Thinking about libraries, data retention, privacy, and you.

Police Surveillance (LAPD)
Police Surveillance (LAPD) flickr photo by Popwerks shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

A while back one of my library’s regular users asked me about what data the library’s proxy server collected about their usage and how much information was retained by the university. They asked what should have been a fairly straight forward question and I was stymied. I looked to see if our campus had documented policies I could share with them, and couldn’t find much. I asked around – trying to figure out who would have such a policy, but not trying to create a mess – and couldn’t find any information. I kicked the question out to the collective wisdom of library workers and got no concrete information.

In the end this regular fell into a rhythm of asking me for PDFs of anything they needed to hand over information in order to access, or if they needed something and weren’t on the campus network. As a library worker who understood their concerns about privacy, I obliged. The concept of privacy is critical to the freedom of inquiry and intellectual curiosity, and central in the Library Bill of Rights. Here is a relevant section from ALA’s privacy interpretation of that document:

The right to privacy includes the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others, in person or online. Confidentiality exists when a library is in possession of personally identifiable information about its users and keeps that information private on their behalf.5 Article III of the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association states that confidentiality extends to “information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted,” including, but not limited to, reference questions and interviews, circulation records, digital transactions and queries, as well as records regarding the use of library resources, services, programs, or facilities. 

The privacy implications of the user data we retain from library proxies fits within the broader context which Kalliopi Mathios ascribed, “The Commodification of the Library Patron” – where we treat library users as customers, as if libraries were selling a product like coffee shops, online retailers, or media companies. It’s a logical outcome from the decades long trend of neoliberalism’s reshaping libraries. The question about data retention from proxies comes back into view with the publishers and NISO proposed RA21, oh I mean Seamless Access. It saw many raise concerns about the proposal’s privacy implications, such as ARL and Dorothea Salo. The piece “User Tracking on Academic Publisher Platforms” by Cody Hanson outlines many of the issues for library patron privacy as we rely on third parties who are driven by profit motives.

So that brings us to this week when Dorothea Salo published a dataset she obtained through a FOI request of her patron data from University of Wisconsin.

Her request led to the confirmation that the University of Wisconsin not only collects user data (which isn’t really a surprise), but also retains much of it (which is a really big deal). Here is where she describes more about her request for this information. I look forward to reading her further analysis on the matter. I doubt Wisconsin is the only library system that retains this much user data.

And let’s make it clear – this data set is bad. Remember 20 years back when libraries were the protectors of confidentiality and privacy in the face of the USA PATRIOT Act? Well that was then. I don’t think this kind of data retention happens out of any nefarious motives. There are probably some good intentions behind it, in trying to leverage this data to better serve users (just like Amazon and Google!), which could lead to student success! But of course, that feeds into learning analytics which are often in opposition to library ethics. The circulation data should not exist. I know it’s valuable for collection assessment but to the level of granularity tied to an individual? I guess all the talk around the PATRIOT Act was just bluster. The proxy data is something libraries need to look at their contracts with vendors for but again… if they’re going to retain that data we need to make it explicitly clear to library users.

So yeah… none of this is a surprise but it’s troubling as heck.

The Loneliness of a Special Dumpster Librarian.

I just want someone to love me !
I just want someone to love me ! flickr photo by CJS*64 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own existence as a special library worker in an academic setting lately. I’m on the peer-review committee for librarians at work, so I’ve been reading about all the impactful work my impressive colleagues have been doing. It’s humbling. It also brings into focus the many ways people can be librarians and how the size of a department or organization greatly impacts ones job duties. It also often reflects the drastic changes to library staffing we’ve seen in the last decade. When I was hired as a librarian, my organization had 4 full time librarians, 3 full time staff, and 10 student employees. Now it’s 1 librarian, 1 staff, and a handful of students (COVID not permitting). I went from only doing reference and instruction to doing everything – cataloging, processing, collection development, reference, research support, data management, community building, and knowledge management.

That’s a lot.

And to some people this sounds absolutely bonkers and a recipe for failure because they’re kind of Dumpster Jobs that include everything but kitchen sink. And the trend for large libraries, in large systems to make untenable jobs with huge mandates is definitely a thing we need to collectively push back against. But on the other hand, for some organizations and positions it’s just a fact of life. Christina Pikas just wrote about it in her post “Dumpster Jobs, Coordinator Positions, and Special Library Normal Operations” and rarely have I felt so validated as a library worker. I’ve spent my entire career in special libraries, and around special library workers who are responsible for everything information related in their organization. Juggling so many disparate tasks to keep library services functioning while also advocating for your position’s existence, and satisfying organizational needs (that often change with the winds) is exhausting but also unavoidable. One reason I still value being a member of the Special Libraries Association is the community of other library workers in similar situations – the ones who understand what I’m trying to balance! When I talk to other library workers from more traditional environments, it’s more surprising than not when they understand my role and that until we get the resources to hire more staff I have to be a little bit of everything to everybody. (Oh and I hope I will carve out the time to develop some new models and programs to get the funding to get that staff!) So of course I expect that response. I am used to tempering my expectations and kind of ignoring some of the critiques about jobs like mine because they’re not really saying anything new and aren’t going to help libraries like mine.

