July 11, 2014

Libraries offer alternatives to our culture of surveillance



This zine was created by a group of librarians who are part of the group “Radical Reference.” It offers suggestions for applications and tech tools for online privacy.

Melissa Morrone, a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library, helps patrons navigate the internet safely and securely every day.

In an essay for Waging Nonviolence, she describes how digital information literacy is an integral aspect of her job:

The library is one of the few institutions that has the potential to organize communities to access and produce information responsibly and safely. Libraries connect people with resources, facilitate inquiry and popular education, and are accessible and highly trusted. For the growing movement fighting for an alternative to a culture of surveillance, they are an excellent place to start.

How can public libraries join efforts to protect patron privacy and educate patrons about digital rights? Morrone explains that libraries—bound by the American Library Association Code of Ethics  to “protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted”—manage protection of not only the book catalog and check-out history, but also the internet browsing records of patrons who rely on libraries for access.

As the role of libraries in communities has become increasingly involved in digital issues, Marrone warns that libraries must stay above the fray involving library trustee business interests, publisher disputes over ebook pricing and proprietary formats, and reliance on corporations like Google for research.

In addition to instructing people on using e-readers and dealing with two million search engine results, we should be supporting resistance to life under surveillance. Collective action can push us there, which means communities must demand these services and expertise from their libraries — along with levels of funding to ensure they are as autonomous as tax-funded establishments can be, including from the tech industry.

To that end, librarians are offering events (Morrone hosted a “CroptoParty” at the Brooklyn Public Library), installing inception programs (Massachussets Public Libraries installed HTTPS Everywhere thanks to librarian Alison Macrina), and writing publications (see Seeta Gangadharan‘s “Joining the Surveillance Society?” for the New America Foundation) about how people can protect themselves with smart practices regarding sharing on social media and which open source technology to use to avoid surveillance and promote “privacy paradigms” wherever possible.


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.