fighting surveillance @ your library

My friend and Radical Reference colleague Melissa just published a great article about how your local library can help you resist the surveillance state. You should go read it!

And then, since several people who have read it have asked me about it, here’s the privacy brochure I made for my library. Please feel free to steal, adapt, or otherwise use it to help explain library policy to your patrons. (And here it is as a Publisher file, if you’d like to be able to edit it.)

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.

my kitchen, your kitchen

Meredith asks if a blogger can go too far in disclosing things about her life on her blog.

It’s not a question I have an answer for, particularly not the case of the blog in question, which I’ve never read before and for which I therefore have no sense of context. It’s a question that interests me, though, because I used to be in a writing program where we often discussed very similar things.

As many of you know, before I ever dreamed of being a librarian, I killed some time by getting an MFA from a nonfiction writing program. It was a program known somewhat for being “the place where people go to figure out their pasts,” and I was there shortly after the mad memoir rush of the 1990s, when Kathryn Harrison told us about the affair she had with her father; Lucy Grealy wrote about the dozens of reconstructive surgeries she’d had on her face; Elizabeth Wurtzel told us about sex and drugs and rock and roll and mental illness; Dani Shapiro wrote about being the mistress of her best friend’s father; and on and on.

Some of the people in my program were horrified by such confessionals; some were horrified by some but not others; and some were trying to write their own. We were all, however, doing more or less what many bloggers do — we were trying to use our own experiences and ideas to illuminate something. Some people leaned more heavily on experiences and some more heavily on ideas. Some people’s experiences seemed more innocuous; others seemed at times like too much information. I sat in workshops where people were accused, because of something they’d written, of alcoholism, codenpendency, child neglect, and a host of other ills. (It’s a barrel of fun getting an MFA, let me tell you.)

“Do you value your writing more than your family’s privacy?” is a difficult question for many of us to answer. If you say yes, you sound selfish; if you say no, you risk sounding like you’re not really committed. People whose stories do not involve much in the way of marital discord, drug abuse, suicide, rape, and so on have in some ways an easier time of it, because the personal stories that they tell are less likely to invoke censure. But not everyone’s life is free from such ills. If you dig deep enough, almost no one’s life is. Coming to understand that was one of the things that made me start to feel okay about my own life.

When I was in college, I worked for campus patrol, and one of our recruiting posters said simply, “Some women take back the night every night.” Take Back the Night [Wikipedia entry; eponymous page of unknown origin] is the name given to a slew of activities — marches, rallies, speakouts, etc. — protesting violence against women. In my hometown, Take Back the Night was usually a march through downtown to a local park, where an open mike was set up and anyone who wanted to could tell her story. It’s a safe, quiet, and respectful space. Campus Patrol, a lot of the time, was nothing like that — it strove for the respect part but was generally more boisterous, often described as “the closest thing Vassar has to a fraternity” (supposing that it was a fraternity founded by Dungeons and Dragons geeks). I was fond of that poster, though, and I have tried to implement it in my life as much as I can. Sometimes taking back the night is a messy business — but I try my best to respect other people’s mess, and hope they’ll do the same for mine.

The title of this post, which I realize may be a bit obscure, comes from a poem by Anne Sexton called “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further.” It’s from her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, and is addressed to her poetry teacher, John Holmes, who had advised her not to publish the material in the book, much of which dealt with her time in and out of mental hospitals, saying, “You’ll certainly outgrow it, and become another person, then this record will haunt you and hurt you. It will even haunt and hurt your children, years from now.”

Diane Wood Middlebrook, from whose biography of Sexton the above information is taken, goes on to say that Sexton sent the poem in a letter replying to Holmes, “a defense not only of her manuscript, but of the whole genre of poetry that would soon be labeled ‘confessional.'”

Whether or not Sexton’s life and work did affect her children aversely (one of them grew up to write her own book about it) is, like most of this post, a subject for debate. My views may strike some readers as abundantly clear, but they are in fact frequently in flux.

social anxiety and social software

For various reasons, I’ve been trying out a few new social networks lately, and I plan, gradually, to add a few more.

