Do libraries want a piece of your PII (Personally Identifiable Information)?
Last year, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) published A Blueprint for Better Information: Recommendations for a Federal Postsecondary Student-Level Data Network. The blueprint (does anybody know what a blueprint is anymore?) bears witness to the great faith its authors have in data gathering as the way to provide more equitable and inclusive postsecondary options in the United States.
As a librarian, I was happy to see that the report names privacy and security as one of three primary categories to be taken into account if such a data network were put in place. I was even happier that none of the data typically gathered by an academic library was targeted for inclusion. Nobody is knocking on my door asking for student-level data—at least not yet.
Librarians have always taken the user’s right to privacy very seriously: The American Library Association’s code of ethics, for example, states, “We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired, or transmitted.” Last month, the Association published a National Leadership Grant for Libraries report that reinforces this position: Library Values and Privacy in Our National Digital Strategies: Field Guides, Convenings, and Conversations.
Librarians don’t care who pulls an item off the open shelves (although we may be interested in whether certain items get more attention than others). And we don’t care who visits what web page on one of our public computers (although we have set limits to ensure network security, and we will intervene if you are not respecting the rights of other library community members).
Of course, some services would not be sustainable if no data at all were gathered. You may have to swipe your ID card to gain entry into a library, and we may have installed cameras. But, except for security reasons, we are not interested in your whereabouts, and we never offer that information for sale.
So, yes, libraries want a piece of your PII. Many library services are transactional, and your PII is an essential part of that transaction. But privacy is a complex issue, and librarians have various tools to protect our users’ right to it. I suspect those of us in higher education will need to get busy improving these tools in light of our sector’s general trend towards data gathering and data analysis.
Gerald R. Beasley
Carl A. Kroch University Librarian
Cornell University Library