Literary Hub

Librarians Will Guard Your Privacy With Their Lives

library at night

Like most people, a majority of my time online is spent either replying to emails or waiting for someone to email me back or wading through a metric ton of reply-all messages because someone decided to cc everyone with a meme I’ve already seen a thousand times on Twitter. Over the past month, however, I’ve received lots of emails with the same exciting theme:

We’ve updated our privacy policy!

What exactly does this mean? Other than even more annoying emails to delete without reading?

Privacy isn’t something that we usually think about until it’s taken away. When it happens, we’re exposed, our personal business out in the open, and we’re mad as hell. Nobody likes to be told that their privacy has been violated. It’s the internet equivalent of accidentally flashing your underwear. It sucks. But hey, thanks to our continued use of social media, our data is constantly breached. When people were confronted by the fact that Facebook had been sharing personal information with third party vendors, everyone was outraged. We “sign” things, electronically, that we don’t even read. Everybody with an iPhone clicked that Apple agreement, a riveting hundred-page document, but barely anyone skimmed it (myself included).

Most places are looking at your information as a way to draw you in as a consumer. They want your business. They need to you to revisit that site, buy that product, want you to want something bad enough you’ll sign anything to get it. In libraries, we admittedly want your patronage (a return to the library is always nice—bring back the overdue materials, too, please and thanks), but we are serious about your privacy. Your data will never be used to try and sell you something, or market things to you. No one will see what you checked out. Your account is yours, it’s private, and we’ll fight to keep it that way.

In the library, we’re constantly updating our privacy policies. And by that, I mean we’re reviewing our guidelines to make sure that we’re keeping patron information secure. No one will know what you’re looking at on our public computers (even if it’s porn, again, or pictures of the Loch Ness monster, or where to buy the world’s largest gummy snake). Your information is secure. We’re committed to safekeeping the data. We’ve even got retention policies! For years I processed InterLibrary Loan at a public library. All that personal information was committed to paper—name, patron ID, telephone number, home address, titles—and every Friday, like clockwork, I sat down and shredded those stacks. That’s right, patron who ordered The Mammoth Book of Erotica 14 times. That secret stays between you, me, and the shredder.

“In a time where everything feels fraught with urgency, it’s good to know the library always has your back.”

Listen, I delight in telling weird stories about what’s happening in the library. I truly love it. I make jokes about silly things the patrons do (aggravating, frustrating, truly bonkers annoying things, sure), but I would rather cut off my own arm than reveal anyone’s personal information. No one is gonna know you took that pizza into the bathroom, I promise. I swear on a stack of boxed wine that I will never, ever reveal who peed on that chair at the public computers. I won’t tell anyone that you are the person who called Google “Globies.” No one will know you ran over that copy of Dunston Checks In with your Subaru. It’s PRIVATE.

I mean, I’ll tell you the weird things I did in libraries. Sure, no problem:

Checked out several stacks of books and put them in the trunk of my car for the holiday weekend because I’d run out of time for shifting and could not get them done before close and didn’t want to get into it with my supervisor (still had to shelve them on my return and it suuuuuucked).

Read the synopsis for every single episode of Dawson’s Creek while sitting the reference desk. (I’ve never watched Dawson’s Creek…. But now I guess I don’t have to??)

Told a kid at Storytime that tomatoes were actually apples that got sick and didn’t grow right (relax, he did not believe me).

Got out a calculator because I couldn’t figure out the correct change to give for a three dollar and 85-cent fine; the woman made fun of me and asked if I needed to get a manager (still don’t think I could do this without help, she was right to laugh, I deserved it).

Wrote “Experienced in Excel” on my library resume and my experience was that I’d opened it one time by accident instead of a Word document.

There’s much worse where that came from, but it’s my personal business, free to share. Not yours. The American Library Association has very consistent guidelines when it comes to keeping patron information private. Many of the rules include making our language clear so that any person encountering our privacy policies knows exactly what they’re reading. We’re not in the business of obscuring information (unless it’s your private data—we’re keeping that under wraps), but illuminating it. We’re gatekeepers. It’s a huge responsibility and we don’t take that job lightly. If your data has been compromised, we’ll let you know. And we will work to fix it. Because having access to knowledge is your right, and it’s our privilege to keep it safe. That means no one is coming into the library to take your information, no matter what.

In a time where everything feels fraught with urgency, it’s good to know the library always has your back. We will continue to stick up for you, if you’ll let us. It’s our job. And we’re goddamn great at it.

Please stop bringing pizza in the bathroom, though. It’s gross. Enough is enough.

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