Thinking about privacy

Tonight, I’m reading article, after article, after article about privacy in libraries – more specifically, privacy (or the lack-thereof) in libraries when it comes to e-books, digital materials, and the like.

The general idea (for me, anyway) is that libraries and reading have always been very private institutions and activities. Technically: no library should keep a record of what you’re reading or doing. (See the American Library Association’s statement(s) on privacy.) Like: if you want to read four books on how to build bombs, thirteen books on cats, and one book on video games – great. If you want to check out one book in your entire lifetime about exploring your own sexuality, wonderful. If you want to read nothing but hardcore romance novels, fine. When you check out a book (or, at least, when you used to check out a book at a library), you walk it up to the desk, hand it over to the librarian, and they hand it back to you without comment. That’s what a good librarian does. It’s what they’re trained to do. (You can, very seriously, get into trouble for making a comment about what someone checks out at the library – whether the comment comes from a place of companionship, recommendation, or disgust. There are librarians who are trained and hired to make comments and suggestions about what you read, and they are Readers’ Advisory librarians.) But, why? There are so many venues of our lives that are (or should be) private: our medical records, the numbers on all of our prescriptions, our credit card information and the amount of money we have in our bank accounts. We keep our social security number private. Most of the time. We can browse the internet Incognito (well, not really, but that’s a different issue). Did you know that you can have your books at the library put on private hold, too? So nobody you know – your spouse, your coworker, your child – can walk by the holds desk and see your name sticking out like a bookmark from the pages of a book you’ve reserved?

I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I have two threads, I think. One: I find it very not-okay, very upsetting, very bizarre that our privacy in libraries and in reading has, in many ways, disintegrated since the introduction of the e-book to libraries. Libraries purchase books. Libraries license e-books. Libraries purchase books and then have every right to do whatever they’d like with them (within reason): they can be destroyed, they can be colored on, they can be loaned out one time, thirty times, three-hundred and fifty times. Basically: until a book is no longer physically able to make the journey between patrons, the book is property of the library and its patrons.

Similarly: when you check out a physical book – let’s say I check out Station Eleven – nobody knows what you do with it. Nobody knows that I (the patron) might take it home and toss it on a coffee table and never open it. Nobody knows that I might open it immediately, place a bookmark between pages thirty and thirty-one, and never revisit it. Nobody knows that I might take it home and read it in one sitting. With an e-book, that’s all known. There’s a clock attached to most e-books, no? Publishers know when you’re reading. And for how long. And how often. There’s a built-in dictionary, too. So they know what you don’t know. And might be able to guess your level of education. Are you defining the word ‘cat,’ or the word ‘verisimilitude’? Similarly: you can highlight on the Kindle and see what other readers – people who are reading your same book! – have highlighted. Is that fun? Sure. Is it information about who you are? Yeah, absolutely.

When it was revealed that metadata from our phone conversations was being stored and used, we were rightfully enraged. Who has the right to know who I’m calling? How long I spoke with them? How many times I called them?

It seems like, though, and maybe I’m wrong, that we don’t care as much about our literacy privacy. I think a lot about Goodreads, which has become a place where we share everything about our reading habits: what we’re reading, what we want to read, how long it takes us to read something, how many times we’ve read something, &c, &c. Should this bother us more? Is it okay that it doesn’t?

I know there’s the age-old idea that, hey: if you’re not doing anything that needs to be hidden, then you’re fine. And if you are, then this is how we exact our revenge. And, and, yes: if a librarian talks to a young reader about what some might call their unusual taste in literature – books about murder and anger, filled with devious characters – perhaps! perhaps! she’ll save a life. And those are all very good, very reasonable arguments.

But I guess here’s what I’m wondering: privacy is a fundamental aspect of librarianship. It is, I’d say, highly connected to the physicality of books. And, as we move from a physical sphere to something far more digital, accessible, and open, our privacy – we can all agree – is threatened. But is there any way for libraries to keep up without sacrificing their foundations of privacy? Should libraries forego their transitions to digital lending in the name of privacy? (No, and they can’t.)

And: if libraries have to compromise, and Amazon and Adobe pull more and more of your metadata – because that’s what it is, technically – into their world – because who will stop them – doesn’t it seem like we should care more?

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