Tuesday, May 6, 2008

First off, you'll notice the avatar is gone. Her withering, unblinking gaze proved to be too much for me.

Then you'll notice the picture cube of Eldest and I playing at the beach. Now, this is perhaps a bad sign--why do all the additional page elements seem to freak me out?--but this cube eeringly reminds me of the crystal prison cube used to hold General Zod and his partners in crime, Non and Ursa (what in the world did we do before Wikipedia?) in Superman II. So it doesn't seem very auspicious to me to have Eldest and I imprisoned in some intergalactic space cube. It just seems like begging the Gods for trouble.

So, in order to meet the requirements of this Thing (it's Thing #7) I'll just comment long enough to say that I can think of cool uses for this in a library webpage setting, primarily as a way to display bookcovers. Snazzy.

But here's something else: while fufilling this Thing, I set up a free account at Thumbstacks.com which is a tool to display a slide presentation (think PowerPoint) on a blog or webpage. During the registration I was required to answer a few innocuous questions--age, zip code, etc. After registering, to get to the tools, I needed to click through a number of ads with offers for free samples and such. The ads were for asthma medicine and some kind of house cleaning product. Huh. Once into the section where the tools were, there was a sidebar with ads for businesses in my city. I tell you, it felt oddly like I was being stalked. And also insulted. Asthma meds and cleaning spray? That's what I rate? Not sexy shoes, rave drugs or subscriptions to The New Yorker?

A few weeks ago I went to a SLA (Special Library Association) discussion on ethics. (As a side note, I think people outside the library world would be amazed with how obsessed librarians are with ethics, particularly in regards to patron privacy. Don't yell the phrase "patron privacy" in a movie theater crowded with librarians as there'll be a stampede of librarians running to fall on the sword. Librarians are all secretly dying to go to prison for defending patron privacy. Defying a subpoena or what have you. They're a nutty bunch that way. I guess I'm guilty of it, too. People in my (corporate, business) library who are looking for a book will occasionally, when they find out it's checked out, casually ask who has it. What they're thinking is, "Oh, I'll just go up and ask whoever it is to give it to me when they're done". You'd think they asked me to sell state secrets to the communists or something. "Absolutely not!" I bark. Really, it's a bit much. But I can't help it. I'm a professional. I have the degree and everything.) So of course these ads targeted quite specifically to me, a housecleaning-challenged asthma sufferer in Minneapolis (that's actually not true, I don't have asthma), make me think of privacy, and that makes me think of ethics. Which is what made me think of the SLA discussion.

This ethics discussion became inevitably concerned with how Google now basically knows everything about us. Do our users understand that? And, further, do we have an obligation to make sure they do? Because conventional wisdom says our users are throwing away their privacy willy-nilly. The simple answer is no. Just as it's not our responsibility to inform the patron that checks out all the books on how to make a bomb (this is the classic library school example) that actually making a bomb and detonating it is illegal, it is not our job to make sure everyone understands that they leave a pretty wide swath of personal information behind them as they travel through virtual space.

I say that the simple answer, because in truth, I'm not even sure if this issue still exists. I think web 2.0 has perhaps altered our whole conception of privacy. I don't think people actually have any expectation of privacy once they start using some of the tools we have available now. Or if they do, they wager it's worth the trade. This is when (I hate to say it but) older librarians start huffing and puffing about "kids these days" but I'm not convinced it's just a matter of how stupid our younger users are. Because I don't think they're stupid at all.

Now, at the end of the day, librarians are professionally commited to protecting privacy. Which means we're not the ones pointing the authorites {cough Nazis cough cough} to user information or circulation histories. But perhaps we should spend a little more time mulling over our patrons changing relationship with the concept of privacy before we dismiss them as fools.


fresca said...

This is a great entry into a huge snarled topic. All I can add is the example a former collegue in publishing who left to get her MLA:
Before she departed, she told me of her motivation to be a librarian with as much or more conviction as anyone I've ever discussed anything with:

"The first amendment. Now THAT I can get behind."

It's a religious calling, I swear. Martyrdom for the cause is the icing on the cake!
(Hey, you know I'd die for the First Amendment too--I'm with you!)

caramama said...

This is a great post. I loved it, from the Superman reference (excellent!) to the issue of privacy on the computer.

I really think that most people on the computer these days simply don't care about their privacy. Keep in mind this is from a woman who writes all about her life on a blog, and yet does not use real names (and apparently talks about herself in third person). I actually waver back and forth. I'm very open about most things, and I willingly give up a lot of privacy for the sake of convience.

BUT the idea of big brother bothers me. It's the things I don't want to share or if the line I personally have drawn gets crossed or what people might do with my private information... those are the things that bother me.

I think the kids these days (hehe) are growing up in a world where reality TV and the internet makes things that used to be private into public consumption. But going to a site like Ask Moxie where people will share very personal things makes me realize that this isn't necessarily bad.