someone speaking Mandarin.  This listening component is what makes the Rosetta Stone options so strong: you don’t just learn to read and write the new language, but also to understand it when it is spoken.  Unfortunately, Rosetta Stone’s software (even for libraries) can be especially expensive and slow (depending on the OS system or the network); this makes Rosetta Stone less accessible as a means of learning a language.chinese skill icon
  4. Finally, I have tried ChineseSkill.  This app, which you can download to your phone or tablet, only teaches Mandarin – but it has been the most successful at teaching me Mandarin.  While it’s marketed as a game, I don’t feel it’s especially game-like.  It’s much more like Mango or Duolingo which have short lessons designed to teach a certain concept or list of vocabulary words.  But ChineseSkill has quicker lessons – and Duolingo and Mango did not offer Mandarin learning when I was playing around with their software.  So, ChineseSkill is great if you want to learn Mandarin, though it lacks any other language options.  ChineseSkill also wins an honorable mention for making my friend from XinJiang laugh, asking why does everything about China have a panda?

Privacy and the Library, Part I

“Shush,” says the librarian stereotype.  Back in the 1950s when this stereotype may have been more apt, the librarian was shushing the patrons in order to enforce an authoritarian silence.  Now that most libraries are less formal and rigid (if only by a little), why is the librarian shushing us?  Is it to remind us to keep our secrets, to not speak so loudly as to forfeit our privacy?

“Catalogue Room, Peter Redpath Librar, McGill University, Montreal, QC, 1893.” Musee McCord Museum via Flickr.

In this era, we’re a lot louder – digitally at least.  I, for one, am making a lot more digital noise than my grandparents were in the 1960s, or my parents in the 1980s.  (My Twitter account feels like me standing on a rooftop, shouting into a megaphone.)  And it’s not just me, not just my generation (Millennials): just about anyone with consistent access to communication technologies – and particularly the internet – is making whole lot of noise.

And when you make a lot of noise, it means other people might listen.
I fully understand that my social media accounts (and this professional are public).  I also understand that any and all correspondences done on my work email are the property of my institution (and, because it’s a public institution, the state as well).  I also understand that my personal email account is not particularly private either: I use Gmail; and Gmail is a proprietary application of Google and I know Google makes money by harvesting its users data (even “private” emails).  I also am very aware that many of my devices track my whereabouts.  My texts and my phone calls…well, I have a feeling they aren’t as secure as I’d like either.

As a person who works in information – and who loves the movement of information (so I get excited by ILL, acquisitions and circ stats – I might be more aware of how information moves and, therefore, who can might be able to access it.  The average patron might not think about how their information may or may not be as secure or private as they would like.
Because librarians are so immersed in information, we may be uniquely poised to instruct our patrons (or at least help them discover) how all that digital noise they’re making might…well, someone might actually be listening.  And sometimes, you don’t want that particular person to be the one listening. (Ah, the irony.)

Here on this blog, I am hoping to make a multi-part series on privacy and the library. So, stay tuned for more posts.

5 Things That Make an Acquisitions Librarian Happy

There are many a stressful thing in the career of an Acquisition Librarian.  Just think of all the budgets and contracts and watching publishers/vendors declare get swallowed by each other and keeping on top of the fiscal year.  But there are some things that just make Acquisition Librarians (and Graduate Assistants) happy.  Here are 5 of them:

having a party
“Having a party in Acquisitions” by Nada Sweid, 2015.
  1. Good metadata. I just handled the ordering of a bunch of Japanese graphic novels (or manga) and the metadata was fabulous.  So often with foreign titles, the metadata includes little beyond the barest bones.  Acquisition staff can only hope that the vendor understands what we’re asking for.  But the metadata for these manga books were just delightful; I know that the vendor will be able to read it and get us the books we ordered.
  2. Bibliographers who can get us this metadata. Getting us the appropriate OCLC numbers almost guarantees that we’ll be able to get the item (barring that the item isn’t out of print, is a unique item, etc.). When we get OCLC numbers that bring in metadata like the scenario above, we are so excited.
  3. Sleeping in late. I don’t know who doesn’t like this, but I feel like (if I’m any example) that Acquisition Librarians really, really like to sleep in.
  4. Excel workbooks. This is a very strange thing to make a person happy, but Excel workbooks can be awesome.  Even though, no matter how proficient I get at Excel I still think I need to learn more to be an “Expert,” I love messing around with the fields – sorting, filtering, rearranging.  Oh, the joy of pivot tables!
  5. Successfully accessing electronic resources. There is so much that can go wrong between purchasing an electronic resource and accessing it: did the publisher turn it on, is it actually what you ordered, what about those hosting fees, is it mysteriously stuck behind a paywall, has someone been data-mining and caused access to be revoked?  When an Acquisitions Librarian goes gets to their desired content, they can breathe a sigh of happy relief.

Really Cool E-Resources Discovery Layer Design

Via a Twitter conversation, I found a library acquisitions blog. (Whoa, those exist?)  It’s from the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, England’s Acquisitions team.  Well, off the blog is a link for e-resources.  Of course, I had to click it.  And what comes up but this beautiful one-box search.  I briefly searched through the very well designed interface (powered by summons) and was, plainly, delighted.  I think I’m in love.

