Big Brother is Watching You: The ethical role of libraries and big data

Big Data, Choose Privacy Week
The ethics of privacy in librarianship

Big Data Is Watching You - Choose Privacy Week 2018 logoLibraries are one of the most trusted institutions in our country. People place librarians in the same class as doctors, nurses, firefighters, and teachers. Communities bemoan the possibility of their local libraries closing, with two-thirds saying it would have a major impact on their lives if the library doors were shuttered. 1

One of the key reasons libraries are held in such high regard is because we operate under a code of ethics; a code that is driven by intellectual freedom and ensures the public has freedom of access to information.

Although that code of ethics may not be at the forefront of your mind day-to-day, it is the backbone of our institutions. Our code of ethics is the foundation upon which our libraries were built and the reason that we are such a trusted part of every community. It is our responsibility as library professionals to use this code as a guide to drive institutional operations and as a “north star” for ethical dilemmas.

We find ourselves at a precipice, faced with a huge ethical decision about how libraries will interface with the privacy of our patrons. The current code of ethics states that we will, “Protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.”2 Libraries committed themselves to this ethical charge nearly 80 years ago becoming known around the world for our privacy advocacy, championing patrons’ rights to access information without scrutiny.

Our new, happy life

 The world is very different today than it was 80 years ago. Today, the wealth of human knowledge is available in our pockets. The media mourns the lost age of privacy, telling us it is an outdated concept; dead and buried. People freely part with their personally identifiable information, giving companies the ability to create detailed profiles of their lives to sell to the highest bidder. Our information has become a commodity; bought and sold to provide us customized services and sell us more things.

We have entered the age of big data; it is virtually impossible to move through this world without being tracked, labeled, and categorized. Algorithms sort us into consumer categories that are used to sell targeted advertising and provide different levels of services based on who they think we are. If you would like a glimpse into how you are labeled and categorized, take a look at your Facebook ad profile.

Big data analytics are all about gathering as much information as possible in order to predict the future. By gathering data about how you use a company’s product they can make adjustments to services on an individual level. This has led to some amazing online experiences! I love my tailored suggestions on Netflix and if I have to see advertising I would much rather it be for something I might actually purchase. Most people have no concept of the amount of information they are giving away but do reap the rewards of personalized internet experiences.

Big data in libraries

 So, where does that leave libraries? Never wanting to be left behind, libraries are finding themselves pushed to participate in the world of big data analytics. Companies offer libraries an unprecedented glimpse into how our patrons use library services. These products allow libraries to track an individual patron’s interaction with all aspects of the library. Collected data sets may include:

  • All ILS data (e.g., name, age, address, email, phone, drivers license, gender)
  • Borrowing history
  • Program attendance
  • Website interactions

In some instances, library data is then paired with data from credit reporting agencies. Libraries can see maps that give household level information about patrons based on the category the company’s algorithm has placed them in. This includes:

  • Income
  • Number of children in the house
  • How long they have lived at their residence
  • Spending habits
  • Hobbies
  • Device usage
  • Media consumption preferences
  • And much more!

These companies are telling libraries that our patrons are demanding personalized services, that we are facing a future of irrelevance. Luckily for us, their products have all the answers. By tracking patron behavior we can give them the experience they have come to expect from this new digital world. Libraries can segment out our patrons, sending targeted marketing based on their behaviors, customizing our services based on what they read and what programs they attend. We will finally be able to use real data to tell our stakeholders why we are of value, so they won’t withdraw our funding. This messaging is a classic anxiety stick, followed by a marketing carrot.3

 For a more detailed look at the data you can access by using these companies’ products take a look at some of the big ones on the market right now:

Our ethical responsibility

Libraries are often the only access point to information for the most vulnerable members of our communities. We welcome our undocumented citizens, those living unhoused, mentally ill, and minorities of all kinds. We have a responsibility to all of our patrons to protect and fight for their privacy. Our patrons trust us because they know that when they walk through our doors we are there to help them access information needed to become their best possible selves. We don’t judge them based on who they are or why they are there. Our doors are open to all.

How many years have libraries been told that they are on the brink of destruction? Adapt or die. Libraries have made amazing changes in our service models by shifting our concept of literacy and extending its reach into technology and providing hands-on programming. Those changes have remained rooted in the core fundamentals of librarianship. On the other hand, the adoption of big data analytics that allows us access to patron-level data about their use of library services goes against one of our most valued core ethics.

It is our ethical responsibility to ensure that all of our patrons have the “right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others.”4 This includes us as library workers. We do not have the right to examine or scrutinize what our patrons do in the library, making decisions on how to treat them based on those behaviors. Even something as seemingly harmless as sending targeted marketing emails means that you are judging who a patron is and what their future behaviors may be based on their reading habits and library usage.

If the recent news surrounding Facebook can be any kind of lesson to us, it is that privacy is not dead in the minds of our patrons. People are seeking control over their information, as evidenced by the sweeping new privacy regulations going into effect in the EU this May. Consumers want to use services they trust. We already have that trust, why take steps to erode our standing in regards to the protection of our patron’s privacy?

Moving forward

Let us flip the narrative we are being sold by the big data analytics companies. Now is the time for us to tout the virtues of the library as a privacy haven to our patrons. We are not Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Google; and we should never strive to be. Our patrons are not our products. That is a huge difference between public institutions like libraries and private industries like social networks and tech conglomerates who derive their earnings from advertising.

Libraries are the cornerstone of democracy. We have a democratic duty to uphold the privacy ethics of librarianship and not track and allow third-party access to our patrons’ information. Remember, once those datasets are created anyone can gain access to them. Do you want our government having these detailed reports on our patrons? If not, then it is time to rethink how we move forward in doing business with these companies.

Do not jump into big data without being intentional, transparent, and having a comprehensive understanding of how the products work. Utilizing different datasets to drive decision making and analyze the work done in libraries is extremely important, but it must be done with careful attention paid towards protecting our patrons’ privacy. When moving forward with a big data contract, consider these guidelines for use:

  • Only collect data in the aggregate or anonymously. Do not collect personally identifiable information (name, email, address). Do not track any reading or library usage data on specific patrons.
  • Transaction-level data that uniquely identifies both a patron and an item should be avoided unless required for a specific and limited purpose.
  • Patron consent must be gained to collect any transaction-level data that links a patron to an activity (e.g., books read, programs attended, eResources used).
  • Vendors must have a public privacy policy on their website that adheres to industry standards.

It is up to us as library professionals to shape the future of our institutions. Will we continue to uphold the ethics of our profession, ensuring that we remain a trusted source of information for our citizens? Now is the time to act! Let’s explain to our patrons what sets us apart and remind them that we will continue to be their privacy advocates and champions.



  1.  Americans’ attitudes towards public libraries, Pew Research Center on Internet and Technology (2016)
  2.  ALA Code of Ethics, Article III
  3. Fister, Barbara, “Lessons from the Facebook Fiasco,” Inside Higher Ed, April 14, 2018
  4. Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights


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