• Who are you empowering?

    May 21, 2014
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    “Darth Vader is watching you” photo by Flickr user Stefan (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    In brief: As librarians we continue to grapple with our role in a world of digital information. The case has been made for an enthusiastic embrace of cutting edge technologies and the development of a ‘startup culture,’ and a role as ‘gap filler’ supporting faster take-up of new technologies. Rather than blindly supporting a market-driven technology industry, librarians should ensure the privacy and autonomy of library users is protected. When considering how we can use technology, librarians must remember our core values, and our mission of empowering an informed and free citizenry.

    At the VALA 2014 conference Joe Murphy delivered the closing keynote address – Library as future. In it, he stated that one of the important roles of libraries1 in the present and future is that of ‘gap filler.’ Whilst he was careful to state that his suggestion was ‘somewhat amorphous’, ultimately Murphy’s vision is of public libraries assisting our communities in using the technology created and marketed by Silicon Valley and its imitators. We are to pay attention to tech industry trends like the Oculus Rift, smart watches, and Bitcoin, and act as a facilitator within our communities to assist the uptake of these technologies.

    Murphy couldn’t be more wrong.

    Murphy’s ‘gap filling’ proposal was pre-empted by David Lankes in 2012, when he wrote:

    If libraries continue to be remedial organizations, focused solely on the problems and deficits of our communities the communities themselves will find libraries obsolete.

    The main problem with Murphy’s vision of libraries as a ‘gap filler’ is the question of who determines where the gap lies, and who determines how it is to be filled. Murphy, for example, noted approvingly that Amazon had been part of the drive to allow mobile devices to be used in-flight during commercial air travel because it enabled ‘20 minutes extra consumption time.’ He went on to ask , “How come libraries don’t think like that?” The ‘gap’ here, is the inability to buy or consume more stuff, heroically now filled with a change in safety regulations. Consideration of filling the gap in our ability to interact with the strangers with whom we are about to share a flight appears not to have been considered. Ingrained misogyny,brutal factory conditions and disregard for the privacy of customers are tech industry standards. Commercial academic journal publishers make obscene profits selling the fruits of their customers’ labor back to them. ‘Gap filling’ by providing pathways for our communities to become lifelong customers of these companies is a depressing vision. Are we to simply act as the agents of such entities like a library version of Vichy France?

    The tension at the heart of libraries is that they require cooperative action to exist, but primarily their role and effect is to enhance personal autonomy. By enabling individuals to access information and ideas to which they would not otherwise have access in such abundance, libraries increase the options of each user. Use of a library might provide better understanding of a health condition, improve the chances of completing a qualification, or simply broaden one’s understanding of what is possible in life. This is why Roy Tennant, writing in The Digital Shift in January, stated that “The mission of librarians is to empower.”

    If we are thinking about empowerment, however, we must also think about disempowerment and power itself. When librarians spend hard earned institutional dollars helping library members to sign up to Facebook or Gmail, who benefits the most? When a library director signs a contract with a vendor agreeing that any copyright infringements by patrons will allow the vendor to sue her library, is she empowering local citizens and taxpayers, or merely making it easier and more publicly acceptable for the record industry to punish infringements of its monopolies? Statistician and data manager Erin Jonaitis got to the heart of the matter last July on Twitter, when she noted:

    If knowledge is power, then a key part of professional ethics for info professionals should be: Who are you empowering?

    A refusal to engage with these questions leads to vacuous concepts and strategic culs-de-sac. For example, the idea of books as content that can be simply transferred to any desired ‘container’ without consequences. In this vision, libraries are simply there to move the content to people and pay the copyright owner on their behalf. Uncritical acceptance of this idea ignores two extremely important consequences of moving creative works from one format to another. First, the container determines what content is both possible and optimal to that format. Second, the container determines how the content can be used.

