I was dismayed to read about Jon Ort’s conversation about privacy with a Princeton University librarian in his opinion column in the ‘Prince.’ I want to affirm that some, hopefully many, Princeton University librarians are keenly aware of and concerned about privacy issues, especially in an online environment. I have been a Firefox user for more than a decade, and I have exclusively used Duck Duck Go as my search engine of choice for several years. I’m concerned about tracking tactics such as browser fingerprinting, but also about wider issues such as how an erosion of privacy affects fundamental democratic freedoms of association and expression and even our capacity to sustain meaningful personal relationships. I also regularly attend talks at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, which has a robust research program on web tracking and privacy.
I may be atypical among my colleagues in my privacy practices, but my concern for privacy is something I share with many professional colleagues around the world. Indeed, protecting our patrons’ privacy has been one of the core tenets of the American Library Association’s code of ethics since 1939. As an official ALA policy states, “The right to privacy — the right to read, consider, and develop ideas and beliefs free from observation or unwanted surveillance by the government or others — is the bedrock foundation for intellectual freedom ... Privacy is essential to free inquiry in the library because it enables library users to select, access, and consider information and ideas without fear of embarrassment, judgment, punishment, or ostracism.”
It is for this reason that libraries don’t keep a history of the books you check out (to the annoyance of some of our patrons), set catalog sessions on our public PCs to expire after a few minutes, and have even actively resisted in court FBI efforts to use National Security letters to scoop up patron information and access logs of public computer use. In today’s digital world, libraries and librarians could certainly do more to protect our users and teach them about threats to their privacy online. For example, we don’t provide any kind of regular training for Princeton students or staff about digital privacy, and I don’t think we do enough to build privacy protections for our users into the contracts we sign with the many vendors who provide the digital content our researchers depend on. But I give us credit that, as a profession, we’re at least engaged in the conversation. For example, ALA has been an active participant in the fight to amend the Patriot Act and other legislation against using FISA Section 702 to conduct warrantless searches of U.S. citizens’ communications. Every year ALA also promotes Choose Privacy Week, an attempt to make the public aware of privacy issues and which thousands of libraries participate in. Similarly, the Institute for Museum and Library Services recently provided a grant of nearly $250,000 to create a Library Freedom Institute to train librarians on conducting privacy workshops in their communities. And one of the major periodicals of the profession, “American Libraries,” regularly publishes articles on privacy issues.
So, Jon, you’re not alone in your concern about privacy and in your decision to make more deliberate choices about the tradeoffs involved in the use of digital technologies. You have many librarians standing with you. And you’ll be happy to learn that Zotero works just fine with Firefox; in fact, it was originally developed as a Firefox add-on before being redesigned to work across multiple browsers. As the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night;” privacy is worth the effort.
Jeremy Darrington is a Politics Librarian in Firestone Library. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.