Blog Response to Holly Cooper’s “Digital Libraries”
This is a response to my classmate Holly Cooper’s engaging and substantial blog post on traditional and digital libraries that you can find here. In my response I add to what it means for public libraries to provide a so-called “space”. Also I look at what to me is the main divergence digital libraries take from more traditional ones.
Holly writes “The library has become about sharing an experience, as opposed to solitary study”, and this is something I couldn’t agree more with, at least in local libraries, as opposed to research libraries. Community libraries are an essential part of any town’s infrastructure, they’re where “users” young and old collect, servicing the “different clientele” that Howard Besser mentions (Besser, 2003).[i] Research libraries I believe are quite different; accepting that they’re usually stalwarts of larger communities like universities, I think a different kind of work takes place in them.
Community libraries are an essential component to any self-respecting town. They’re necessary for hosting learning, literacy, language and computer skills, and louder, less traditional examples of community outreach like public readings and coffee mornings. Something similar has happened to primary schools, where loud, experiential learning is proven better than silent classes spent with heads in books. Conditions that are conducive to reading or study are still maintained, but no man is an island and modern libraries reflect this. Holly writes about the permanence of this space, which I’m inclined to agree with.
Research libraries are different. Communal spaces for conferencing and group work still exist, but both the work on the part of the reader and the librarian are conducted with greater professionalism and comportment. The range of books is far broader and more numerous, they’re also more valuable and include authentic source material, highlighting the greater need for stewardship; there’s a greater framework in place for learning; and the quality of learning is more advanced, users operating at a very high level and quite far in their professional development.
Loud versus quiet. This makes you think that for hundreds of years how unnatural the prevailing atmosphere in certain libraries was. It’s also an architectural marvel that literally thousands of users can be sat in close confines and still enjoy relative silence.[ii]
The research library model is more easily adapted to digital libraries, and also more necessary, as Holly acknowledges, where before users would have had to travel to access delicate and rare items, these have now been opened up to them online. Much-reduced institutional funding can now be spent securing subscriptions for online journals instead of on conferences or manuscript visits.
Holly mentions the criteria for a successful library as outlined by Besser, and one thing that struck me was the inclusion of “stewardship” (Besser, 2003). Assumed within the “stewardship” job description is being mindful of materials, perhaps to an obstructive degree, a point Holly makes with reference to the 1916 Letters project. Elsewhere Besser stresses libraries strong code of ethics. Holly talks about how digital libraries live and die by their ethics and copy right, but reading Besser I was not aware before just how contentious an issue privacy is. I’d like to depart Holly’s blog briefly from here, to talk about the big difference between traditional and digital libraries.
A user’s privacy is massively important to traditional librarians. When a person’s borrowing history becomes a matter for the state, librarians have held onto their records in direct contravention of laws like the Patriot Act in America. Surrendering the information of users to state powers puts librarians in an ethical bind not unlike doctors and the Hippocratic Oath, a comparison Besser half-makes: “[t]his ethical code is not coded in law as it is with psychiatrists, so these records can be extracted through subpoena, but this level of demand is usually required to pry the information from librarians.”
The myth that by borrowing Mein Kampf you’d end up on a register has no grounds. Or in the 1995 movie Se7en when Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman’s detectives trace Kevin Spacey’s John Doe through library records, this represents a conceptual flaw – traditional libraries keep records on books for as long as they’re on loan, then wipe them from your records – and I’m thankful it’s just fiction. To my mind this is one of the major ways that traditional libraries diverge from digital ones.
The right to privacy of any internet user is a source of increasing debate and consternation. Amazon and Google have fielded criticism related to the safeguarding of users’ privacy.[iii] In many ways Amazon represents an evil, inverted library model: they plot and chart your reading habits, gather your preferences, then present to you the books you’re most likely to buy (saying nothing of their cost versus free libraries). Amazon cares about literacy just as long as it’s commercially advantageous to do so.