    As Joseph Esposito puts it, “The problem with getting books out of their containers is that books are their containers.” It is the economics of printing and the psychology of book buyers that determines the page count of most novels and popular non-fiction books, rather than some amazing coincidence that all great stories are roughly the same length.

    Paper books don’t need batteries, don’t use DRM and can easily be lent, sold or donated. There is no technical reason an ebook can not be copied infinitely with perfect fidelity at a fraction of a cent per copy, but publishers sell a license to read rather than selling copies. These differences matter profoundly. Thinking we could switch containers without affecting the way content is controlled caused the Serials Crisis and, more recently, the eBook Crisis. In both cases, moving to a new format resulted in a new ownership model and a change in power dynamics away from librarians and their communities and towards publishers. On the other hand, the creation of the world wide web enabled Open Access publishing models, previously limited by the economics of hard copy distribution.

    So the question is not just what technologies are available, but what technologies align with our values and purpose as librarians. That is, what technologies allow us to empower our library members? A key consideration for librarians has always been how we provide access to information and cultural works. Late stage capitalism is no time to give up this tradition.

    Libraries need technology, but we must recognise that the values driving ‘startup culture’ and most technology companies are radically different from the values librarians have held and defended for decades. Librarians value preservation, privacy, and sharing. Startups and tech corporates value growth, extracting and profiting from personal data and, quite literally, selling out.

    The idea that technology will supplant the need for the traditional work and values of librarians, whilst not new, has certainly gained traction in the last decade. The motivation for such arguments varies, but the reasoning is based on a reality that needs to be acknowledged. Librarians exist because they provide a solution to collective action problems. Such a problem exists where the benefit of a particular collective action to everyone in the group is high, but the cost of attempting the action as an individual is also prohibitively high. The rational response to such problems is to pool resources and act as a group. The solving of collective action problems with regard to information pretty much defines us as librarians.

    Amassing a large and diverse collection of information and cultural works in hardcopy is a very expensive and time consuming task. Cooperative action in the form of a professionally managed library reduces the overall cost to the whole group. This is the idea that is now perceived as anachronistic, with the rise of the Internet, the Web, and digital storage. Questions regarding copyright aside, the practical business of sharing and accessing information and two-dimensional cultural works at prices too cheap to meter is a solved problem. Ironically, it was in the very same venue in which Joe Murphy spoke that, two years earlier, Kathryn Greenhill and Constance Wiebrands delivered a paper pointing out some of the consequences of attempting to ‘gap fill’ commercial digital content. Greenhill and Wiebrands’ research was restricted to ebooks and journal articles, but their insights are more broadly relevant. They pointed out that the value proposition of libraries as “providers of free and easy content to their communities” is challenged in the new paradigm of digital content. Putting it bluntly, Greenhill and Wiebrands state that:

    A future challenge for libraries is to prove their worth as content providers in a world where, due to a requirement to work within outdated laws and content models, libraries provide content less conveniently than illegal sources.

    Greenhill and Wiebrands have essentially provided us with the conference paper equivalent of Matthew Inman’s famous Oatmeal comic, I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened. A role as ‘gap filler’ puts libraries in the precarious position of being always second best. The death spiral will then kick in, as we become gradually less relevant to average community members’ lives and eventually merely a charity service for those with no other options.

    There is, however, a second collective action problem that is not so easily solved. Librarians have also historically worked to facilitate co-operative action to achieve things that can’t be achieved through individual or market action alone. For example, The National Library of Australia collects political ephemera relating to every Federal election. Australians are asked to save election material they receive from candidates and parties, and post it reply-paid to the National Library to add to their collection. Such a collection would be virtually impossible to amass through a market mechanism, or even by a keen individual, and has no real market value. It is, however, an invaluable record of Australia’s democratic history.

    This second role is increasingly important. It is not the things we do better but the things we do exclusively that matter. These are the things that often upset polite middle class sensibilities. Public libraries, for example, are really the only public space that encourages people to loiter. Vagrancy and ‘move on’ laws enable and encourage police officers to prevent citizens from simply hanging out in parks and streets if their presence makes more powerful people uncomfortable. Department stores and casinos have many devices for encouraging people to stay longer, but if you are obviously not there to spend money you will quickly be shown the door.

