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Intellectual Freedom

Banned Books Week Presentation

censorship causes blindnessHere is a slide presentation I prepared for a webinar I am participating in as part of the Alaska State Library’s Public Librarians’ Monthly Chat.

New Privacy Guidelines

Here is a post that first appeared on Choose Privacy Week .


New Privacy Guidelines Encourage Libraries and Vendors to Work Together to Protect Reader Privacy

By Michael Robinson
Chair, IFC Privacy Subcommittee
Head of Systems at the Consortium Library
University of Alaska – Anchorage

Libraries have a tradition of protecting the privacy of readers as the cornerstone of intellectual freedom. We recognize that freedom of thought and expression begins with freedom of inquiry, the ability to read and explore ideas without the chilling effect of government surveillance or societal disapproval. We clearly saw the Patriot Act as a threat to library users’ privacy and have earned a reputation for our efforts to reform it. However, that reputation may be in danger. A gap has grown between our tradition of protecting privacy and common practices that libraries have developed as they strive to deliver digital content, embrace the modern Web, and provide personalized services to library users. The October 2014 revelations disclosing what Adobe’s Digital Editions collects about users and their reading habits brought this gap into center stage.

ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) has been concerned about online privacy for years. They worked with the Office of Intellectual Freedom to establish the annual Choose Privacy Week campaign in 2010 and recently published an updated version of the Privacy Toolkit, an extensive resource that covers the myriad of threats to privacy in a modern library. One of the goals of the IFC Privacy Subcommittee is to use the toolkit as a resource to produce a series of more concise and accessible guidelines focused on specific areas of concern about library users’ privacy.

Given the Adobe revelations, we decided to start by developing privacy guidelines for ebook lending and digital content vendors. During the process of developing the document, the Privacy Subcommittee shared it with a range of individuals and groups for review and comments. This included ALA’s Digital Content Working Group (DCWG), the LITA Patron Privacy Technologies Interest Group, and the group developing the NISO Consensus Framework to Support Patron Privacy in Digital Library and Information Systems. Online privacy is a large issue that touches on many areas of library service, and it is important that the different groups in ALA work together to develop a common set of principles and best practices that protect reader privacy. By the end of ALA’s 2015 Annual Meeting in San Francisco, the Intellectual Freedom Committee and the Digital Content Working Group both endorsed the document, entitled “Library Privacy Guidelines for E-book Lending and Digital Content Vendors.

Library Privacy Guidelines for E-book Lending and Digital Content Vendors” are intended to start a conversation within the library community and with vendors and content providers. We expect that the guidelines will need to be revised as we receive more feedback. On the whole, the guidelines represent our attempt to balance the need to protect reader privacy with the needs of libraries to collect user data and provide personalized services, while respecting and protecting the individual’s right to make their own informed decisions in regards to the privacy of their data, particularly in regard to how much privacy they are willing to trade for convenience or added benefits. That’s an ambitious goal, but if libraries and vendors can work together to develop practices based on these guidelines, it can serve as a model for how it can be done. It’s time for librarians to take up this task and to live up to our reputation as privacy defenders.


Who’s Reading the Reader?

Here is a post that first appeared on Choose Privacy Week .

Choose Privacy Week 2015: Who’s Reading the Reader?

By Michael Robinson
Chair, ALA-IFC Privacy Subcommittee

It feels like online privacy has taken a step closer to center stage in libraryland in 2015.  For years, a number of librarians have been advocating that libraries and the ecology of vendors and publishers they do business with need to do a better job of protecting the online privacy of our patrons. We will hear again from some of them in this year’s fantastic series of blog posts for Choose Privacy Week. Despite these voices of concern, privacy really did take a backseat as libraries struggle to deliver econtent, embrace the modern Web, and provide a better user experience.

Snowden’s revelations (was it just 2 years ago?) increased public concern over online privacy and many people feel increasingly powerless to protect themselves. Libraries stepped up to the plate and offer programs and classes around protecting your online privacy. But there is still a disconnect between what our ethics and policies are concerning online privacy and what our common practice has become. We offer classes on how to protect yourself as a consumer from commercial surveillance but cannot ensure that a reader’s privacy is protected when they access online content at the library.

Last October we were confronted with the extent of data that Adobe’s Digital Editions collects about users and their reading habits. These revelations are, in one sense, the library profession’s mini-Snowden. It exposed what some suspected all long and heightened concerns among a broader audience. It leaves us with questions about the patron data collection practices of the vendors and publishers we rely on. Questions which brings us to the theme of this year’s Choose Privacy Week, “Who’s Reading the Reader?”

As online privacy moves more towards center stage, there are a number of encouraging trends:

•The ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee published a revised Privacy Toolkit last year which describes policy issues and best practices.
• A Patron Privacy Technologies Interest Group recently formed within LITA.
• The ALA Digital Content Working Group which negotiates with ebook providers is showing increased interest in privacy issues.
• The Library Freedom Project won a Knight News Challenge grant to provide librarians and their patrons with tools and information to better understand their digital rights.
• The San Jose Public Library won a Knight News Challenge grant to develop online tools to help individuals better understand privacy.
• NISO is beginning work on a Consensus Framework to Support Patron Privacy in Digital Library and Information Systems.
• A new initiative called Let’s Encrypt that will provide a free and easy way for websites to move to HTTPS.

Libraries, vendors, and publishers must work together to tackle the issues of online privacy and develop practices that respect the core value of reader confidentiality. Individually, its overwhelming, but together we can do it. I encourage you to join us in the discussion this week by reading and commenting on the upcoming blog posts.