UCA E-Resources
UCA E-Resources Discovery Page

That DVD went out HOW MANY times?

“DVDs – édition vidéo” by Stef48. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In your work, you don’t always get to do exciting things.  There are plenty activities that you probably want to avoid, depending on your personality type, the software you’re using, and your institutions politics.

Alas, there are some projects that are not dreadful.  Some might even be called exciting.  And I am starting to ramp up one of my exciting projects.  I will be presenting at the BOBCATSSS 2016 conference in Lyon on video streaming in academic libraries.  First, I’m really excited to go to France.  Then, it’s my first time presenting at a conference (and, of course, this means my supervisor is putting on the pressure for me to represent the unit well).  And third, the more I delve into the analytics of video streaming and DVD circulation, the cooler everything gets.

After having gone to a soiree at ALA hosted by video streaming company and then exploring their website (my institution had just entered a licensing agreement with them), I was chomping at the bit to get my hands around usage statistics.  Basically, I was wondering: were the library users going to be as excited about this platform as I was?  (You’ll have to wait until I’m done with the project to find out.)

Just this week, though, a new development occurred: one of the awesome people in our content access team sent down (they’re two floors above my office) circulation statistics on our DVD collection.  Grad school always throws something in your way (like an extensive project on metadata or judging grant applications), so I didn’t get to look at the statistics immediately.  But when I did: my. word.

The library has been circulating DVDs, according to these statistics, since 2002.  Some DVDs have seen monumental circulation – to the point I wonder how that DVD has survived so many plays.  The top performer was the Chilean film Machuca, with over 160 circulation discharges. (Who knew that would be such a popular film?)  Others haven’t seen any circulation.  Also, we have tons of DVDS, just thousands and thousands of them; it’s amazing one library could hold them all.

How Libraries Get eBooks

Sakina reads ebook
Rgaudin. “Sakina découvrant «Le Petit Prince» sur un ereader Cybook de chez Bookeen (Bamako, Mali).” 2014. Wikimedia Commons. [Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.]
If you stay long enough in the library community (it can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 6 months), you’ll hear about open access.  This idea of open access – where everyone can get to (usually scholarly) information without hitting a paywall – is a blissful idea for plenty of librarians.  LIS programs will spend weeks on teaching about OA; forums and conferences on OA abound; Twitter is alive with OA tweets.

Well, while the rest of the library world basks in the utopian glow of OA, I am stuck in quite the opposite. In acquisitions, we feed the paywall.  Copyright and honoring licenses is the name of our game.  DRM – or digital rights management – haunts nearly every electronic resource we buy.

And herein, I’ll talk about one of the biggies when it comes to non-OA: ebooks.  I could probably write enough books about ebooks in libraries to rival Balzac, but this post can be an introduction to the world of ebooks in libraries.

What’s an ebook?

Well, that’s tough.  The Oxford Reference says an ebook is a book stored on a website, and this book can be downloaded and printed and read. The Oxford English Dictionary claims an ebook is an electronic version of a print book, a version which can be read on a computer or handheld device.  For most academic librarians, an ebook is an all-purpose term for various ways of getting digital content.  And these ebooks (whatever your definition) come with oftentimes extensive DRM technology, which limits usage.

They can come in tons of formats, including but not limited to ASCII, PDF, RTF, TK3, ePub, HTML. And you can read them on nearly as many systems – computers, tablets, PDAs, phones, mp3 players, e-readers.

Where do libraries get ebooks?

A lot of places.  Usually, a library will work with the publisher or a 3rd party vendor.

Public libraries will most likely work with one of the Big 5 ebook publishers – Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, MacMillan, Simon & Schuster – who are 66% of the ebook market.  For public libraries, ebooks have to be licensed for a certain number of months or loans; and these licenses can be 3 or 4 times the price of a print book.

Academic libraries can work with publishers – of academic materials – or 3rd party vendors.  Depending on the institution and its finances, the academic library might license ebooks as well.  Or they will try to buy the ebooks in perpetuity (which also includes paying yearly hosting fees to the vendor/publisher).  Still, the ebooks will be 3-4 times the price of a print book for libraries – often because publishers believe library copies will limit sales.

How do libraries “buy” ebooks?

There are several ways of acquiring ebooks.  The two main ways are buying packages and buying individual titles.

A package is list of ebooks curated by a publisher or vendor.  A library pays for that whole lump of books.  This purchasing method often provides libraries with books that they would not have purchased (except that it was in a package with more desirable titles).  And each package often comes with its own interface, which makes the reading experience odd for patrons.  But this purchasing method is often simpler and has looser DRM; plus, less popular ebooks are made available to patrons.

Title-by-title selection and buying is a much more efficient use of funds. The libraries can pick only the titles they want, and not bother paying for books they don’t want.  But this is much more labor intensive – someone has to sit down and determine what exactly to buy – and the DRM on individually purchased titles can be exceptionally stringent.