    The Mozilla Foundation’s Web Literacy Lead Doug Belshaw recently wrote about similar “private public spaces” online, stating, “Almost every space in which we interact with other people online is a private public space.” Belshaw is pointing out that the spaces we often think of as ‘public’ – social media platforms, free blogging hosts and online forums – are actually privately owned and controlled. Whilst Silicon Valley boosters like to talk about disrupting old monopolies and empowering consumers, (and occasionally both at the same time) the control of seemingly public spaces by private corporations is highly problematic. When every action and communication is logged and tracked, every website visit is recorded, and every relationship added to the ‘social graph’, life online is in fact deeply disempowering. This pervasive sense of disempowerment within ‘private public spaces’ has created “the biggest lie on the internet.” We tell this lie every time we click or tap on the button that states, “I have read and agree to these terms of service.” Overwhelmed by the complex legalese of these ‘agreements’, often from a jurisdiction other than our own, we simply click the ‘Agree’ button and hope for the best. As professionals tasked with helping people to find and use information, librarians have a responsibility to provide tools, advice and usable information services in a way that protects and respects the privacy of those we serve. The American Library Association (ALA) has a large number of statements and policies regarding privacy. They point out that, “Lack of privacy and confidentiality chills users’ choices, thereby suppressing access to ideas” and “For libraries to flourish as centers for uninhibited access to information, librarians must stand behind their users’ right to privacy and freedom of inquiry.” The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) also has privacy guidelines.

    The detail in these statements and policies, however, is focused on how librarians deal with the private information held by our own organisations. Software developer and technology writer Jon Udell recently wrote that 3D printing isn’t the digital literacy that libraries most need to teach, asking why librarians are not more interested in teaching digital skills like web coding, data management and publishing. Udell is right, but even more important than understanding how to manipulate data is understanding how data is manipulating you. In a world of Facebook, RadiumOne, and PRISM it is no longer enough for librarians to simply protect privacy of records we hold. Now that most of the population are effectively cyborgs, libraries need to be pro-active about teaching patrons the consequences of using various tools and services. Privacy and data security also need to be high on the list of considerations when deciding what resources we make available, and how.

    This is not a nice-to-have additional service; this is core business. There have been increasing cries for the education of citizens and library users on these matters. The ALA has responded, and runs ‘Choose Privacy Week’ in May each year. Choose Privacy Week is a genuine attempt to “start a national conversation” about online privacy. It includes marketing and promotional material for librarians to help educate their patrons, as well as training and lectures for librarians. The ALA is not alone in trying to educate citizens about privacy. Projects like Terms of Service;Didn’t Read and Actual Facebook Graph Searches attempt to educate us either by simplifying legal documents or showing how easy it is to find compromising information from social networking profiles. Organisations like the Tor ProjectOwnCloudFreedomBox and Unhosted have gone further and are building tools that allow internet users to better protect and control their data.

    But is this enough? As the Mozilla Foundation’s Doug Belshaw points out in his blog post about ‘private public spaces’, simply informing people of the privacy and security problems of their chosen service and suggesting alternatives does not affect behaviour on a mass scale. Education is a powerful force, but awareness of facts alone does not necessarily change behaviour. One only has to consider how many people have taken up or continued smoking tobacco, decades after its deadly effects became widely known and accepted.