This past weekend, I went down to Denver to a wedding. The bride is an old, old friend–we’ve known each other since first grade, though we haven’t been in touch regularly in several years. The only people I knew at the wedding were the bride and her parents. One woman there remembered the column I wrote for an independent weekly newspaper in Iowa City, and a couple of people looked vaguely familiar, like I might have met them around campus in the late ’90s.

I suffer from a certain amount of free-floating anxiety, some of which attaches itself to social situations when it has the chance. One of the reasons I live in such a small and out of the way place is that in a place as small as this one with as many eccentric people as this place has, my own eccentricity and awkwardness don’t stand out very much. Going to a wedding where you have to dress nicely and converse with people about potentially mine-field-laden topics such as What You Do for a Living and the State of Your Social Life is not, therefore, generally my idea of a good time. I put myself in these situations, though, because I don’t want to lose the ability to function in them at all, just as I don’t want to lose completely my knack for driving in the city.

A lot of people have social anxiety of some sort, but lately I’ve been thinking about the ways that sort of anxiety might translate to social software, where you have both friends and “friends,” where you can poke someone but no one will tell you what doing so means, and where, in some cases, people are not who they seem.

When Meredith and Sarah wrote awhile back about their disliking of the rush of “friends” one gets when one joins a new social network, and how that makes it hard to use the network with your actual friends, I saw their point, but then I immediately began to worry. Had I become “friends” with too many people? Were these people adding me back out of obligation or out of interest? When I tried a new site out, was I a librarian trying to learn more about the tools her patron uses, or was I Laura, trying to make more friends, not just more “friends?”

Very few of my actual, non-librarian friends have much of a presence online. There are a smattering of Flickr accounts, and recently there’s been a small rash of Facebook accounts, and there are a couple of blogs. I know of a few LiveJournals and MySpace accounts, but as I’m not on either of those networks (yet), I don’t really keep up with them. Everyone I follow in Twitter is a librarian. Twitter is fabulous that way, as is the LSW Meebo Room–or rather, it’s fabulous if you’re a library person with an interest in the internet. I’m sure to many people–even many librarians–the conversations we have there would sound very much like the biblioblogger sounds to the local branch librarian. If you were hoping to use Twitter to keep up with your college friends, it would be maddening.

Though I didn’t know anyone else at the wedding I went to, I had probably known the bride longer than anyone there other than her family. But she and I haven’t been in touch in a few years, and though I can remember playing with her in the outdoor fireplace at her house in grade school and smuggling rated R movies into the house to watch when we were in high school (and were not, by her parents’ dictate, supposed to be watching such things), I don’t know much about her day to day life in the past few years. On the way down to Denver, I stopped overnight in Laramie and got to meet Kaijsa, and the day after the wedding, Steve Lawson drove up from Colorado Springs and we had lunch. I had never met either of them, but I knew all sorts of things about both of them quite well. I’d seen Kaijsa’s shoes and Steve’s son’s model rockets. In some odd way, I know some of my “imaginary” friends better than some of my oldest “real” friends.

There’s nothing new about the different ways in which we know our new friends verusus our old friends, but there is, perhaps, an added dimension–the ways we know our friends and our “friends,” and how sometimes people morph from one to the other.

My various online presences are currently listed in the sidebar of this blog under “meta laura.” Please feel free to add me as a “friend” or a friend, or both.

love and blogging: a quotation without much comment

These days, I read The New Yorker two or three or four weeks after it comes out, because I get it second hand from my friend Jim.  Sometimes I wonder if that’s why I’ve felt so behind on everything lately, but most days I expect that it’s just a combination of laziness and of enjoying not being totally in the loop. 

Anyway, the Talk of the Town for June 5 contained a little squib about Jason Kottke and Meg Hourihan, who were profiled in the magazine in a November 2000 article (which I have not read) called “You’ve Got Blog.”  The original article detailed their meeting, online and then in person, and budding romance.  The new piece recaps that and ends with their wedding (“Most Flickr’d Ceremony Ever”), and the last line of the piece seemed worth sharing:

Jason and Meg agreed that living at least some of their lives online had been a positive experience, even though there were times when it was uncomfortable.  “If you are looking to make friends and have experiences, you have to be open,” Jason said, an observation that may apply as much to love as it does to blogging.

privacy: another chapter

Update: the first link should actually go to the post in question now–thanks to Mark for noticing the error.