Which is all to say, being a library worker in a small library or department presents challenges that are hard for library workers in more traditional, larger organizations to recognize. And I’m used to it. And yet still sometimes the reminders sting.

Recognizing that everything is terrible.

Summit School student, 1935
Summit School student, 1935 flickr photo by Seattle Municipal Archives shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

This has been a long, traumatic year for everybody.

The pandemic, the reckoning for centuries of racial violence and oppression, the global economic collapse, neo-fascism, the unfolding climate collapse, and the building sense of isolation and despair. (Or maybe it’s just me.)

This week has been overwhelming with these compounding stressors here in the United States. Many families are still without childcare. Parents (mostly mothers) are trying to help their kids go to school remotely while also trying to work and hold the household together. That is if they are fortunate enough to still have a job. So many have lost their jobs or had hours reduced, but still have to pay rent or a mortgage. Business are going under. People are hungry. That’s aside from the the fact that COVID-19 is continuing to spread throughout communities, with thousands getting sick and dying every day. The level of tragedy is staggering.

So as the pressures we face continue to pile on us, it’s important to recognize how powerless we are as individuals. I feel fatigued from trying to carry on during a pandemic, where everything is uncertain. The grace and emotional labor I could carry in March is waning due to fatigue, but also the normalization of working through deeply traumatic times. I hate it. I hate knowing that my fear about my personal situation echo so many others.

This week I felt my own anxieties and worries come to a head — with news of the campus budget coming out, impending furloughs, discussions of our upcoming academic review cycle for librarians (how do you review somebody’s work during a prolonged global catastrophe?), not being able to see family for the holidays (a blessing and a curse) — and it hurts. But what hurts more is seeing the fears of anxieties of others — my friends, family, colleagues, union siblings, neighbors, basically all other humans — and feeling some of their pain. It’s overwhelming. We’re all collectively overwhelmed.

The thing that I sit with, other than everything really is terrible and we’re all freaking out to various degrees, is that there isn’t much we can do about it. I can listen and I can empathize, but I can’t fix anything. The people who can fix things won’t, and so we keep looking around and pointing the finger and hoping for something to change and it won’t. I’m not writing this to despair or say there’s no hope. I’m writing this to recognize and affirm that this is a dark and chaotic time, and that we all have understandable free floating trauma and pain that will be hard to remedy. I refuse to normalize this pain. To pretend business as usual will work. It hurts to say that because I love actionable solutions, but it’s good to remember that we’re all in this together and this is bad.

So I’m going to continue to feel the weight of this year on my shoulders and the hell continues to unfold, be thankful for my good fortunes, and try to help others. I just wish everybody else could remember to carry empathy and grace with them throughout their actions.

Solidarity forever. Solidarity means action.

Debs outside Attorney General’s office: 1921
Debs outside Attorney General’s office: 1921 flickr photo by Washington Area Spark shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

On this day in 1885, Eugene V. Debs was born. If you aren’t familiar with his legacy, Debs was an American socialist, trade unionist, activist, and perennial presidential candidate. You might have heard of him from Debs v. United States, a case in which the Supreme Court of the time ruled that Debs was not protected by the First Amendment when he gave (carefully crafted) speeches against the draft and military recruitment for World War I that went against the Espionage Act. Debs was incarcerated for 10 years as a result.

Debs’ biggest legacy is as an organizer. He was instrumental in so many important strikes and campaigns that radically changed US working conditions. There’s power in a union.

On election night 2016, I was in my local taqueria having a burrito with my partner filled with despair at the news that Trump was going to win the election through the undemocratic Electoral College. That moment helped us pick a name for our kid who was born days later, but it really made me recognize I was powerless to act. Instead of giving up, I started looking for opportunities to get involved. When I went back to work after parental leave some of my fellow library workers followed up with me about being more involved with our union. We were gearing up for contract negotiations but also we were showing up to campus actions against the Trump administration’s immigration bans and rallies for International Women’s Day. I started showing up. I got a t-shirt and I kept showing up because it was something.