    The limitation of Choose Privacy Week is right there in the name. A relatively tech-savvy and financially comfortable person like me can understand and use more privacy-friendly options. I can pay for a webhost or personal server and install OwnCloud myself. I have time to check Terms of Service:Didn’t Read and understand (mostly) how an ‘Unhosted’ app might work. But most people are not as fortunate as I. It is not because people are stupid or lazy that they do things that threaten their privacy. It is because realistic alternatives are limited and rely on the choices of others. If the only choice available to a hungry person is between chocolate cake or potato chips, providing information about the nutritional value of green leafy vegetables is not particularly helpful. Likewise, educating library users about privacy and personal data protection is of no help to citizens reliant on libraries for web access when our own services use proprietary software, tracked and filtered internet, and third-party services with vague or dubious privacy policies. Telling people to choose more wisely assumes that they have any choice at all.

    If librarians are serious about empowering citizens and protecting their privacy, we need to provide them not just with the motivation but also the means to protect their own privacy and empower. This will inevitably involve some uncomfortable discussions and controversial decisions. As librarians we must become more pro-active about citizen privacy and empowerment. This year, in a webinar presented by Eric Stroshane of North Dakota State Library, Choose Privacy Week included tips on improving privacy on public PCs. This is where librarians need to focus more of our energies. There are many simple steps we can take in our own libraries to reset the defaults towards privacy and choice, some of which I list below. Not all of the options I present here will be suitable for every library, and many require cooperation from IT departments and senior managers, but they should all be at least considered.

    Open Source software for users

    A simple measure that improves privacy and security and saves money is to use open source software instead of proprietary software on public PCs. Most libraries run the classic combination of Microsoft Windows with Microsoft Office, with the occasional Apple Mac. The vast majority of patrons in public libraries, however, use our PCs for web services or simple word processing. A PC running one of the many Linux packages with LibreOffice and Firefox easily and simply provides for the same needs as the Microsoft package. The advantage of open source from a security point of view is that it is much harder for governments or corporations to insert a secret ‘backdoor’ into open source software, and security flaws tend to be fixed faster, because the code is available to anyone who wants to look at it.

    Online anonymity by default

    By far the easiest thing librarians can do to help protect our patrons’ online privacy is to configure our web browsers to ensure users are anonymous by default. Browsers can easily be set to block third party cookies. Plugins like Flash can be disabled. The Electronic Frontiers Foundation’s tool HTTPS Everywhere can be installed. This does what it says on the tin – if there is a secure option for any given webpage, users will automatically be redirected. The invisible tracking of users as they visit sites can also be minimised by installing software like Ghostery, which blocks tracking cookies and known tracking scripts. These measures, particularly HTTPS Everywhere and Ghostery, can mostly be taken without your patrons even being aware you have done it.

    A more protective measure would be the installation of Tor Browser on library PCs. The Tor Project has developed Tor Browser based on technology originally invented by the US Navy. Tor works by bouncing users through a series of relays across the internet, meaning their true location is masked from sites they visit, and their browsing is masked from someone tracking their IP address. The Tor Browser bundle implements all of the strategies above by default, as well as a number of other protective measures. Tor is a powerful system, and is looking for partners to increase the user base and help improve the service. The cost of using Tor, however, is that some functionality we have come to expect from websites is disabled. Because it works by running users through a series of proxies Tor Browser also provides a significantly slower web experience than a standard browser. For these reasons, I would not make Tor Browser the only option for library users.

    Clear and pro-active notices about what third-party applications and services can see

    The best option when utilising third party services like Overdrive, Freegal, and EBSCO journal databases would be to ensure those services are designed in a way that they can’t track user behaviour. Boycotting them until their privacy practices are ideal, however, is an option that most librarians and libraries simply do not have. What we can do is learn from Terms of Service;Didn’t Read and provide our own members with very clear information about the consequences of using these products and services. If your journal or ebook service tracks user actions over time, tell you members clearly with a splash page or information box at the point at which they sign in. Librarians should not hide behind ‘click here for terms and conditions’ or weasel words like “may share some data”. You either do share specific data, or you do not. Tell your members.

