As Libraries Go Digital, Sharing of Data Conflicts With Tradition of Privacy
Colleges share many things on Twitter, but one topic can be risky to broach: the reading habits of library patrons.
Harvard librarians learned that lesson when they set up Twitter feeds broadcasting titles of books being checked out from campus libraries. It seemed harmless enough—a typical tweet read, “Reconstructing American Law by Bruce A. Ackerman,” with a link to the book’s library catalog entry—but the social-media experiment turned out to be more provocative than library staffers imagined.
Harvard suspended the practice after privacy concerns were raised. Even though the Twitter stream randomized checkout times and did not disclose patrons’ identities, the worry was that someone might somehow use other details to identify the borrowers.
Enlarge ImageBrian Smith for The ChronicleReaders in Harvard U.’s Widener Library can return books to the “Awesome Box,” creating a data trail about what they consider great. “Awesomed” selections are then publicized via Twitter.
The episode points to an emerging tension as libraries embrace digital services. Historically, libraries have been staunch defenders of patrons’ privacy. Yet to embrace many aspects of the modern Internet, which has grown more social and personalized, libraries will need to “tap into and encourage increased flows of personal information from their patrons,” says the privacy-and-social-media scholar Michael Zimmer.
Millions of people now share what they’re reading through social-networking sites like Facebook, or smaller services including Goodreads and LibraryThing. They’re accustomed to the personalized recommendations that Amazon provides by tracking customers’ buying and browsing habits.