What role on privacy should librarians have

What is, or what should be the role of libraries and librarians with regard to privacy? Apart from ensuring that they protect any personally identifiable information relating to their users, should they do more over and above that:

  • Should they offer training on how users can protect their privacy (such as using browser addons and other tools; making full use of privacy settings within browsers etc)
  • Should they go a step further and offer their users the facility to search the web anonymously (a number of American libraries have set up Tor relays)
  • Should they organise cryptoparties, encouraging people to use encrypted services
  • Should they lobby government for laws that are more respectful of user privacy
  • Should they work together to encourage vendors to incorporate measures that respect user privacy

In recent weeks I have been thinking about people who would identify themselves as being “radical librarians”, because they seem to place a particularly high priority on ethical issues. Ian Clark IN Journal of Radical Librarianship (2016) says that “If we cannot (or do not) protect the intellectual privacy of our users, then we are failing as professionals”. Its interesting, too, to see the response from American librarians in recent months to the ways in which the current administration appears to be weakening or removing privacy protections.

Magi (2013) says “More than ever, libraries hold a unique and critically important place in the information landscape. I can think of few other information providers that do what libraries do: provide a broad range of information, make it accessible to everyone regardless of means, while embracing the ethical principle that our users’ personal information is not a commodity to be traded or sold. Our commitment to user confidentiality is rare and special, and it’s a characteristic that research tells us is important to people…. I believe it’s essential that we work to preserve that competitive advantage, both because it’s the ethical thing to do, and because it’s a practical way to stay relevant.

While Mattlage (2015 p76) says that “It is the unique role of information professionals to be last to abandon the defense of these rights, even if this leads others—who do not have these special obligations—to perceive information professionals as unreasonable”.

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