how do we explain patron privacy in a world of target markets?

Seven weeks ago, I gave birth to a baby boy. A number of things happen when you have a kid, but for the purposes of this post, I’m interested in the kinds of things you start getting in the mail.

As we learned from the New York Times a few weeks ago, Target has decided to figure out which of its customers are pregnant, the better to lure them in as new customers. (I now routinely get those checkout coupons to print out for baby stuff at the grocery store and the drug store even when I’m not buying anything that seems to me to be baby-related — it’s eerie.) Shortly after I found out I was pregnant, I got a letter from my insurance company congratulating me and letting me know about all the wonderful services they offer. And just now I got a letter from the hospital where I gave birth letting me know they’d be contacting me soon about participating in a research study.

I know that there is a difference between retailers doing complex data mining to figure out that I’m pregnant and insurance companies and hospitals who have access to medical records knowing I’m pregnant. Intellectually, I know that the retailers would kill for the information the hospital has. I know that my information at the hospital is safe, because it is guarded by privacy laws, medical ethics, and institutional review boards. But I only know that on a fairly abstract level. In practice, it doesn’t seem very different from the offers I get at the grocery store or the mailers of coupons that are delivered to my door. All of them come from people who know or suspect that I was pregnant or that I had a baby, and most of them come from people somewhat removed from my actual life, people I don’t know and to whom I have never spoken.

All this (of course) got me thinking about libraries, because, well, what doesn’t get me thinking about libraries? I spend a lot of time doing what I think of as library evangelism when I’m out and about in the world, and I’m always looking for the hook that I think will grab people. Whenever I talk to medical people, when they ask what I do for a living or explain HIPPA paperwork to me for the 900th time, I tell them that the library has as much concern for our patrons’ privacy as the hospital does for that of its patients. I tell them that, for instance, I cannot even tell you what your spouse has checked out of the library. I tell them that we will not turn over library records to law enforcement without a court order, and that even then, we will have precious little to give them, since we don’t keep records of what people check out. I tell them that this is a major component of my ethics as a librarian, that next to opposing censorship, it is the thing I hold most sacred.

They are always, always shocked.

If you work in a library, that comes as no surprise to you. You probably deal every day, especially at a public library, with people who want to pick up holds for their wives or husbands, people who want a list of every book their teenager has checked out, people who wonder why you can’t just give them a list of all the mysteries in a particular series that they’ve already read. At the same time, of course, you also probably deal with people applying for library cards who don’t want to part with their basic demographic information or their email address, because they don’t want you emailing them stuff all the time.

Let me tell you: there is no organization in the world LESS likely to use your email address for anything other than automated overdue notices. We won’t even email you when it might be helpful — we won’t email you about library closings. We won’t look at your card record to see if you have kids and start emailing you about story times and summer reading. We will not ever sell your email information to anyone, and, at least in theory, our databases are much more secure than, say, those of some newsletter you sign up for online (I’m not actually sure about that last point, but it should be the case).

But I get why people don’t get that. We are so used to being targeted by retailers and political campaigns and magazines that we see hospitals and libraries as just more people looking to sell stuff to us, or at least to fill our mailboxes with requests. The letter sitting on my table telling me someone will call me about participating in a study does not seem all that different, really, from the Amazon Mom emails I get — it’s just less colorful and has a lot more print. How we explain the difference to people — how we let them know it is important — is something I haven’t yet figured out.


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  3. Eric Sizemore

    I do wish that Librarians’ DC lobby would get us a law akin to the attorney–client privilege that would protect communications between a patron and his or her librarian. “Librarian – Patron privilege” would provide a nice oasis of privacy in a very public world, and would be a hell of a message for our branding. I know we practice it, but it is not well known, and is not adequately protected. For instance, no law enforcement can seize an attorney’s client files – ever. That level of privacy should extend to libraries, we should lobby for it, and we should shout it from the rooftops. My $.02

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  5. Laura

    I use two local library systems (one where I live, one in the adjacent county where I work). Both have public hold shelves. The difference between the two implementations is interesting, and thought-provoking. (In both cases I talk about the systems, but in fact I pick holds up at one library in each system and do not know if the practices differ from library to library.)

    System #1 shelves those suckers out there with a receipt-size slip of paper sticking out with the visible part having large bold print “Last, First Middle” – yes I DO mean name, my full legal name. I’m NOT thrilled. I could wish they’d stick to just last name at LEAST. (Of course, I have a friend whose name is ambiguous until done in that format – there was another girl at college with the same first last and middle initial. So.) The unclaim date is the only other thing in the same large print and clearly visible on the shelf. The papers themselves are problematic when you get home, if they’re away from the book, because they also list the hold date, pickup location, and title.

    Privacy? What the heck is THAT?

    System #2 shelves by the first four characters of the last name, and the last four digits of the library card. PRIVACY! Huzzah! …except I have to be a little careful when getting my books, as it turns out there’s someone with the same first-four of their last name who, if my library card ends in 1234 (which it doesn’t) has one ending in 2134. However, I’ve gotten used to it – and when I mentioned it to a librarian, she offered to issue me a new card on the spot if I wanted it, to get rid of the confusion. I didn’t think it was necessary, so I declined, but it would have been very quickly fixed if I’d needed the fix.

    Sadly, system #1 has a much better collection. Good thing I’m not too worried about my privacy in this regard. System #1 also has an online system that can show me all the titles I’ve checked out over the last … however long. I haven’t checked how far back it goes, but quite a ways at least.

    Privacy? Anonymity? Yeah, right. Hopefully no one will ever get a court order to find out the list of crappy fiction, hopeful but ultimately unused recipe books, etc. I have checked out. At least, if they do, I can hope they’ll be thoroughly bored by the results. But the data’s clearly there, and I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that they have it so casually out there. I know I’m not thrilled to have my full name on every hold, but on the plus side that’s the library I *don’t* live near, so the casual browsers probably don’t know me, at least. Local patrons may not be quite so happy.

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