Sunday, November 15, 2009

"You'll put your eye out, kid."

Librarians have been lucky. For a thousand years we've answered questions and suggested further investigation based on a simple, reproducible formula: we find the answer in a book or on other printed matter, or we bash a snake against a rock until the blood reveals the truth.

The printed resources almost always include a publisher and author(s). And over the years, through rather simple vetting processes, libraries have collected these works for the benefit of providing these answers to the truth seekers.

Even up through the 1970's, libraries were not viewed as places for entertainment, unless one's values favored classical works and award-winning texts. Children were allowed in libraries, but only after being walled off into their own tiny ghettos.

When I was growing up, I read Aesop's Fables. And one moral I'll always remember is, "The Chariot sometimes crushes the Falcon." I don't know what it's supposed to mean, but dammit, I remember it. And I offer that advice at many library meetings.

Do we want the furniture in "oak" or "cherry"?

'The Chariot sometimes crushes the Falcon.'

Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. That doesn't mean anything. It never has. Not for the last 500 times you've said it.

One day it will mean something to you, and then you'll realize I'm a freaking genius.

But then librarians got what they call a "good idea": they would give the people what they want.

And that means libraries have taken on providing many new services: job applications, resume preparation, legal assistance, medical research, etc.

The Internet made this happen. Libraries used to be about finding the answer in the books and journals we bought, then later, from computer and online databases, and so our "help" was still extremely limited and confined to sources we could verify and trust. But now the Internet has me finding answers and attempting to verify sources for sites that may disappear at any time. I'm trying to help my patron find answers, but each click opens new opportunities for screwing up.

So now I have to pretend to be a huge idiot. I can't tell anyone what I know for fear of creating a service that our library is not prepared to offer. People come in to fill out all sorts of forms for immigration, family assistance, taxes, whatever. But I can't tell them which forms or websites they should use to apply for these benefits. I have to ask, "Is this the site?" "Is this what you want?" "Read this page and see if this is what you need."

Because if I tell them something, I might create the expectation in their mind that I'm a legal expert and if something goes wrong and the guy is deported or something, I could get blamed for it.

But it's not just the Internet's fault. Libraries also have parents who leave their kids at the library all day, usually to play on the computers. And when we allow this to happen, by not creating or enforcing policies, we create an atmosphere that tells these parents it's okay to do this. So then if something horrible happens to one of these kids, we look guilty. And not just look, but we could be judged guilty.

When we expand library services which go beyond our core mission of providing educational materials and programs to our patrons, to promote reading and learning, then we need to be prepared for the possible consequences.

Yes, it's nice that you allow that guy to bring in the garbage bag full of his personal belongings and leave them under that table while he uses the computers or goes outside for a smoke. And it's also cool that you let him catch a short nap during the day. But if you don't have a policy against that behavior, or you have policy but choose to ignore it, then if his stuff ever gets lost or stolen, he could have a case against your library. Unless you do something to tell everyone to watch their stuff.

The same with Internet privacy. Patrons are using library computers and some people and libraries are becoming complacent, assuming that everything is secure on the public computers. But they are still public computers. There is no way we can ever guarantee to anyone that anything they do on them will be private. People think I'm an asshole when I tell them that I wouldn't use our library computers to buy my airline tickets or check my credit report. They think I don't want to help them. But listen, you idiot, I am helping you. I don't know every computer trick in the world. I don't know that you didn't click on something stupid.

The message should always be: Your property is your responsibility. Your privacy is your responsibility.

My personal message has become, "Don't ask. I Don't Know."

As far as I can tell, the library has never guaranteed to protect your privacy with what you read, only with what appears on your borrowing record. And if I can't protect your privacy with the book you carry around in this building or out to your car or on the coffee table in your house, how the hell can I protect your privacy with all those damn electrons rushing through all those tubes or flying around in the air?

I don't ever want to hear, "...the library took on the responsibility to protect my Internet privacy. Therefore, when my identity was stolen, the library broke this contract."

Privacy should always be the patron's problem. Libraries should provide the bare minimum for clearing sessions, deleting cookies, etc. But patrons need to be responsible for what they do in a public space.

The bank doesn't guarantee you won't be robbed after you use the ATM: you accept the dangers along with the convenience of getting money at 3:00 a.m. So the library can't be responsible for your identity or your bank balance or your cell phone or you laptop or your kid.

Questions you should consider:
Are you creating an environment whereby the patron might reasonably believe that the library claims to be an expert in an area, or do you provide a service or allow a behavior the patron comes to expect as part of normal library service?

If so, what happens when you perform poorly against this expectation? Are you in breach of this unwritten contract? And then, have you done harm by not fulfilling this contract?
So yeah, I don't want to be viewed as an expert in anything. And since you've read this blog, you already know I'm no expert in the world of library stuff.

But if a patron wants to know where the bathroom is, I think it's over there somewhere. But I can't say for certain. You might sue me after you experience it.