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.


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