Rebooting Library Privacy in the Age of the Network: getting privacy right in 21st century libraries

David Weinberger's manifesto, "Rebooting Library Privacy in the Age of the Network," is a beautifully written explanation of the different mechanisms that have traded under the name of "privacy" and "disclosure" over the centuries in libraries, and how these are changing, thanks to the net and the new capabilities of networked books and reading. Weinberger makes a very good case for the importance of preserving intellectual privacy for library patrons, but finds room in this for knowledge sharing and collaboration. It's part of Harvard's upcoming Hyper-Public, "A Symposium On Designing Privacy and Public Space in the Connected World" (Jun 9-10).
Social norms about privacy are obviously changing. No one knows yet where they will end up, but clearly we are undergoing a generational transformation.

Norms are what holds if exceptional circumstances need to be cited to justify contrary actions. In a grocery, the norm is that once an item has been placed in a shopper's cart, other shoppers are not free to take it for themselves; if you do wish to take an item from another shopper's cart, you need to give a reason.

In software and social systems, norms are expressed as defaults: functionality and configurations that encourage certain uses and behaviors. Defaults and norms are fundamental to human society; without them, we would have to go back to first principles every time we entered a grocery, and would have to renegotiate fundamental rules of behavior every time we queued. They are the implicit that enables us to live together.

Privacy is a set of norms expressed by defaults. In a library, for example, the norm is that you can glance at what someone is reading, but if you stare over someone's shoulder, it will eventually become rude, and after some more staring, a librarian will be called over.

As these norms go through a generational change, it is crucial that libraries get the defaults right -- or at least righter. There is, however, no possibility of perfection: The privacy norms are changing, the norms are less homogeneous than ever before, and the changes to the defaults will themselves influence the norms.

Despite this uncertainty, libraries need to do their best to re-balance the values and risks of publicness, in order to address the new norms, and new opportunities

Rebooting Library Privacy in the Age of the Network (via JoHo)


  1. How about getting library rights in 21st century libraries?

    I pay money to be able to borrow books from a local college library, but (surely because of the providers’ terms of service) this does not include access to the library’s e-books. Among recent titles that I would like to read, about half of them are available (at this library) only as e-books, so I can’t read them.

    No Kindle for me!

  2. I’m on the Board of Trustees of a small public, library, and in general we take privacy very seriously.

    As an example, when the So-Called-Patriot Act was passed, and people started talking about the possibility of the government accessing library records, the first thing the Director did was turn off the feature in the circulation software that kept a record of what books a patron checked out. It had been on by default, but that was no longer acceptable. After all, you can’t give the government something you don’t have.

    (We turn it on at the request of the patron — for example, some older folks like the feature to keep track of the pulp they’ve already read, but it is no longer the default.)

    That’s a big problem with the Internet. Being (largely) advertising based, those records are really the only thing of value that many companies have, so the records accumulate…

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