Choose Privacy Week 2014: How to Host Programs about Online Privacy in Your Library

Choose Privacy Week, Privacy

by Mike Robinson
Associate Professor
Consortium Library
University of Alaska – Anchorage

Choose Privacy Week is here and if you are like me, you are just now thinking of ways for your library to participate. The bad news is that it’s probably too late to come up with good programming for this year’s Choose Privacy Week. The good news is that your patrons don’t know or care that its Choose Privacy Week and yet almost all of them have a strong interest in online privacy. What I mean is that the week itself is not important, but the subject matter is of vital importance to our communities and our nation. The continuing revelations about the nature and scope of the NSA surveillance activities has brought concerns about online privacy to the forefront. Libraries are uniquely positioned to offer programming about online privacy because of our strong traditions of intellectual freedom, respect for privacy, digital literacy, and civic engagement. If you ever plan to offer programs on privacy at your library, 2014 is the year to get started.

I have been working with several libraries in Alaska to offer programs about online privacy. We offered two programs so far and are taking what we learned to create a series of programs this year. We were planning to have it coincide with Choose Privacy Week, but had scheduling conflicts with the video conferencing network we are going to use. So instead, our series will happen in June. I would like to share how we got started, what we learned, and what we are planning for this year in the hope that it will inspire you. If we can do it, anyone can.

privacyThe credit for getting the ball rolling and organizing the initial programs goes to Jessie Morgan, the education coordinator at the Haines Borough Public Library. Last October Jessie organized a community event titled Who Do I Trust to Protect My Digital Privacy? Add your voice to the conversation about tough privacy choices facing our nation. The event used the civic engagement materials available on the Choose Privacy Week website. Jessie had recruited two community members as moderators and asked me to attend as a special guest in my role as chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Alaska Library Association. Haines is a small community in Southeast Alaska about 750 miles from Anchorage where I live, so I attended via the Alaska OWL video conferencing network. I was a bit nervous because this would be my first time speaking in public on an intellectual freedom issue and also my first time using video conference to join a community discussion.

My fears were unfounded. The event went well with lively discussion among the participants. A good portion of the civic engagement materials focused on why online privacy is important. The participants all felt strongly that privacy is important and the discussion quickly moved to what people can do to protect their privacy. During the wrap up of the discussion, it was felt that a program focusing on how to protect your online privacy would be a good next step.


Life can get busy and we did not get around to scheduling the follow up event until February. Jessie worked with Stacia McGourty at the Anchorage Public Library to put on a joint program between the two libraries. This time the format would be a presentation by me with questions and answers from the participants. I would be at the Anchorage Public Library with a live audience and we would bring in the folks in Haines via video conference. We wanted to be careful to offer information that would empower people and not just make them feel even more helpless because of the number of threats to privacy. Here’s my presentation–Internet & Privacy [1.6mb pdf]. The event went well in that interest was strong and people said that they found the information useful.

But we learned a number of things that we could do better:

  • We did not allow enough time for people to talk about privacy and what it means to them. No one in the Anchorage audience had participated in the previous discussion in October.
  • People really wanted to talk about NSA and Snowden even though there are many other threats to their privacy that they are in a better position do something about.
  • People had a limited understanding of the mechanics of how online tracking and other technologies work. There is a huge need for digital literacy so people can make an informed decisions about their online activities.
  • Don’t assume the generational stereotypes concerning attitudes about privacy are true, i.e. that young people don’t care about their privacy. Everyone regardless of age draws a line at some point between convenience and what should be private.
  • We went too long (90 minutes) and tried to cover too much. Don’t get me wrong, people were engaged the entire 90 minutes but we rushed through some topics and the amount of information was a bit overwhelming.

We also learned a few things about presentations to multiple locations via video conferencing:

  • We had the monitor/camera facing the live audience so the participants could see each other with the presenter to one side, kinda in a triangle. Big mistake, the presenter ends up having to turn back and forth to address both audiences. Instead, we should have placed the monitor/camera so that it is part of the live audience looking at the presenter. You can always briefly turn monitor/camera to introduce audiences to each other at the beginning.
  • Don’t try to show PowerPoint presentation over the video conference monitor. Its a small screen and hard to read. Instead, we should have had handouts for the audience and maybe separate laptop/projector for the presentation at each location.
  • Scheduling multiple libraries is more difficult, especially specific rooms that have the video conferencing equipment and are heavily used.

Despite our mistakes, the feedback from the audience was that they were very interested in more programs on online privacy. With that in mind, we started planning for a series of programs that would allow us to break things into smaller topics and involve different presenters. We will also expand to include one or two more libraries via video conference. We came up with a number of possible topics but eventually settled on a four week series this June:

  • A showing of one of the ALA Privacy videos
  • The NSA & Other Threats to Privacy
  • Internet Browsing & Privacy
  • Social Media & Privacy

We plan to record the three presentations and if they turn out okay, make them available to libraries throughout the state. We may also do a presentation at next year’s statewide library association conference on how to host a program.
So here is my advice to anyone considering hosting programs on online privacy for the first time:

  • Start small, get one focused event under your belt.
  • Use the resources for libraries on the Choose Privacy Week website.
  • Ask for help from other libraries or people/organizations in your community.
  • Incorporate what you learn into planning the next event(s).

I hope that what I have written encourages you to start offering privacy programs at your library. Online privacy is a hot topic and the local library is a great place for people to learn about the topic and discuss the issues.

Mike Robinson is an associate professor and head of systems for the Consortium Library at the University of Alaska — Anchorage. Mike has worked with technology in libraries for most of his career and has a strong interest in online privacy as a cornerstone of intellectual freedom. He is currently the Chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Alaska Library Association.

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