    All library user data in-house

    Is your patron data safe and secure? Do you share it with companies without any safeguards or confidentiality agreements? Are you sure? If you use Google Analytics or another analytics service to track website visits, you are potentially sharing far more member data than you imagine. There are alternatives. Piwik is a very useable alternative for tracking web visits, including search term usage. Piwik is an open source program designed to be installed on your own server. This allows you to track your users without compromising their privacy by sharing all that data with Google and friends. Consider what else you are allowing to track your members. If you have a ‘Like us on Facebook’ button on your website, Facebook can use it to track users across the web, even when they are logged out. Every ‘hosted’ service to which you subscribe also needs to be scrutinised. They may well be as secure and privacy-friendly as using your own server rack, but that is not a given.

    Library-hosted cloud for members

    Speaking of cloud services, librarians in institutions with the means and know-how might consider providing your own hosting for patrons. Universities often already do this, but public libraries do not. Using a service like OwnCloud, public libraries could provide patrons with the convenience of a service like Dropbox or Google Drive, without forcing them to compromise their privacy. As an added bonus, you will no longer have to store all those old USB thumb drives in Lost Property.

    Encouraging funders to tie grants to the use of privacy and autonomy boosting technologies.

    Governments, particularly when conservative parties are in control, have frequently achieved particular policy outcomes by tying grant money to certain conditions. The most obvious and relevant example is the Children’s Internet Protection Act. This Act prevents libraries and schools from receiving discounts through the US Federal Government’s ‘E-rate’ program unless they install filtering software on all PCs available for use by children. It is, as amateur curmudgeon and ‘librarian extraordinaire’ Andy Woodworth recently noted, ‘a tax on poor library districts.’

    Moral panic is not the only end to which such strategies can be used, however. Individual librarians, even managers and directors, may have trouble convincing organisational leaders to implement strategies that enhance member privacy and security. These strategies are potentially costly both financially and politically. Individual librarians and our professional organisations can, however, speak with existing and potential donors and grant providers. Perhaps they would consider tying their grants to enhanced privacy technologies and practices? And perhaps, one day, your local Congresswoman or Member of Parliament will introduce the Children’s Internet Freedom Act.

    If we are to take the next steps towards real privacy and citizen empowerment, librarians must utilise the strategies articulated by digital humanist Bethany Nowviskie in her 2012 Code4Lib keynote on lazy consensus. Nowviskie argues that when everyone has to agree in order for something to change, the system tends towards conservatism. Decision making systems that assume the answer is ‘yes’ unless someone speaks up tend towards change. As Nowviskie points out, if the default decision is ‘I agree’ then a majority must act in order to stop a decision (or business model, as the case may be). This cuts both ways. Currently, too many of our systems and services default towards breaching our members’ privacy. As Cass Sunstein has shown with his work on ‘libertarian paternalism’, by simply changing the default, we can provide people with choice whilst ensuring that if they do not exercise that choice they will be protected from themselves.

    This sort of work is challenging, difficult and complex. I have not yet done all, or even most, of the things described above either in my workplace or even in my personal life. But librarians can not have it both ways. If we truly believe in empowering our members and protecting their privacy, we need to take real action to ensure this happens. The Murphy strategy of ‘gap filling’ denies this responsibility. Far from leading innovation and helping our societies to progress, we simply act as collaborators in whatever market forces direct, and miss out on what they obscure.

    Understanding and using new information technologies is vital to our mission. No serious librarian questions that. Information, after all, is power, and the mission of librarians is to empower. Jonaitis reminds us that an important question sits behind this mission statement. When you dress for work each morning and look in the mirror, remember to ask yourself that important question.

    Who are you empowering?


    Thanks to my Lead Pipe colleagues Erin Dorney, Emily Ford and Gretchen Kolderup for their invaluable edits, suggestions, encouragements and provocations.

    References and further reading


    American Library Association. Vision. ChoosePrivacyWeek.org.

    American Library Association. Privacy and confidentiality. ALA.org.

    American Library Association, (2014). Ebooks and copyright issues. State of America’s libraries 2014.

