Privacy and Surveillance in Libraryland

After a decade of debate, Canada’s anti-spam law takes effect this week. You’ve likely seen the effect in your inbox. As Michael Geist explains in his recent blog post, the legislation is really about, ”shifting privacy expectations in how our information is collected and used.”

(Need a reminder about the extent of your exposure and the fragility of your privacy in our online world? NPR’s Planet Money podcast about Project Eavesdrop is worth a listen.)

So how does privacy legislation and surveillance intersect with the library world? This was the topic of a Sunday session at the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual conference. The discussion ranged from legislative particulars to stories about law enforcement officers and university administrators demanding to know the names of library users who were searching for specific topics in the library catalogue. In short, the role of librarians as protectors of patron privacy is becoming more complicated than ever.

We’ll post a link to the session slides when available but in the meantime, it’s worth noting that  speaker Seeta Gangadharan (who has written about digital privacy for activists and organizers, among other topics) noted an increased demand for privacy instruction programming at public libraries. Hopefully this will be a trend north of the border as well.

To echo the words of an ALA Government Documents Roundtable member at Sunday’s session, we challenge all librarians and archivists to incorporate examples or discussion about privacy issues into information literacy sessions!

Not sure where to start? Try the Resources section of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada website, which includes a few humorous illustrations to help keep your audience awake. Need something focused on libraryland? Try this Privacy Tool Kit, prepared by the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee’s Privacy Subcommittee.