How the New York Public Library Guards Privacy in the Digital Age

From The Wall Street Journal:

The ever-changing digital landscape poses a challenge for libraries: How do they enter this new world—while staying true to their public mission and preserving the privacy of patrons online?

It’s a question Tony Ageh, chief digital officer at the New York Public Library, has spent a lot of time thinking about. Mr. Ageh has supported a number of digital initiatives, including an expansion of digital lending. The library, which currently gets 300,000 visits to its website each week, now offers borrowers 1.7 million e-books.

At the same time, Mr. Ageh says, it’s crucial to maintain the trust that the public has in public libraries. For instance, unlike many other sites and search engines, the New York Public Library’s online system doesn’t store personal data about users.

“People expect us to be kind of the same level of security as a bank,” he says.

And Mr. Ageh stresses the library’s role as a home for authentic scholarship at a time when counterfeit books have become a rising challenge for Amazon, publishers and writers.

. . . .

WSJ: What role does the library play in maintaining readers’ trust and setting standards around that as you expand online and digitize more books?

MR. AGEH: I think the most trustworthy and reliable organization when it comes to this sort of thing is the library. If [a hard copy of a book has got] a library stamp on it, we will guarantee that book is the real book. You can tell if anybody had doctored it, because if a page is missing, the numbering would be missing. That is an authentic copy of that book.

There is no way that any organization at all could make that claim for a digital copy of the same book. Kindle renumbers the pages, you wouldn’t know if somebody had taken a word out, you wouldn’t know if they changed the order, so the ability to verify the authenticity of a fundamental work can only be done, hand on heart, by a librarian. Even if we digitize the books ourselves and publish them, we would still need to think very seriously about how we are certain that, when it’s out in the web, that nothing changes it.

WSJ: Do you think people overlook the trust that libraries offer?

MR. AGEH: If I told you to close your eyes and think about a library, and I asked you what you could see in your mind’s eye, you’d say, “I can see books,” probably. But there are two things you can see, and the other one is so big you can’t see it. It’s the building the books are in. Once you’re inside the walls of a library, you are safe.

It’s a sanctuary of sorts. The thing that makes you safe in the library is that you know that nothing is trying to exploit you, that everything in there is reliable, every person in there is on your side, that we’re not going to ask anything back apart from, maybe, “Would you mind bringing the book back, and be respectful of other people.”

WSJ: How are you bringing that same feeling of security online?

MR. AGEH: I won’t lie, it’s a challenge. If I asked librarians, ”What do you want the technology to do?” None of them would say, “I want the technology to secure the position of the library in the hearts and minds of the public.” But it’s a matter of the library understanding the thing they need most, and the thing they need most is an environment where you could trust what’s going on.

WSJ: How do you make the New York library a digital sanctuary as much as a physical sanctuary?

MR. AGEH: Physical libraries are one of the last noncommercial public spaces, accessible to all and free of distractions. We hope to replicate this in our digital spaces. This manifests primarily in what we choose not to do—we don’t incorporate digital advertising, we don’t try to force user actions like checking out one book or another. So much digital technology—social media, e-commerce, mobile gaming—is trying to manipulate the user. We hope to build trust and create that sense of sanctuary by not engaging in such practices and letting people accomplish what they want to accomplish.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

2 thoughts on “How the New York Public Library Guards Privacy in the Digital Age”

  1. The digital officer of a library assures us that when they put a stamp on a book that it’s a book. I’ll sleep great tonight knowing how safe i am. Although now I’m realizing that none of my books in my library have their library stamp on them. How can i prove that they’re real books and not cats dressed up as books?

  2. I too think a lot about privacy and authenticity in public libraries. To me, Mr. Ageh is somewhat naive. Both on authenticity and privacy.

    As a software architect, I note that the same techniques that verify the authenticity and integrity of software apply to digital items of all kinds. In fact, I think that currently, given a digital and a paper book, I have more confidence in the digital versions. I am almost as sure of digital books as I am that the latest Microsoft security update to W10 from is not from

    Checksums and cryptographic hashes can be used to verify that a digital entity is an exact bit-by-bit copy of the original to a high degree of certainty, which is much higher than the authenticity guaranteed by intact paper bindings and sequential page numbers. I am sure someone has written a good murder mystery based on doctored paper books. That mystery would be much harder to write if authenticity were based on a SHA-512 cryptographic hash. You’d have to imagine a quantum computer.

    Combined with asymmetric keys and encryption used in secure (HTTPS) web communications, I think you can be confident that the book you download via OverDrive from your public library is an authentic and exact copy of the master held by the publisher. Your mileage on publisher trust may vary, but if the publisher is shamming, you can be assured that the sham has been accurately transmitted.

    Privacy is another issue. Some years ago, librarians at one of our branches received a request from the FBI under the Patriot Act asking who had checked out a certain copy of a certain book because someone complained that it contained handwritten notes that could be construed as dangerous. It turned out that the notes were parallel quotes from a popular book, but a patron saw them and got excited. The library could not answer the FBI’s question because the library IT system automatically purges check out records when the book is returned. Our library system won a national award for that, although it would have been the same at every public library that I know of.

    Our policy has not changed, but the world has. Today, most of our patrons advertise the books they have checked out and seem happy to do so. We still purge the record when the book is returned, but the ancillary public catalog (Bibliocommons) keeps the information on the patron’s public “Bookshelf.” Many people like to broadcast what they have been reading.

    This is not the same as retaining the checkout record, but today, I doubt that the FBI would bother to ask the library system for information. They could quickly derive the answer themselves from records publicly available on the network.

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