To Exhibit or Not to Exhibit? Privacy Concerns and Library Exhibits

First Amendment, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Privacy

By: Lisa Hoover

The Flushing Public Library made headlines recently for canceling a photography exhibition, citing privacy concerns.

The exhibition, “Faces of the 7 Train,” featured photographs of subway riders on the 7 train by Drew Kerr taken with his iPhone. All photos were shot without the subjects’ knowledge to create “natural and unposed portraiture,” according to the Times Ledger. The Times Ledger also reported:

The library canceled the exhibit, with the library’s Deputy General Counsel Sara Hausner-Levine saying in an email that “we don’t feel comfortable moving forward with this exhibit, as there are serious concerns regarding possible privacy and IP infringement.”

A Queens Library spokesperson also told the Time Ledger  that “our judgement is not based on the legal right to take or display the photos. The issue is that we are not comfortable with the way they were taken – ‘in secret.’”

Meanwhile, New York City’s public libraries are hosting an “exhibit on data privacy” called Privacy in Public. According to the exhibit website:

“The online world has shifted from a space of public discourse to one that’s increasingly fueled by access to our secrets, whether we are aware of it or not. What does it mean to participate on the web when so much of our personal data is used without our consent?”

A person takes a picture of a woman at a busy restaurant with an iPhone
The wide-spread use of a cell-phone cameras has changed attitudes toward what we share with the world.

The exhibit was to run in nine New York City libraries through Friday, Feb. 1 and was intended to raise questions about “what it means to sacrifice our personal information for the sake of convenience.” (Privacy in Public, 2018)

I have touched on this issue of privacy versus convenience and the dramatic changes in privacy in the digital age a few times already this year, particularly in my blog posts regarding DNA testing kits and personalized services in libraries. These exhibits are yet another reminder that so much of our private lives are now very public in a way that they were not a few decades ago.

Outline of person standing in front of computer screens

While the subway was always a public place, the ease of digital surveillance by not only the government but also other subway riders has certainly changed. Furthermore, social media has changed what we share with the world and, perhaps more importantly, the permanence of that sharing and the ease with which it spreads.

Kerr notes in his argument to continue the exhibition of his work, “journalists and photographers shoot people in public spaces all the time.” He also cites the case Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia, in which the New York Supreme Court held that “a photographer could display, publish, and sell street photography without the consent of the subjects,” according to the Times Ledger. However, the Court of Appeals opinion in the case relied primarily on the statute of limitations, not the First Amendment, in rejecting the suit, so this case may not be entirely determinative.

However, these issues go beyond what the law can address. When we are talking about a library display, we must also consider library ethics. Privacy is a central tenet of library rights, as shown in the ALA’s page on privacy.

While we generally think of privacy within the library’s walls, the library profession also has a history of advocacy that extends beyond the physical library. It is therefore within the bounds of library ethics, in my opinion, for the library to consider the privacy concerns relevant to an exhibit to be hosted in library space.

Drone surveillance However, I don’t think we can entirely ignore Kerr’s free speech argument either. As we know, public libraries are subject to the First Amendment, and libraries are strong defenders of intellectual freedom. Furthermore, photography has a strong legacy of social activism that relies on candid, “raw” images. If we discourage this, might we sometimes indirectly support the same status quo we might be advocating against?

This reminds me a bit of the meeting room debate — do we ban use of meetings rooms by groups whose methods or message we disagree with? While it’s not the same issue, it also features competing library values. And, as with the meeting room issue, I don’t think it has clear, perfect answers.

So, while I don’t think we can decide what the right answer to this situation is in one blog post, I do think we can use it as a reminder of how important it is to have policies. Just as with meeting room use, if a library is going to have public displays curated by others, there should be policies in place creating guidelines for those displays. The more we think ahead and anticipate controversy, the better able we will be to handle issues when they arise, and the better we can explain our decisions to our patrons and the public at large.




Lisa HooverLisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.

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