Jul 7, 2008

On Libraries, Circulation Records, and Personal Privacy

Left: I'm pretty sure there's nothing dangerous in my library record...at the moment

A university library system I use just announced a new feature called "My Reading History," which allows users to keep track of the books that they have previously checked out. This is helpful to a researcher like me, because I sometimes forget about texts I have used, despite my efforts to develop ever-larger bibliographical lists.

Yet the service comes with a catch, as those who make use of this record-keeping function will also find themselves subject to potential unwanted scrutiny from the government. Listed below is the disclaimer for the service:
My Reading History Disclaimer
By opting in to My Reading History, you can track your circulation history. Participation in this feature is completely voluntary and you may opt out and/or delete records from your history at any time. If you choose to start recording "My Reading History", you agree to allow our online system to store this data. The library staff does not have access to your reading history, however, it is subject to all applicable local, state, and federal laws, and under those laws, could be examined by law enforcement authorities without your permission. If this is of concern to you, you should not use the "My Reading History" feature.
Now, I already knew that public libraries were subject to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows federal agents to look at public and university circulation and computer-usage data. Any books a person checks out - along with magazines requested, Web sites visited, or email messages sent via library computers - are all fair game for federal investigators, who have limited oversight in their functions.

Still, merely possessing a vague awareness of Big Brother's presence is a bit different than reading such a disclaimer in black-and-white. By choosing this seemingly innocuous electronic service, I cede just a bit more freedom to the already Leviathan-like federal government.

Now, as a historian whose work deals in all sorts of research materials that could be taken out of context, I find this more than a bit disconcerting. One of my research interests is in epidemiological history, and I spend more time than the average geek reading about such historical pests as smallpox, anthrax, and bubonic plague, among other deadly pathogens. Suppose a Fibbie on a virtual fishing expedition decides to start compiling lists of people who check out books on smallpox - should I then expect a knock on my door or a visit to my office just because I have a legitimate research query into the pathology of particular microbes?

Will I one day have to defend my research because I happened to check out a book that raises red flags?

And remember, too, that what is perfectly acceptable today might turn out to be a "dangerous" or "subversive" book in ten years. Human history is littered with lists of books prohibited by churches, states, and dictators, and a text I read today might one day serve to brand me as a suspicious person.

Or worse.


dr-exmedic said...

Four letters: ACLU.

Roland Hansen said...


Anonymous said...

Mike, you need to pay your fines. You can prevent that by returning your books ON TIME! :)