A Personal Timeline of Library Privacy & Transparency

Card Catalog

I’ve been hanging around libraries most of my life. I was the kid who spent so much time at the local public library that they ran out of books I was allowed to read. I read everything in the Children’s Room. Then I read everything in the Youth Room. Then they had my parents sign a waiver to allow me to read books from the “adult” section, and even the locked cases (Chaucer! Yay!). Even more bizarre, I was paying attention to how the library ran things, even if I didn’t realize I was doing so at the time. Following yesterday’s post, I wanted to share just a few of these memories of how, even just in my lifetime, libraries and librarians have encountered various issues relating to privacy and transparency, and always found a way to respond. Please note, these are being pulled from my memory, and I’m not planning to take the time to look up supporting materials or evidence. All dates are approximate.

1950s to Early 1960s

Library Charge Card / Checkout Card

My oldest memories of checking books out from the library were that you had to be able to write your name, legibly. That was the big divider between “baby” and “big kid.” The reason seemed to be because every book had in it a pocket and a card. When you wanted a book, you would take it to the Circulation Desk. The librarian (and in those days they really WERE librarians, not check out clerks or paraprofessionals!) would remove the card and stamp it with the due date, and also stamp the “Date Due” slip in the book. You would hand write your name on the card next to the date. The librarian would keep the card, and hand you the book.

When the books were returned to the library, the card would be returned to the pocket, complete with scribbled names. We never really thought anything about it, and most of the scribbles were illegible, so unless you already knew who it was, half the time you wouldn’t be able to decipher the name enough to figure out who had borrowed the book before you. This was especially true if some grown-up had written their name on the card in cursive! Completely unreadable. Sigh. But I was too young to care, yet.

Late 1960s

Library Charge Card / Checkout Card in Pocket

Sometime during the 1960s, I was delighted that the library switched to some new-fangled high-technology system that made things easier for everyone. We all got new library cards that had raised block letters with our name and mailing address. When we checked out the book (“charged” the book), the librarian would run our library card through a machine that would press the card against some sort of tape and print our name and address onto the tape. The tape came in two parts, like carbon paper, but with a sticky layer in between, rather like “sticky notes” now. The sticky part of the carbon layer would be stuck to the card and kept by the librarians until the book was returned.

As before, the cards were returned to the books after being returned, complete with the sticky tabs. I loved this. I was in late middle school, but was reading in the adult section of the library. I always read the book’s card before checking the book out. I quickly noticed that certain people tended to be interested by the same books I liked. I found that some folk checked out books I liked, and others checked out books I didn’t enjoy. I often made a decision whether or not to check out a book based on whose name was on the card.

I also kind of liked having their addresses. There were a couple a young men, a year or two ahead of me in school, who were, um, interesting. I liked knowing their addresses, what part of town they lived in, and what sort of books they were reading. Now, we’d probably think of that as being vaguely stalker-ish, but then I simply thought of it as research. 😉 It never entered my mind that someone else could get the same information about me. I doubt I would have cared, though. I think at that age I would probably have been flattered. I was a scrawny, awkward, shy little thing. I would definitely have been flattered.


Library Charge Card / Checkout Card

Then the strips disappeared. Every now and then I’d find a date stamped on a card, but the cards were now empty. And we got yet another new high-tech library check out system. Hunh? What happened? I asked one of the librarians, who gritted her teeth and explained it to me.

Somewhere a disturbed young man had evidently set off some sort of bomb as a political protest of some sort. The bomb killed people. The young man was taken into custody. The authorities were researching the event, and everything to do with the young man. One of the ways in which they were researching him was going to his local library and asking for their records of everything he had ever checked out. This included such materials as The Anarchist’s Cookbook, which explained how to make bombs.

So far, so good, that all made sense. But the librarians immediately realized this had a huge potential impact that many people had not yet considered. It was almost as if they sensed the Patriot Act coming. These are public libraries. This is public information. They can’t deny information that they have to the proper authorities when requested with proper authorization. BUT. What if there was a police state, or a governmental agency that was in the business of watching private citizens, and then making decisions about whether or not they were dangerous? What if someone decided that EVERYONE who checked out The Anarchist’s Cookbook was a threat to the state, and should be rounded up? I had checked it out myself. I was a pre-pubescent girl at that point, but there was a lot of fuss about this book, and I was curious. Always curious. I checked it out, skimmed it, decided it was boring, and gave it back. I might find it more interesting now, since I am older and more aware of the importance it had as a symbolic pivot point in the shift towards a more transparent and open government, a key factor in the social and cultural dynamics of the 60s. But at that age, to me, it was boring. I was more interested in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Should I be taken in by the authorities because I checked it out? Should I go on a national “watch list”? Of course not. But what if?

