Libraries, Data, and Privacy
By: Alison Armstrong

By Alison Armstrong, MALS, and Amanda Rinehart, MLIS and MS, Botany/Plant Biology

Librarians have a long history of respecting, protecting, and defending patron[i] confidentiality and privacy; the freedom to read has been part of the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights[ii] since it was written in 1939. Part of this freedom is protecting patron privacy so that people aren’t discouraged, either actively or through intimidation, from seeking information. Though it is not well-known, librarians and their professional organizations go to great lengths to protect privacy. Long before the NSA and Snowden hit the headlines, librarians went to jail to protect their users’ privacy.  In 2005, a group of 27 libraries were presented with a secret court order under the U.S. Patriot Act section 215 demanding library records including hard drives and users’ search histories. The librarians were forbidden from talking to anyone about this upon the threat of going to jail. Four of these librarians enlisted the help of the ACLU, went to court, and challenged the FBI.  The librarians claimed victory when, in 2006, the government gave up the legal battle.

Realizing the ramifications of the Patriot Act, libraries changed their procedures and workflows related to gathering and storing patron data. Once upon a time, patron checkout and circulation records were kept indefinitely, or were cleared from library systems infrequently.  Caches and search histories were also only sporadically cleared from public computers. Now, unless the data is needed to complete business transactions (e.g., circulation, billing) the data is purged regularly and frequently. Although this still leaves a time period where the information is in existence (and some libraries do post signs[iii] to let patrons know that “big brother is watching”), it drastically reduces the possibility of government or hacker acquisition. Quietly, unobtrusively yet powerfully, librarians continue to keep a watchful eye on patron privacy.

Now, advances in data analytics have lead librarians to consider the changing landscape and to think anew about potential uses of data. Recently, Ohio State University Libraries (OSUL) hosted Shane Nackerud and Jan Fransen from the University of Minnesota for a day-long forum entitled, “Library Use and Student Outcomes: Using Library Data to Improve the Student Experience.” Nackerud and Fransen collected and analyzed patron data and found that students who use the library have statistically higher GPAs and higher retention rates than their non-library-user counterparts[iv],[v]. They are not the first to see this trend: researchers in the UK have also found that library-users attain higher levels of degrees[vi]. This is tremendously exciting for the academic community: in these times of affordability, clearly demonstrating contributions to student success is paramount.

In addition to demonstrating how the library advances student success, data analytics has the potential to lead to new and innovative services.  Analytics could lead to proactively contacting students to assist them with finding targeted information, thus supporting their research, and improving the overall learning experience.  Predictive analytics are already used by many institutions to promote a better educational experience. Is this the new cultural norm and should librarians, the standard bearers of privacy, sign on? Librarians aren’t the only researchers facing these questions.  Indeed, anyone using large amounts of data from human subjects must consider the ethical, as well as the legal, ramifications of their work.

Like many other researchers of readily available data, librarians are faced with the “privacy paradox.” “For nearly a decade now, researchers have tracked this concept known as the ‘privacy paradox.’  At its heart is the fact that Web users routinely say that privacy is a big and serious concern, but then don’t actually behave accordingly.”[vii] Social media users, general consumers, and everybody else in the digital world leave an enormous footprint, risking security breaches and great exposure of personal data. Online users give personal information away to companies who are both routinely hacked and are making huge profits. So if people are OK with giving their other data away, will they be OK if librarians use their data too? As convenience seems to win out over care, how can the right balance between patron privacy and data analytics be struck? This topic is being discussed and debated in a number of professional library venues. No matter what librarians decide, and no matter how much great good can come from analyzing this data, librarians will do what they have always done: proceed carefully, thoughtfully, and with patrons’ rights as guiding principles.


[i]n.b. Regardless of the type of library (special, academic or public), in the aggregate, librarians tend to refer to their clientele as patrons or users.
[ii] American Library Association. Library Bill of Rights. 1939. and Privacy: an interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.  2002.
[iii]Librarian.Net: putting the ‘rarin back in librarian since 1993.
[iv]Nackerud, S., Fransen, J., Peterson, K., & Mastel, K. (2013). Analyzing Demographics: Assessing Library Use Across the Institution. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 13(2), 131–145.
[v] Soria, K. M., Fransen, J., & Nackerud, S. (2013). Library Use and Undergraduate Student Outcomes: New Evidence for Students’ Retention and Academic Success. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 13(2), 147–164.
[vi] Graham Stone and Bryony Ramsden. Library Impact Data Project: Looking for the Link between Library Usage and Student Attainment Coll. res. libr. November 2013 74:546-559; doi:10.5860/crl12-406
[vii] Selyukh, Alina. Oct. 10, 2015. “This Week In Data Collection News, And The Privacy Paradox.”NPR


About The Author

As Associate Director for Research and Education, Alison provides leadership, vision, and strategic direction for the teaching, research, outreach, assessment, and subject liaison services of the Ohio State University Libraries. The University Libraries’ primary role in TDAI is to support the initiatives and researchers through its collections, services, and spaces, with faculty and professionals who have expertise and research interests in data management and visualization, assessment, GIS, digital humanities, publishing services, and more.

Alison’s current research is as member of the Researcher Operator Study. Internal partners include the Office of Research, Institutional Research and Planning, and University Libraries, while external partners include five universities from around the world and the publisher and funder of the project, Elsevier. They have embarked upon a project of discovery related to improving researchers’ productivity across the arc of their academic career.


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