The more I showed up and kept working, the more I realized the power of the union isn’t just in getting better contracts for my union siblings. It isn’t just improving working conditions for other workers on campus or in the field. It’s the network effect of all workers organizing together to make the world more just. And unions are a vehicle for political engagement that individuals can’t match due to collective action. I realized that the political work through my union not only would make the bread and butter issues, like pay and benefits, easier to win, but also help the community we’re a part of. Unions, and other political activist groups, are an important conduit for political education and power analysis, which only individuals with obscene amounts of money can achieve. I started living the lyrics of “Solidarity Forever”.

So election night 2020 was very different. Because I had been reading things like this essay by Jane McAlevey “Getting Out of Tight Corners,” I knew that regardless of what the polls said in October there was going to be a lot of work to do through November. Because I actually read the emails from CFT, I knew we had to make sure every vote was counted and the results were not going to be clear for a while. I channeled my nerves and anxiety into figuring out what that work would be and telling all my union siblings, friends, and anybody else how to join in. Not only do I feel like I’m doing something, but I also don’t feel alone. The support and community from fellow workers and my union siblings is a bulwark of despair.

I also know which side I’m on. That was one of the wake up calls I had in 2016, and I think many are having it in 2020 – this is the moment for us to demonstrate which side we’re on through actions. I remember reading about average Germans in the 1930s and through the Nazi era – how powerless they acted, but also complicit. I also think of all the nice white folks who didn’t do anything during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Phil Ochs’ “Love Me I’m a Liberal” is timeless.

That’s why yesterday I rode my bike to an action with my union siblings and I feel a lot better this morning.

See you in the streets.

Whiteness, learning, listening (or not)

Urban renewal planning meeting, 1962
Urban renewal planning meeting, 1962 flickr photo by Seattle Municipal Archives shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

2020, what’s there to say? Last time I wrote here, I discussed moving from talking about being antiracist to actually doing antiracist work. A month later, it’s clear that we need to keep talking about it because so many white folks still aren’t doing the work.

Maybe it’s because for so many white people, they hear “doing the work” and they immediately think, “Let’s make a committee!” or “We need to account for every single edge case.” The first step though is taking time to check yourself and listen. Listen to Black voices, listen to Indigenous voices, listen to the voices of other people of color, listen to the voices of people with disabilities, listen to queer voices, listen to trans voices, listen to women, listen to older voices, listen to children – basically listen to the voices of those who are most often marginalized and ignored. Listening means *actually* listening. Not listening to respond, or to give the appearance of caring, but to hear and to learn and understand.

It’s also important to understand intersectionality when listening, because nobody is monolithic and most of us are affected by different frames. This means that there might be some conflicting views or interests, but that doesn’t mean it’s a fight. It just reflects how complicated these systems we’ve built to cater to a white, patriarchal society are and how much work it will take for us all to truly achieve liberation equity for all.

So it’s good to check in a month on from all the proclamations from companies, organizations, and individuals about Black Lives Matter and committing to antiracist work. It’s clear that many are failing. Last week I was going to write a long post about SLA really demonstrating that they (as an organization) don’t get it and are still really entrenched in whiteness (and capitalism). They had a chance to demonstrate that they value diversity and want to be inclusive, and they failed that test by issuing brittle statements, not listening to valid critiques from racialized members. I think in they might be listening now, but it was extremely disheartening to see that the leadership really didn’t the concerns and that racial justice and equity seemed more abstract.

There was also a chance for many white, abled urbanists this week to show that they could listen to the voices of people of color, or those with disabilities. In this case it was about banning cars – which is a great catchphrase for a super complicated issue with no simple solution. And there were some interesting discussions but also so many bad faith takes, where it’s clear that many don’t understand or don’t recognize the importance of intersectionality. This morning Stephanie Allen shared this link to Showing Up For Racial Justice’s Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture, which is something is a good resource for identifying many of the extremely normal but still problematic behaviors we exhibit that support white supremacy. Understanding and recognizing how problematic these traits are doesn’t mean you’re a bad person for doing that before, but you also need to stop. That is hard! It’s going to take work and be messy! But it also needs to start, and the fragility of smart boi white urbanists this week was a reminder that it’s not happening yet.

And that’s why I chose a picture of some white planners in Seattle planning their version of urban renewal in the 60s. Urban renewal was the racist policy system where municipalities destroyed Black communities in the name of progress. This is why many of our cities and their built environment were made in the image of what white suburbanites (thanks to white flight). And while that movement was pushed in a paternalistic, top-down way, the work to make cities and suburbs equitable and safe for all needs to actually include everybody and recognize there are conflicting (though not competing) issues that need to be supported.

And white allies doing this work, you need to keep holding yourself and others accountable. If we’re going to have a just society, then we need to commit to justice.