Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The State of Libraries

    Surveillance Capitalism (Zuboff), Digital Colonialism (Kwet), Social Credit (Lee), Datafication (Lycett). My many thoughts on Irresistible Bargains (Pallitto). The titles alone are creepy and insidious, and the articles are enough to make us lose sleep for decades. All of this is a vast landscape straight out of a William Gibson novel; as Lee pointed out, it inspired episodes in the dystopian Black Mirror. My own reading notes along the way are practically a novella.
    But what of libraries? The ALA's core competencies and the library bill of rights both position patron privacy as a foundational tenet of librarianship. I remember when the Patriot Act was introduced in 2001. Under the Patriot Act, the FBI can secretly conduct a physical search or wiretap on American citizens to obtain evidence of crime without proving probable cause, as the Fourth Amendment explicitly requires. One of the (many, many) avenues for discovery under the Patriot Act is a patron’s library use history. Most libraries don’t keep patron checkout records, and after the Patriot Act the ones that did simply toggled the software settings to stop doing that. Designers of library software in the years since the Patriot Act became law started including default settings to not collect or store any circulation or other history, such as requests for items through interlibrary loan. What is most concerning to me about the Patriot Act provisions is the idea that libraries (and other information providers such as bookshops, and possibly even publishers) are dangerous to the state, up to and including suborning terrorists.
While the explicit provisions of Patriot Act itself reflect a deep ignorance of librarians’ structural protections of patron privacy, laws allowing for state surveillance of patron activity and the history of their library activities are in direct conflict with the professional core and patron protections with which we are charged. 
With so much data integration being desired (and, as Pallitto would describe it, as irresistible), how do we provide information services while also protecting patron privacy? Libraries, like every organization, need to make data-driven solutions, which can be done in anonymized ways: Number of books checked out, number of discrete patrons, number of attendees at a program or event, etc. But patrons themselves want more personalized and visible participation: book reading challenges that are integrated through GoodReads or other apps, for instance, are ways to encourage and support community engagement. 
It seems that the core tenets of librarianship are coming into conflict along privacy and big-data fault lines: how are we to engage the community in ways that inspire and support increased library use while also protecting patrons--individually and as a group--from parasitic capitalism or state control programs? 
And, as state surveillance expands, what role does the library have in making documents available to the public that are deemed “too dangerous” for public use?