That was one example, but it was because of those “what if”s that the entire national community of librarians had gotten together and devised new methods of charging books to patrons, of keeping records, or eliminating records. The new strategy was this. The FBI could ask for any records you had. If you didn’t have the records, they couldn’t ask for them. Therefore, libraries would not keep permanent records of patron borrowing habits. Yes, it meant, the libraries no longer had statistics and metrics that would allow them to personalize offerings for particular patrons. I could no longer PROVE that I had checked out every single book in the kids room. But the library profession had decided as a whole that it was more important for people to feel safe about borrowing library books without having to worry about whether Big Brother was watching.

Of course, now we have similar scenarios with Amazon, Google, Facebook, and such. All this information we are using online, linked to our personal identities or our computers, and the records kept in detail. But it isn’t the LIBRARIES who are keeping the records and giving them to federal agents, I assure you of that.

1990s to 2000s

Library Charge Card Ripped Out

What the librarian had explained to me about the FBI and library records was a conversation that kept coming up. It came up in grad school. It came up when I became a professional librarian, and patrons wanted to know WHY could I not tell them the name of that book they checked out 6 months ago or last year, and want to find again now? I’d explain the whole “Big Brother” idea, and they’d go away frustrated and irritated, but supportive at the same time. They thought this was perhaps making a mountain out of a molehill, but they weren’t so sure that they wanted me to change it.

Then came 9/11. Devastating, earth shattering, heart breaking 9/11. And on the heels of 9/11 came the Patriot Act. And the libraries were involved again in protecting the privacy, rights, and freedom to read and learn of all patrons. Librarians were involved deeply, and bitterly, and at risk of their own lives, safety, careers, and freedom.

Mother Jones: America’s Most Dangerous Librarians:

And it is still going on.

Patriot Act Extended for Four Years With No Change to ‘Library Records Provision’. By Michael Kelley May 27, 2011. http://www.libraryjournal.com/lj/home/890795-264/patriot_act_extended_for_four.html.csp

Did you have any idea that librarians all around the United States of America have as part of their daily practice of their profession this dangerous balancing act? Any professionally aware librarian tracks this issue, the laws, the policies, the requirements. We read articles about anonymous librarians who have been “gagged.” We read articles about creative librarians who’ve come up with ways around the requirement of silence.

One of my favorites was a librarian who announces at every monthly board meeting, “There have been no legal requests for patron records.” Then, if she is ever asked, she will go silent, and the board will know. It happened. Many libraries emulated this once she thought of it, and there are libraries all around the country where we make forced silence obvious and evident by surrounding it with “sound” beforehand.


Hatcher Graduate Library

So, now we have this most interesting challenge to librarians’ freedom of speech happening in Canada. It reminds me a bit of the Third Reich and health care, where the doctors were required by law to report any “defective” children, so that they could be taken away from their families. The public version was that this would relieve the family of needing to devote time, energy, and resources to carrying for this child who is a burden on society. In reality, it didn’t matter if you wanted to keep your child or not, and chances are the child would die in the care of the state.

Here, the librarians (and support staff, volunteers, consultants, and anyone who works in any capacity in any Canadian federal library) are required to not talk, anywhere, to anyone, about anything, without the direct approval of their boss. The rules are pretty vague, in that you can’t talk in person, at a conference, as a teacher, in a blog, on Facebook or Twitter. The rules make it sound as if you better have a script written in advance, and you better not deviate. God help the student with a question in class, because you aren’t allowed to answer. The burden of informing the boss is borne by the employee. The penalties are borne by the employee. And it doesn’t stop when you leave your position. It’s horrifying. It’s ridiculous. It basically makes the entire role of being a librarian a joke. How can you be a librarian if you can’t answer reference questions without permission from your boss? Now I’m taking this to a silly extreme, because the guidelines lend themselves to such silliness.

But for me, looking back at the history I’ve observed in my own personal experience, I am willing to bet that somehow, the Canadian librarians will find whatever loophole exists in order to best serve their patrons, their profession, and their country, from the love of their hearts.


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