Similar to a traditional library’s ethics, in 2006 federal prosecutors subpoenaed Amazon for the sales records of 24,000 customers in connection with tax-evasion, and again in 2010 of 50m customers, also in relation to tax-evasion. Amazon were successful in fighting both cases, but as The Guardian notes, this was motivated by a perceived threat to their e-commerce rather than their users’ privacy.[iv] Similarly with their attempt to digitise every book, Google have moved away from the free model of libraries to monetisation, as outlined by Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive.[v]
Internet users seem resigned to this grim fact. It’s as if people renounce their privacy the moment they go online, like it’s the price of admission, like privacy is not a basic human right.[vi] The digital footprints of users are quite easy to track, for example what sites you visit, where and when did you access it etc. From this you can infer a person’s viewing habits, preferences, even psychology.
What exactly this has to do with libraries is that traditional libraries value user privacy over digital ones.[vii] Digital libraries are a million miles from Google or Amazon, but they do track user habits on their sites, perhaps more that it is easy to do than for reasons of commerce. Not to flatter myself but I would be very irked if someone could access my ideas before I’ve had time to refine and sign off on them, what Besser calls the “commercialization of intellectual property”. This can be seen in the allegation Amazon can actually view readers’ annotations made on their eReaders.
Below are principles III and IV or The American Library Association Code of Ethics (this is pre-digital, from 1995):
“III. We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.
IV. We respect intellectual property rights.”[viii]
“We collect the following: Log Files, cookies and information that we explicitly ask you to provide about yourself upon registration or upon using any electronic forms of communication with The European Library staff.” [ix]
“During your visit, as you browse through the web site, read pages, or download information, we will automatically gather and store certain information about your visit but not about you.”[x]
To assuage anyone’s doubts or fears they even include a list of exactly what personal information they take from your visit, which I’ve stuck in the end notes.[xi]
In an essay entitled “Ethics of Digital Librarianship”, Brewster Kahle stresses the importance of the user’s privacy at the first opportunity, and I think this is important to bear in mind for all digital librarians:
“As more of us become involved in serving information electronically to other users, we so-called “digital librarians” must become conscious of our ethical responsibilities to protect the privacy of our the users being served” (Kahle, 1992).[xii]
Concerning the future of traditional libraries, Besser makes this point: “For the first time in history it became possible to divorce the physical aspects of a library from the (digital) access and services that a library provides. This has led to much discussion of the past and possible future role of libraries, and some speculation as to whether they have a future.”[xiii]
[i] Besser, Howard, “The Past, Present, and Future of Digital Libraries”
[ii] Not to emphasize the quiet library versus the loud, but here’s a link to what’s happening currently in Manchester City University, where local band Everything Everything have taken stewardship of the library for what’s called the “Chaos to Order Week”, turning it into the creative, communal space I talked about, and generally making lots of noise.
[iii] “Amazon and Snapchat rank low for protecting user data from government”
[v] Kahle, Brewster, “How Google Threatens Books”:
“If [the court case in question was] approved, the settlement would produce not one but two court-sanctioned monopolies. Google will have permission to bring under its sole control information that has been accessible through public institutions for centuries. In essence, Google will be privatizing our libraries.”
[vi] In an article about data protection and user privacy the chief executive of Sun Microsystems Scott McNealy that users should “Get over it!” & “You have zero privacy anyway”
[vii] “Conventional libraries have both functional components and ethical traditions. The digital collections currently under construction will not truly be “digital libraries” until they… adhere to many of the important ethical traditions and values of libraries” (Besser, 2003).
Additionally here is the European Library’s Data Protection Policy. It clearly states it won’t sell or trade user information, which for a non-commercial state-owned should be expected. But the sharing of information to improve usability and other aspects of the site is bothersome:
“We do not sell, trade or rent the information we get from you on this site to others. Sometimes, we collaborate with public organisations such as universities that conduct research on our behalf on usage patterns and behaviour to help us improve the content and the services we offer. In these cases we do not disclose to them personal information (e.g. names or addresses).”
- The Internet domain (for example, “xcompany.com,” if a private Internet access account, or “aschool.edu,” if connected from a university) and IP address (the number that is automatically assigned to a computer whenever it is surfing the web) from which access to our web site is gained;
- The type of browser and operating system used to access our site;
- The date and time of access to our site;
- The pages visited and the length of time visited; and
- The address of the website from which the initial visit was launched, if any.”
[xiii] Recent Guardian articles on impending library closures: