or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk


Reference Question of the Week – 5/3/15

   May 9th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Hitler in Indiana JonesA patron came up to the Reference Desk with a book tucked under his arm. This was odd because usually when someone has a book question, they hold the book up, or out, so I can see what it is - but this time, the patron was definitely guarding it. After I greeted him, he said,

This may sound silly, but I'm serious - if I check this out, I'm not going to get put on some kind of watch list or anything am I?

And as he said it, he revealed to me the book under his arm: Mein Kampf.

I kind of laughed and said, "no; at least, not as far as I know."

I then explained how our catalog is managed by the MVLC network, and what data it tracks. The patron said he'd heard the urban legends of books being tracked - like in the movies Se7en and Conspiracy Theory (two movies I thoroughly enjoyed, so this is clearly my kind of patron).

Then the patron explained why he wanted it: he was working on a project about the holocaust, researching whether a case could be made that it actually started when that book was published, rather than later when the deaths and atrocities of the concentration camps began. I don't think I've really heard anyone talk about the holocaust in terms of prejudice and discrimination, but it certainly makes sense and it was interesting to listen to him.

And I think me listening to him kind of humanized the library a bit too, and comforted him enough to know that he could safely check that book out without fear of No Such Agency taking an interest in him.

But again - that is true only as far as I know. But what I do know, specifically because of things like this, is that it is important to support the EFF, or at least read the information they put out - such as What Every Librarian Needs to Know About HTTPS. Because even if we're not monitoring our patrons, we could still be inadvertently allowing it to happen.



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Why Your Privacy Matters, Even If You’re Not “Doing Anything Wrong”

   October 15th, 2014 Brian Herzog

One of the anti-privacy arguments that I hate - hate - is the idea that people who are not doing anything wrong shouldn't mind pervasive surveillance.

The video below is Glenn Greenwald's TED talk on why that is complete crap, and on the larger issue of why privacy is vital to normal human life. It's a 20 minute video, with Greenwald's talk the first 15 minutes and then some question and answer afterward. It is 20 minutes well-spent.

Privacy is of course paramount in libraries, and this talk clearly parallels why librarians care so much about it.



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Libraries Holding Privacy Literacy Workshops for Patrons

   September 18th, 2014 Brian Herzog

rad ref logoYou may have seen this, but it bears cross-posting:

Librarians in Massachusetts are working to give their patrons a chance to opt-out of pervasive surveillance. Partnering with the ACLU of Massachusetts, area librarians have been teaching and taking workshops on how freedom of speech and the right to privacy are compromised by the surveillance of online and digital communications -- and what new privacy-protecting services they can offer patrons to shield them from unwanted spying of their library activity.

Read the full article on Boing Boing - please, read it. Good stuff.

It's important also to know this isn't a one time have-a-workshop-and-everything-is-fixed situation. Online privacy and security evolves constantly - a good example is Overdrive's recent announcement of changes to their app.

On the one hand they said they can do away with Adobe IDs, but on the other they want to start forcing patrons to register with Overdrive. It's increasingly common for patron information to be controlled by third-parties, but it's still not a good thing - and definitely something patrons should know about. And if it's not their librarians telling them, who will?

Thanks for pushing this, Alessandro!



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Reference Question of the Week – 5/15/11

   May 21st, 2011 Brian Herzog

Giant checkOne of our regulars is a patron with special needs who is in all the time - so much so that I think he considers library staff some of his closest friends.

As a result, he is totally comfortable telling us things that many of us would rather not hear - and in this case, he told me something I wasn't sure what to do with.

Just before closing one night, he comes in and walks right up to the desk, happy as can be. He pulls out a crumpled and dirty check, shows it to me, and asks me if I think the bank will cash it.

It's made out in his name, for $300, and when I ask him where he got it (occasionally he'll get checks for his birthday or things, and always tells us about how much money he has), he says:

I found it blank in the street, so I put my name on it and $300. Do you think the bank will give me the money? If not it's okay, I just want to see if they will*.

I fairly emphatically told him he should absolutely not try to cash that check, that it's illegal, it's stealing, and if he tries it, the bank won't just tell him no, they will call the police and he'll go to jail.

