Libraries, ebooks, and the freedom to read

Freedom to read poster

ALA poster for Banned Book Week, a more traditional threat

Libraries have long championed its patrons’ right to privacy. The American Library Association first adopted a document known as the Library Bill of Rights in 1939. Basically, it states that whatever anyone chooses to read is no one else’s business, and there is no good reason for the government or any other entity to interfere.

Much more recently, librarians eagerly pursued means of lending ebooks to their patrons, only to find unexpected incompatibilities between doing so and freedom to read.

Libraries and privacy

Every once in a while, some spectacular criminal act will have people suggesting that maybe the police should go to the library and find out what the suspect has been reading. Actually, that’s impossible. Libraries have never kept such records. It violates the entire concept of freedom to read.

When someone borrows a book (or anything else), the library’s computer has a patron record for him that includes contact information and his library card number. It also has an item record for everything in the collection. The process of checking out a book basically creates a link between the two records.

The public, looking in the catalog, will see that someone has the book checked out and also the date it is due back in the library. The identity of the borrower is not disclosed—not even if someone asks a librarian. When the patron returns the book, the checkin process effectively breaks the link between the patron record and the item record.

At that point, no one knows or can find out either the items a given individual has checked out or the individuals who have checked out a particular item. The older manual circulation systems provided exactly the same level of privacy.

One overriding reason for the American Library Association’s strong stand on freedom to read is to prevent the potential tyranny of either the government or some other entity seeking to punish someone for reading something controversial. The association’s statement on privacy and confidentiality concludes:

The right to privacy is the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others. Confidentiality relates to the possession of personally identifiable information, including such library-created records as closed-stack call slips, computer sign-up sheets, registration for equipment or facilities, circulation records, Web sites visited, reserve notices, or research notes.

From the beginning, the library world’s stand on freedom to read and privacy was intended to protect us all from threats to freedom that would probably only afflict a comparative few. Nowadays, social media and online businesses routinely collect personal data in a way that even dystopian writers such as George Orwell could not have imagined.

The library world knew that its patrons wanted to be able to borrow ebooks from the library. When the library owns the ebooks and the ebook readers, there is no conflict with freedom to read. But patrons who own, say, a Kindle wanted to borrow books from the library using their own Kindle, librarians got an unpleasant surprise when they realized the implications for privacy.
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Electronic publishers and privacy

OverDrive, a leading digital distributor, and Amazon announced an agreement to enable libraries to lend books to Kindle owners in September 2011. Soon Amazon started sending marketing messages to patrons whose loan periods were about to expire.

The messages contained a reminder that when the loan period expired, the book would disappear from the Kindle. Wouldn’t the patron like to buy the book? Oh, and if you made any kind notes or markings in your borrowed copy, they would be restored to you even if you bought the book after the end of the loan.

Amazon’s practices and privacy policies run completely counter to the Library Bill of Rights and other key library privacy policies. Here are some of the ways:

  • Amazon requires Kindle users to log on with their Kindle accounts in order to receive borrowed books.
  • Kindle accounts require a credit card. Library policy dictates that all patrons have equal access to library materials regardless of financial means.
  • Amazon collects and keeps personal data about borrowers.
  • Amazon uses personal data to enhance its marketing.
  • Amazon sends personalized messages to library borrowers.
  • Besides personal data, Amazon keeps record of how library patrons use the ebooks. Perhaps more than just notes and highlights? Whatever data Amazon keeps, it can disclose to third parties.

Amazon is hardly alone in adopting policies that run contrary to well-established library positions. The entire concept of digital rights management exists so that publishers can limit what customers can to with a product after they have bought it.

In fact, electronic publishers can determine whether their publications will even exist. Amazon or any other electronic publisher can decide for whatever reason not to offer something for sale any more. When it pulls the plug that item disappears from every Kindle (etc.) in the world.

That is quite a contrast to anything that has ever happened to print. I own a book that was published maybe 30 years ago. It started out as someone’s doctoral dissertation. It was a very disappointing book. In fact, I recognized one entire chapter as a journal article I had recently read. That is, it was word for word copying of a dozen paragraphs.

I later learned that the author had done the same kind of copy and paste job with other theses and dissertations. The people who wrote them understandably objected to this person collecting royalties off of their work. The publisher ultimately recalled all copies from stores and warehouses and destroyed them.

It was an embarrassment to the institution that awarded the author his doctorate, the one that hired him, and the one that accepted the dissertation for publication. It never deserved to see the light of day.

But I still have my copy if I ever want it for anything. Tough luck to anyone who owns an ebook and the publisher erases it. Their freedom to read it goes poof!

The library world’s dilemma

Libraries jumped on the chance to lend Kindle books because of patron demand. They learned the implications for privacy only later. The most they can do is warn their patrons about how Amazon’s privacy policies differ from library policies.

Simply because the library world’s stand on privacy and freedom to read is so much different from that of commercial entities, similar issues will keep cropping up.

In particular, commercial entities often make their money from using customers’ personal data and some kind of digital rights management to restrict use and access of purchased products. And unlike library data, the data vendors collect is easy for law enforcement to discover and use against people.

With few exceptions, libraries cannot acquire any aspect of its collection without purchasing it from a profit-making company. When it comes to electronic media, these providers increasingly impose terms of service that libraries find uncomfortable.

If, for example, a vendor requires a library to track, maintain, and disclose user data, the library must either comply or forgo offering those products.

Count on libraries to do their best both to offer the content and services that their patrons want and uphold freedom to read in a commercial and legal culture increasingly hostile to the library way of understanding of it. Meanwhile, if patrons demand immediate convenience and don’t take privacy issues into consideration, the libraries’ task grows more difficult.
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Source: A Digital Dilemma: Ebooks and Users’ Rights (link no longer work as of Feb 2016) by Deborah Caldwell-Stone


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