    American Library Association (2014). Registration now open for Choose Privacy Week 2014 webinar, ‘Defense against the digital dark arts’. ALA News, 22 April 2014.

    Australian Library and Information Association (2005). Libraries and privacy guidelines. ALIA.org

    Campbell, D (1999). How NSA access was built into Windows. Telepolis, 4 September 1999.

    Esposito, J (2011). E-books and their containers: a bestiary of the evolving book. The scholarly kitchen. 18 January 2011.

    Ferranti, M (2014). Trust issue looms large for tech companies capitalizing on personal data. CMO, 6 March 2014.

    Greenhill, K, & Wiebrands, C (2012). No library required: the free and easy backwaters of online content sharing. VALA 2012 Proceedings.

    Henry, A (2011). Facebook is tracking your every move on the web; here’s how to stop it. Lifehacker, 26 September 2011.

    Houghton, J (2002). The crisis in scholarly communication: an economic analysis. VALA 2002 Proceedings.

    Inman, M. (2013). I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened. The Oatmeal.

    Jonaitis, E (emjonaitis).  “If knowledge is power, then a key part of professional ethics for info professionals should be: Who are you empowering?” 9 July 2013, 9:32 p.m. Tweet.

    Lankes, D (2012). Beyond the bullet points: Libraries are obsolete. Virtual Dave, Real Blog, 20 April 2012.

    Lawrence, D (2014). The inside story of Tor, the best internet anonymity tool the government ever built. Bloomberg Business Week, 23 January 2014.

    Lubman, S (2012). Working conditions: The persistence of problems in China’s factories. Wall Street Journal: China Real Time, 25 September 2012.

    Manollu, A (2013). We are all cyborgs now. TEDx Vienna.at, 7 July 2013.

    Marwick, A (2013). Donglegate: Why the tech community hates feminists. Wired, 29 March 2013.

    Mathiue, M (2013). Unilever’s Marc Mathieu on empowering comsumers. Campaign, 1 April 2013.

    Morris, C (2012), Top 10 disruptors empowering consumers. CNBC.com, 18 October 2012.

    Morrison, H (2011). Chapter two: scholarly communication in crisis. Freedom for scholarship in the internet age. PhD Dissertation (in progress).

    Murphy, J (2014). Library as future. VALA 2014 Proceedings.

    Nowviskie, B (2012). Lazy consensus. Bethany Nowviskie (nowviskie.org), 10 March 2012.

    Rundle, H (2012). A failure of imagination – the problem with format neutrality. Hugh Rundle: Information flaneur (hughrundle.net). 28 May 2012.

    Shulevitz, J (2013). Don’t you dare say ‘disruptive’ : It’s the most pernicious cliche of our time. New Republic, 15 August 2013.

    State Library of Victoria (2012). Internet and PC usage in Victorian public libraries: technical report.

    Sunstein, C. R., & Thaler, R. H. (2003). Libertarian paternalism is not an oxymoron. The University of Chicago Law Review, 1159-1202.

    Tennant, R (2014). The mission of librarians is to empower. The digital shift. 15 January 2014.

    Udell, J (2014). 3D printing isn’t the digital literacy that libraries most need to teach. Jon Udell: strategies for internet citizens. 7 January 2014.

    Woodworth, A (wawoodworth). “I never thought of the e-rate filtering requirement as a tax on poor library districts until today @EFFLive @oif @thelib #404day” 5 April 2014 6:52 a.m. Tweet.

    Wyatt, L (2013). Wanted: your election material! National Library of Australia: Behind the scenes. 21 August 2013.

    Further Reading

    Terms of Service:Didn’t Read – http://tosdr.org

    Electronic Frontiers Foundation – https://www.eff.org

    Electronic Frontiers Australia – https://www.efa.org.au

    Lankes, D (2013). Power and Empowerment. Beyond the bulletpoints.

    1. Murphy was speaking particularly of public libraries []
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