Awhile back I wrote a preface.

I just got back from teaching my final digital photography class of the season at the library. Our summer hours start on Tuesday, and we won’t be open again in the evenings again until after Labor Day. I’m scheduled to do the class up at the main branch in Cody over the summer at least once; we’ll see if they want me back.

I’ve done the class three times, and it’s been a little different each time. The first time, many of the attendees were over 70 and mostly not very comfortable with technology, and we spent a lot of time just learning to take pictures and getting over the fear that film was being wasted (“remember, there is no film!” is the mantra). The next class was pretty down with taking pictures (though it also had some people looking to try out a few cameras before they bought one), so we spent more time playing with Picasa and e-mailing and uploading pictures to various sites. Tonight I just had one student. We spent part of the time getting the student’s camera (a Kodak Easy Share) set up with batteries and a memory card and taking some pictures with it. (We also attempted to put together the fancy base that came with the camera, which apparently lets you charge batteries, transfer pictures to your computer, and look at your pictures on your TV, but it seemed to be missing a piece, so we gave up on that.) Then we took the card out again, stuck it in the multi-card reader I have hooked up to one of the computers, and watched the computer magically import them into Picasa. We played with them there a bit and then took a quick look at Flickr and KodakGallery and loaded a few pictures on to each.

My insanely long handout gives a bunch of different options for online photo-sharing and storage. During class I usually show people Flickr and KodakGallery, as those are the two I’ve used and have accounts with. I say that I use Flickr because I have a lot of friends (plus “imaginary friends,” as Steve Lawson calls them in the first comment on this excellent though unrelated post) who use it, and because, frankly, I mostly take pictures of my cat and stuff around my house and of places I go hiking, and I don’t really don’t much care who sees them. I tell people that if they do care who sees their pictures, a service more like KodakGallery or Shutterfly might be for them. (It is, I know, possible to make photos private or friends or family only in Flickr, but it requires that the people you want to show your pictures to have Flickr accounts, be on your friends and/or family list, etc. etc. That’s often a little more complicated than I want to get into in an introductory class.)

Some students have been very interested in learning about the level of privacy afforded by different sites. Like everyone else, they’ve been bombarded with MySpace hysteria. They’ve heard that social sites on the internet just a haven for pedophiles, and they don’t want their kids serving as fodder. And I can’t blame them.

I don’t have kids, but I’m aware that, quite frequently, you think about a lot of things differently when you do. I suspect that if and when I do have children, I’d follow the same policy with them that I use for other pictures I put on Flickr that have other people in them–unless they’re people I know don’t mind having their picture out on the web, I make them “friends only” pictures. I have lots of people marked “friend” that I don’t know personally but know from their blogs. But for some people, I suspect, knowing someone from online doesn’t seem like enough.

A couple wees ago, This American Life did a show called “How We Talked Back Then” (Elizabeth Meister–you offer so many wonderful things on the site! how about some permalinks?!), which rebroadcast, among other things, some stories about how people were using Internet in 1997. As Ira Glass noted, back then it was kind of odd and scary to think about meeting someone you only knew from online. To many of us now, that’s not a big deal at all. But when I say “us,” I don’t really mean it generically. In this context, “us” means people reading this blog–people who for the most part (I think) already have a fair amount of online life. That’s still not true for everyone. I suspect that for a lot of people, the Internet is kind of the way it was for me back in the mid-1990s–cool but kind of overwhelming.

I realize as I’m writing this that I’m pretty much repeating what I’ve said before: that I don’t have any problem putting my life out there on the web, but I’m reluctant to force that on other people, and that what “we” think of as a normal level of interaction with technology may be pretty extreme for some people–and in that respect, maybe this post has more to do with Luke’s than I originally thought. I’d like to think of myself as Library 2.0 friendly (or, at any rate, generally not L2 hostile), but I’d hate to have to be L2 compliant–it sounds far too much like a test.
For a more lengthy, and thoughtful, consideration of L2 and privacy, go read Rory’s post on the subject, if you haven’t already. I may have more to say on it all in another five months or so.