Michael Robinson is an Associate Professor at the Consortium Library, University of Alaska – Anchorage. In addition to serving as chair of the ALA-IFC Privacy Subcommittee, he serves as chair of the Alaska Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.

Privacy and the NSA

privacy2Here is the handout I prepared for a talk I am giving  as part of series on digital privacy:

How to Host Programs about Online Privacy in Your Library

Choose Privacy Week is coming up fairly quick and if you are  like me, you are just now thinking of ways for your library to participate.  The bad news is that it’s probably too late to come up with good programming for this year’s Choose Privacy Week.  The good news is that your patrons don’t know or care that its Choose Privacy Week and yet almost all of them have a strong interest in online privacy.   What I mean is that the week itself is not important, but the subject matter is of vital importance to our communities and our nation.  The continuing revelations about the nature and scope of the NSA surveillance activities has brought concerns about online privacy to the forefront.  Libraries are uniquely positioned to offer programming about online privacy because of our strong traditions of intellectual freedom, respect for privacy,  digital literacy, and civic engagement.  If you ever plan to offer programs on privacy at your library, 2014 is the year to get started.

I have been working with several libraries in Alaska to offer programs about online privacy.  We offered two programs so far and are taking what we learned to create a series of programs this year.  We were planning to have it coincide with Choose Privacy Week, but had scheduling conflicts with the video conferencing network we are going to use.  So instead, our series will happen in June.  I would like to share how we got started, what we learned, and what we are planning for this year in the hope that it will inspire you.  If we can do it, anyone can.

privacyThe credit for getting the ball rolling and organizing the initial programs goes to Jessie Morgan, the education coordinator at the Haines Borough Public Library.  Last October Jessie organized a community event titled Who Do I Trust to Protect My Digital Privacy?  Add your voice to the conversation about tough privacy choices facing our nation.  The event used the civic engagement materials  available on the Choose Privacy Week website.  Jessie had recruited two community members as moderators and asked me to attend as a special guest in my role as chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Alaska Library Association.  Haines is a small community in Southeast Alaska about 750 miles from Anchorage where I live, so I attended via the Alaska OWL video conferencing network.  I was a bit nervous because this would be my first time speaking in public on an intellectual freedom issue and also my first time using video conference to join a community discussion.

My fears were unfounded.  The event went well with lively discussion among the participants.  A good portion of the civic engagement materials focused on why online privacy is important.  The participants all felt strongly that privacy is important and the discussion quickly moved to what people can do to protect their privacy.  During the wrap up of the discussion, it was felt that a program focusing on how to protect your online privacy would be a good next step.


Life can get busy and we did not get around to scheduling the follow up event until February.  Jessie worked with Stacia McGourty at the Anchorage Public Library to put on a joint program between the two libraries.  This time the format would be a presentation by me with questions and answers from the participants.  I would be at the Anchorage Public Library with a live audience and we would bring in the folks in Haines via video conference.  We wanted to be careful to offer information that would empower people and not just make them feel even more helpless because of the number of threats to privacy.  Here’s my presentation–Internet & Privacy [1.6mb pdf].  The event went well in that interest was strong and people said that they found the information useful.  But we learned a number of things that we could do better:

  • We did not allow enough time for people to talk about privacy and what it means to them.  No one in the Anchorage audience had participated in the previous discussion in October.
  • People really wanted to talk about NSA and Snowden even though there are many other threats to their privacy that they are in a better position do something about.
  • People had a limited understanding of the mechanics of how online tracking and other technologies work.  There is a huge need for digital literacy so people can make an informed decisions about their online activities.
  • Don’t assume the generational stereotypes concerning attitudes about privacy are true, i.e. that young people don’t care about their privacy.  Everyone regardless of age draws a line at some point between convenience and what should be private.
  • We went too long (90 minutes) and tried to cover too much.  Don’t get me wrong, people were engaged the entire 90 minutes but we rushed through some topics and the amount of information was a bit overwhelming.

We also learned a few things about presentations to multiple locations via video conferencing:

  • We had the monitor/camera facing the live audience so the participants could see each other with the presenter to one side, kinda in a triangle.  Big mistake, the presenter ends up having to turn back and forth to address both audiences.  Instead,  we should have placed the monitor/camera so that it is part of the live audience looking at the presenter.  You can always briefly turn monitor/camera to introduce audiences to each other at the beginning.
  • Don’t try to show PowerPoint presentation over the video conference monitor.  Its a small screen and hard to read.  Instead, we should have had handouts for the audience and maybe separate laptop/projector for the presentation at each location.
  • Scheduling multiple libraries is more difficult, especially specific rooms that have the video conferencing equipment and are heavily used.

Despite our mistakes, the feedback from the audience was that they were very interested in more programs on online privacy.  With that in mind, we started planning for a series of programs that would allow us to break things into smaller topics and involve different presenters.  We will also expand to include one or two more libraries via video conference.  We came up with a number of possible topics but eventually settled on a four week series this June:

  • A showing of one of the ALA Privacy videos
  • The NSA & Other Threats to Privacy
  • Internet Browsing & Privacy
  • Social Media & Privacy

We plan to record the three presentations and if they turn out okay, make them available to libraries throughout the state.  We may also do a presentation at next year’s statewide library association conference on how to host a program.

So here is my advice to anyone considering hosting programs on online privacy for the first time:

  • Start small, get one focused event under your belt.
  • Use the resources for libraries on the Choose Privacy Week website.
  • Ask for help from other libraries or people/organizations in your community.
  • Incorporate what you learn into planning the next event(s).

I hope that what I have written encourages you to start offering privacy programs at your library.  Online privacy is a hot topic and the local library is a great place for people to learn about the topic and discuss the issues.