Can’t a librarian have a bit of privacy? Online privacy in the hyperlinked library

I’d like to start with the sentiment that I usually don’t care for pieces that start with a definition, especially when the definition becomes fundamental to the argument the author is trying to make. However, the definition of privacy provides key insight into how it is understood individually and under the law:

Definition of private:

1 a :intended for or restricted to the use of a particular person, group, or class a private park

2 a (1) :not holding public office or employment a private citizen (2) :not related to one’s official position :personal private correspondence

3 a :withdrawn from company or observation a private retreat

4 :not having shares that can be freely traded on the open market a private company.

There are a few different ways that private is used linguistically, but they all imply one thing: ownership. Even the use of “private” meaning not being under observation connotes the understanding that a person has sole ownership of the things that are occurring in a private situation. The right to privacy overlaps with the ownership of other things, like property. For example, I can claim the right to privacy in my own home, but when I walk into a business or someone else’s property I do so knowing that I may be under observation or being recorded.

Technology and the right to privacy is not a new issue. Some states have “two-party consent” laws, making it illegal to record a telephone conversation unless both parties are aware and agree to be recorded. The advent of the internet has blurred the lines of privacy law even further. The Pew research recommended to our class shows that Americans by and large feel they have a right to privacy and what they do on the internet should not be made available to businesses. The problem is a misunderstanding of what they internet is and how it works.

Even though the internet comes to you through your phone, tablet, PC, or laptop in your private spaces like your living room (or, heh, bathroom) the websites you are meandering through are someone else’s property. Whenever you log on to Facebook,, or your WordPress blog you are using someone else’s proprietary software and web platform. You wouldn’t go to Walmart and expect not to be filmed by security cameras, so why would you expect that sort of privacy on

Social media sites, google, and much of the internet is free to use as long as you have a connection, but the cost has always been putting up with advertisements and your information being used as a product to sell to third parties for use.  The important point from Pew that librarians should know is that people who are using the internet largely misunderstand how their information is being used and for what purposes. The issue of government and private business intrusion into net user privacy is an important concern, but there is a multipronged approach that librarians can take to address privacy for their users.

Librarians must understand that privacy begins with the user. Offering classes on online privacy, net etiquette, and other basic internet programming can be a helpful way to teach computer users how to browse the web safely and securely. The issue of teens and social media use can also be addressed through programming whether online at the library’s website or inside the branch. The next layer to address is the security of library patron’s information within the library. Libraries hold on to patron information, and should take all steps necessary to ensure that this information is secure. Privacy has been an important issue since the internet begin, but it will continue to be an issue of concern for many people as technology continues to evolve.

3 Responses to “Can’t a librarian have a bit of privacy? Online privacy in the hyperlinked library”

  1. Michael Stephens says :

    I totally agree about libraries offering classes on what it means to be online. It still amazes me (and I should know better) when I look at something on Amazon and then an ad for a similar thing starts popping up on FB and other sites.

  2. Mary says :

    Sarah, you raise important issues about privacy but also about the internet itself: who owns what? Jared Lanier wrote a book arguing that we should be paid for every tiny piece of data that is collected about us. So, if I log onto Yelp and look for Mexican food in NYC (which I did this weekend) and two seconds later while I’m browsing my email I get ads telling me about Mexican restaurants that I am sitting near, Lanier would argue, I should get paid because Yelp sold my searching data. His argument, I believe (it’s been a couple of years since I read the book) was that if companies had to pay for data, they might think carefully about what they collect but also, I think more importantly to him, we own that data and if someone uses it we should get paid. . .

    I don’t think it’s clear what makes an online experience different from a f2f. In the library, if I browse for a book in the shelves, no one sees which books I take off the shelf (unless the library has a camera). If I browse online, how is that cache handled? By whom? Have I consented to sharing that data because I did it in a public library?

    How is (should be) a public library different from a public bookstore? What does/should the word public mean? Following your lead, I looked it up:
    1. of or concerning the people as a whole
    2. done, perceived or existing in open view

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