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


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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“Readers Advisory” on Hulu

   September 9th, 2010 Brian Herzog

I was watching a show called The Book Group on Hulu recently, and got a taste of how they recommend other shows to people.

The bottom of every show page always has a "You Might Also Like" section, recommending similar shows, which I have used that in the past. But because a couple of the episodes of The Book Group were rated TV-MA, and required me to log in, during one of the commercial breaks I got this ad:

Hulu ad

Which I read as,

Brian, not only are we violating your privacy, but we also think you have bad taste.

I'm sure the "27x more fans" thing is just to induce me to watch the other show (Peep Show, which I did watch a few episodes of and didn't really like). However, requiring me to log in and then using that to track me and "personalize" suggestions does feel like a violation. A different ad seemed more reasonable:

Hulu Ad2

This conveys the exact same message, but doesn't also imply a deficiency on my part. So, I guess a word of caution to anyone providing readers advisory or viewing suggestions on your website - careful how you word the message.

Also, this got me thinking about two types of suggestions: item-oriented suggestions and person-oriented suggestions. Item-oriented is like NoveList or LibraryThing for Libraries - basically, providing suggestions based on the characteristics of an item.

Person-oriented suggestion is more like a personal shopper, or saying, "based on our monitoring of your behavior, we think you'd like this" - providing suggestions based on the preferences (or past behavior) of a person (or people). Amazon's "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" or "Frequently Bought Together" sections are like this, as well as their "Recently Viewed Items." Which isn't a bad thing, unless the person being monitored don't know about it, or has no choice about it.

Hulu might be genericizing the data of what other people are doing, but it seems like they're still tracking what individual people do on their website, and I will always feel uncomfortable with that.



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Bad Advice Serves as Good Reminder

   May 25th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Erasing PrivacyA recent Miss Manners column gave advice to a library patron who wrote about a library employee repeatedly reading aloud the titles of the books patrons were checking out.

I, and others, commented (more here) to suggest better ways of handling the situation, but it is truly sad that this situation happened in the first place. From what the person writing in said, this staff person does this all the time - this behavior is certainly not appropriate for the circulation desk, and should have been corrected by the library administration long ago.

Even though the advice provided wasn't helpful, this is a good reminder for libraries to review their privacy policies - both to see if it is up to snuff and to remind staff why this is important. Check out the ALA's resources on privacy:

Somewhat related (in my head, anyway), is The Other Librarian's post of Ten Reasons Why 'Professional Librarian' is an Oxymoron. I don't completely agree with it, but they are valid points.

via LISNews, LibraryStuff



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