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Technology Infrastructure Must Respect and Reflect Library Values

Computers in Libraries [September 2022] The Systems Librarian


Technology infrastructure is not a neutral medium. But it is infused with algorithms and data methods that reflect social values. The vast differences in fundamental operating principles between libraries and commercial enterprises bring enormous implications for the adoption of commercially available technology products and services.

It is incredibly challenging to implement systems built for the commercial arena and adopt them to reflect the values held by libraries. Platforms developed for commercial environments generally rely on a foundation that's optimized to produce economic value in one way or another. Much of the commercial infrastructure intersects with the advertising ecosystem based on the extraction of personal information for ad placement or for recommendation algorithms. Although seemingly similar in some ways, business infrastructure created for sales differs in important ways from the principles of library lending. Search engines and ecommerce platforms cannot easily be deployed or repurposed for library applications that need to operate with a different set of assumptions and values.

Library Values


Collaboration ranks as one the most important values held by libraries. As organizations with limited resources, sharing resources and expertise among peer institutions is increasingly vital. Libraries have historically incorporated collaboration in their technical environments via the support of standards for record exchange and interoperability. The need for standards becomes especially important when libraries implement standalone systems dedicated to individual libraries or consortia. Library services platforms created in the last decade have been designed to optimize collaboration. These platforms can be implemented as shared infrastructure for large numbers of libraries and can be configured for built-in resource-sharing among consortia or other institutional partnerships. Library-centered collaboration respects the categories that must be restricted to each local library as well as the resources shared among a group. Systems can optimize access to collection resources while containing access to financial data and patron data.

Patron Privacy

Maintaining the privacy of patron information must be cemented into the foundation of library technical infrastructure. Systems must be designed to avoid collecting patron details beyond essential operational needs, including transactional records that reveal patron activities (such as content searched or accessed). Commercial systems that exploit personal data for advertising and analytics are not consistent with library requirements for privacy.

Ethical Analytics

Libraries and their parent organizations naturally benefit from analytics and patron engagement technologies. Such capabilities must be provided with strict limitations on personal data. Multiple layers of data containment and anonymization are needed to support personalization, analytics, and related services. Systems can enable patrons to opt in to services that collect and use their personal details more extensively. Creating library infrastructure designed for strict privacy— with some options for selective exceptions—seems better than starting with a system created with general disregard for privacy and forcing it into a highly restrictive privacy paradigm.


Libraries serve all individuals, including those with disabilities. Websites and content resources must be deployed in ways to optimize access, such as the inclusion of alternate text for images to support screen readers and designs that accommodate those with reading or learning differences. A variety of standards address web adaptability.

Another aspect of inclusiveness relates to the devices used or choices individuals make regarding what social media or business they choose to use. Patrons may not have access to laptop or desktop computers and rely entirely on their mobile phones. Offering a website that only works well on full-sized devices excludes access to some segments of the community. Many individuals also choose not to engage with social media sites, such as Facebook. Some libraries have opted to use a Facebook page as their primary presence on the web. This choice is inherently inconsistent with inclusiveness, since it excludes those who opt not to use this commercial service— one that also is quite distant from library values related to privacy.

Pragmatic Differences

While all types of libraries share some values and approaches to collections and services, they also differ in critical areas. The technology systems designed for each type of library must be well-suited for its specific functional needs and reflect its operational values.

Public Libraries

Public libraries offer content to everyone and have broad expectations for privacy. These libraries collect and provide access to materials for people of all ages and across the full spectrum of topics and disciplines. They offer content across all formats. A major trend of the last decade involves a growing interest in ebooks, audiobooks, and other digital content. For public libraries to deliver these materials to their diverse communities in ways that respect the highest standards of privacy requires a well-designed technology environment. The need for personalized services, collection analytics, and in-depth analysis of the impact of library services can run counter to patron privacy.

