My High School Binder: Privacy and the Cyber Librarian

My High School Binder: Privacy and the Cyber Librarian

Over a year ago I was sitting in class listening to a speaker talk to us about virtual reference. He was discussing the pros and cons of a very expensive v-ref package, something our university library system had experimented with but hadn’t chosen to use in the end. The cons included frequent crashing and blue screens, and the pros mostly highlighted a function the cheaper packages didn’t have.

“Co-browsing,” he said. “It means we can control a patron’s browser remotely, take them to web pages, type in logins, that sort of thing.”

I was shocked.

Another story: some years ago now I spent many an hour coding an extensive historical recreation in an interactive environment. Essentially, you could wander through this virtual world and meet and talk with historical figures in the midst of some important moment in their life. St. Francis preaching to the birds; Marie de l’Incarnation looking out the convent window as her son stands below, demanding the return of his mother; Martin Luther defending his position among the Roman Inquisitors. One of the first little programs I created was one where the user would contract plague. They would experience all the symptoms over about a 20 minutes period, and then be magically cured by the patron saint of plague-suffers. The entire cycle started only if the user opted to pet a rat that they found in one of the tavern rooms. In another spot, I wrote a program that would add early English phrases to everything a user said. For instance, a user typing “Hi there!” to another user in the room would instead have said “By God’s blood! Hi there!”

There was serious consternation among the administration about these programs as I was writing them. Was it ethical to have our environment act upon a user without their explicit consent, and without them having any ability to stop it? While users were entering a world of my creation, where should my programming tweaks stop and the user’s autonomy take precedence? At what point did my neat little tricks start to seriously edge in on the user’s sense of control and self of (online) self? Could that violation damage the learning experience?

One of the issues involved in internet life has long been called ‘netiquette’; what is polite and what is offensive in this environment of the internet? What are the rules? How shall we determine good behaviour? As it turns out, the rules are still very much contested and in flux.

As far as I’m concerned, the user’s own computer is an extension of his or her brain. Your desktop is your mental landscape, your workspace; in order to truly create you need to feel safe within those four borders that make up the edge of your screen. Isn’t there something inherently creepy about the idea that someone might have an eye in on what you’re doing on your own computer? While a public terminal or lab computer may be simply a tool in the public eye with no personal owner, a personal computer is, to me, sacrosanct. It is a person’s personal view on the wired world, an archive of everything you’ve done, a half-empty notebook waiting for more bad poetry and silent declarations of undying love. A personal computer is that old high school binder with all the traded notes and pictures still in it. The teacher may control what kind of mimeographed papers end up inside it, but the housing itself, the binder, the words scrawled on the pages: that’s mine.

This is how I feel about my own computer, and nothing quite riles me in quite the same way as someone peering over my shoulder to read my screen. To me this is a serious breach of privacy, the same as peering into my ears in the hopes of seeing what I’m thinking. This computer is mine; the organization of the desktop is my own; while the software may be “owned’ by some fancy corporation, this iteration of it is mine. Asking for help is not the same as turning over my brain. Asking for help is not an invitation into my high school binder.

I suspect a librarian at the reference desk would not grab a patron’s notebook and start writing directions and advice in it. I presume she would not write a phone number on a patron’s hand in a magic marker, useful as that may be. She would not, I gather, take a patron’s notes, reorder them, add new headings, and hand them back in a shiny plastic folder. Are we so certain that “co-browsing” is a good idea in the first place? To me, taking remote control over a browser of a patron is unethical and an invasion of privacy.

I understand the appeal. It’s always easier to take the keyboard away and “show them how to do it right”. But should that be our professional practice?

What business are we in? That’s what my friend Jennifer Robinson always asks. Are we in the business of doing a patron’s learning for them, stepping in and typing the keywords for them, or are we in the business of helping patrons to find what they need, providing some help and guidance in the ebbs and flows of the information world? Yes, it’s so much easier to do it for them. It’s easier to take over control of their hands browser and show them how its done. It’s harder to give clear, verbal or type-written help based on the needs and skill level of a patron. It’s harder to listen in over the phone as a patron does the typing with two fingers. It’s harder to start from scratch and explain where the search box is and what goes in it.

But isn’t that our job?

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