With this negative response, he quickly puts the check away (I also noticed it was already endorsed), and said he wasn't trying to steal, he just wanted to see if they'd cash it. And he didn't care about the police or going to jail, because he's been to jail before, and anyway his apartment was messy and he was out of food (which actually made me laugh, even though I was trying to be serious).

He went to the computers until we closed, and as he was leaving I again told him not to take it to the bank, and he said it was okay if they didn't give him the money, he just wanted to try and see if they would.

All of this happened between 8:50-9:00 PM, so there wasn't much I could do. But when I thought about it on my way home, what could I do? Call the police? The bank? Which bank? His case worker? His mom?

Instead, I emailed my Director, knowing that she has a good relationship with the Police Chief, and I had no idea what legal requirements town employees have when it comes to knowledge of intent to break a law. The next morning, she did call his case worker, who I think has some legal responsibility for him. We also have worked with this case worker in the past, on other issues relating to this patron, so it wasn't exactly a call out of the blue.

I opened that next morning, and within about fifteen minutes of opening the doors, this special needs patron came in to use the computers. I asked him if he had gone to the bank, and he said,

Yeah, they took my check away and tore it up and told me never to come back.

So, good on the bank for that reaction. I know this patron understands that what he was doing was wrong, but I think ending things by just ripping up the check was the right response, given the circumstances. I'm still not sure there is a clear role for the library in a precrime situation like this, but I am happy it resolved more or less correctly - and at least the poor guy who lost the check in the first place isn't out $300.

 


*Also keep in mind that this patron never speaks softly, so when he said this, very loudly in a quiet library, the other ten patrons in the area heard him.



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An Anecdotal Experiment With Privacy

   March 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

For the last few years at my library, our public computers all looked the same - Windows XP with a custom wallpaper displaying instructions on how to print. Our setup looked like this:

Wallpaper with printing instructions

A month or so ago, we upgraded to Windows 7, and thought we'd also change the wallpaper.

Our goal in this was to improve patron privacy. The timer software we use is Time Limit Manager (TLM), by Fortress Grand (the little "Time Remaining" clock at the top of the screen above). I like this software because it is very customer service oriented, and patrons don't need to log in with a barcode to start their session - they can just sit down, click "I Agree" to our policies, and go. The timer is basically a courtesy reminder, and for the most part we can get away with using the honor system (TLM does offer additional features for when push comes to shove).

But the main problem we were seeing wasn't that people wouldn't leave the computer - it was that patrons weren't ending their session when they left the computer. This set up the scenario where a second patron could come along and just continuing using the session of the previous patron.

This never caused a real problem in my library, but the potential was there, so we thought the upgrade would be a good time to address it.

With the Windows 7 rollout, we designed new wallpaper, hoping to prompt people end their session when they were finished with the computer. The new wallpaper looks like this:

Wallpaper with privacy reminder

The result? Absolutely no change whatsoever.

I didn't do a scientific survey, but just from the number of times staff has to end the session at an abandoned computer, the privacy reminder didn't seem to affect anyone at all.

I can't believe people aren't seeing this message, so it's tough not to conclude that, at least in my library, most patrons don't care much about their privacy.

So, I wanted to ask the question here - what do other libraries do to get patrons to end their session?



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/3/10

   October 9th, 2010 Brian Herzog

PrivacyI think this is about the fourth time I've personally helped a patron with a request like this - the phone rings...

Patron: Hi, I live in [town next to where my library is], and I'd like to request some books sent to your library instead of my own.
Me: Sure, to do that you... [explain how to use the online catalog]
Patron: Thank you very much, I was afraid it wasn't possible. I need to get some books on getting a divorce, and was afraid my husband or kids - or even the library staff - would see what I was getting.

I know this is a privacy scenario we all heard about in library school, but they really do happen in real life.

And it's lucky for this patron that we're part of the same consortium - if this patron's home library wasn't part of a system and she didn't trust the staff to be discreet and professional, I'm not sure what the alternatives would be. I don't know if an out-of-towner walked into any random library if they would be willing to ILL sensitive books just to avoid the patron's home library getting them.



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