What Types of Technology Should Librarians Scrutinize?

Can librarians be both pro-technology and pro-privacy?

January 25, 2020

Elisa Rodrigues (left) and Anders Lyon Photo: Hanna Byrd Little
Elisa Rodrigues (left) and Anders Lyon Photo: Hanna Byrd Little

Technology helps libraries provide many services that are indispensable to patrons, but it can also pose a serious threat to their privacy and other rights. Elisa Rodrigues and Anders Lyon from the University of San Francisco led the “Disrupting Tech While Being Pro-Tech” session to help attendees explore how to find technology that can help their community without compromising their rights.

The session, part of the Symposium on the Future of Libraries at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting and Exhibits in Philadelphia on January 25, included both a presentation and a large-group discussion. The first significant item discussed was privacy. The presenters called attention to the seventh article of the ALA Bill of Rights:

“All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use. Libraries should advocate for, educate about, and protect people’s privacy, safeguarding all library use data, including personally identifiable information.”

What types of technology should librarians be critical of? “All of it,” Lyon explained with a chuckle. He further observed that librarians should be particularly careful of any technology that collects and stores data, especially user data. Upcoming technologies such as facial recognition as an alternative to library cards also raise privacy concerns.

Privacy breaches have occurred at some libraries. Technology services can expose data even if libraries don’t collect the data, since vendors often want users to create personal accounts. Rodrigues and Lyon discussed two vendors that had data breaches due to a lack of password encryption. And vendor protection of data can change when services merge or are purchased by other vendors. (One example is Lynda, the learning tutorial site purchased by LinkedIn and renamed LinkedIn Learning; the site announced last year that library users would need to create a LinkedIn profile to use the service.)

The group discussions brought up the fact that all platforms come with risks. One audience member commented about the struggle to provide advice to patrons about email platforms. Rodrigues gives the example that some might recommend  “Just get off Facebook,” but others may not have the privilege to simply not use the free platform since this is how one communicates with family and friends.

The discussion also recommended that library vendors use plain language for privacy agreements. A representative from the library advocacy group Library Freedom Institute in the audience reminded attendees that librarians would let no other industry this much access to private data.

When asked what types of emerging technology they would like to see at their libraries, college and school librarians in attendance said they are interested in virtual reality. Rodrigues warned about  “this technology tracking eye movements” as one of the privacy issues librarians should be aware of.

Presentation slides will be available in the Midwinter app. The final slide provides links to resources to help with the technology issues discussed.

Update: This post was updated with additional information and a new photo January 27.


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