Public libraries work hard to assess the impact of their collections and adjust their acquisitions processes accordingly. They also want to strengthen their impact on their patrons and find ways to reach residents who are not already registered as members. The business community addresses these kinds of activities through exploiting customer data. Library-oriented analytics and outreach services approach these tasks through methodologies based on categorical data rather than personal data. Public libraries have increasingly had to endure challenges to collection decisions and policies. Some libraries have had to deal with the legal liabilities associated with providing information regarding abortion based on laws now in effect that enable prosecution or lawsuits against anyone providing assistance, regardless of how indirect. Incursions against long-standing library values for collections addressing interests of all members of their communities and other key values seem more pervasive in recent times. The need to ensure the privacy of patrons has become critical, and libraries should be prompted to review and harden their technical infrastructure accordingly. For public libraries, aligning technology with values and operating principles has never been more important.

School Libraries

School libraries operate under a somewhat different and more challenging set of principles. They select and organize materials according to grade and reading levels, covering topics aligned with the teaching curriculum and student interests. Their collections are curated for the ages and topics associated with the grades they serve.

In an increasingly polarized political climate, school libraries have come under intense scrutiny. News reports reflect increasing cases of books being challenged or withdrawn from collections. In other scenarios, the privacy of student reading has been eroded. Some schools are introducing systems that notify parents when their dependent children borrow an item from the library.

The major ILS products implemented by school libraries in the U.S. are designed to protect the privacy of students as they borrow materials from the library. In at least one case, technology personnel for a school district have worked around the privacy restrictions in the library system to accomplish parental notification capabilities not provided by the ILS.

Such incidents illustrate that the privacy values held by school librarians may not be consistent with policies and practices held by district administration. The technology and content components for school libraries usually fall within the technical infrastructure of the school district. This means that the privacy values or intended practices of school libraries may not be reflected in their technology environment.

Academic Libraries

Libraries serving colleges and universities provide resources in support of teaching and academic research for their students, faculty members, and staffers. Patron privacy is highly valued and has been well-implemented in the major systems used by academic libraries.

Academic libraries have many interconnections with the other systems on their campus and with external providers on which they rely for content and other services. The privacy policies and practices of the library may at times differ with those of the campus IT practices and administrative policies. As with other kinds of libraries, how its technology environment handles privacy and other value-based principles also depends on campuswide infrastructure, institutional privacy policies, and the practices of external vendors. Analytics and assessment applications implemented at the campus level often make deep connections into student data, and it may be difficult to entirely isolate library systems from these more intrusive privacy policies and practices. It is also challenging to ensure anonymous access to resources provided via external services. Federated authentication services, which are increasingly displacing IP-based authentication, must be configured carefully to avoid transferring data to an external service that reveals the identity of the researcher. Privacy and ethical analytics require close attention since the technical infrastructure involved spans multiple parts of a campus environment and extends into commercial vendors. Each of these entities may have different policies and practices that may not always be consistent with library values.

Corporate Libraries

Libraries or information centers serving corporations or other private organizations tend to operate with an entirely different privacy framework. These libraries serve the employees of the corporation and not the general public. Those working in these libraries likewise are corporate employees. This setting does not necessarily offer expectations of privacy for the employees who access library-provided content, nor do library employees expect privacy in the way they provide content and services. Although corporate libraries or information centers may also embrace the general view of library ethics and values, their work may be governed more by employment agreements than professional policy statements.

Final Observation

The polarized society in which libraries operate today makes it urgent that they review and strengthen their technical infrastructure to ensure support for privacy, ethical analytics, and inclusiveness. It is vital for libraries to deploy technology in ways that preserve their role as a safe haven for access to information without fear of surveillance or reprisals.

View Citation
Publication Year:2022
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 42 Number 08
Issue:September 2022
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
DownloadDocument not available for download
Record Number:28454
Last Update:2023-03-08 03:28:38
Date Created:2023-01-30 05:59:43