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Tip of the Hat

13 August 2020

Week Roundup - In The News and What Would You Do?


Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat! Last week was a busy week. Here’s a recap of what you might have missed.

LDH in the News

What Would You Do?

One public library in New Jersey has been finding various ways to support their community while the library building is closed, but one strategy has started a debate on Library Twitter – using patron data to do welfare checks:

Recently, the Library decided to take more direct action to help the Roxbury community. Armed with its enormous patron database, library staffers are going through the list and, literally in descending order, calling the oldest and most vulnerable of Roxbury's residents to inquire on their well-being, let them know someone cares and will listen, and when need be to connect them to vital resources to get them through this difficult time.

The article goes on to describe how this strategy led to an increase in requests for masks to be distributed by the library.

While this single instance seems to have had a positive outcome, the use of the data collected by the library to do wellness checks brings up the question of "we could, but should we?" concerning using patron data in this manner. Some of the issues and considerations brought up on Library Twitter include:
  • Scope creep – several library workers serve as de facto social workers in their communities. How can libraries in this position support their community while working with local community organizations and local government departments who are better suited for social work? How can this work be done while honoring patron privacy?
  • Data quality – the article stated that the library staff used the age listed in the patron database. How reliable is that data? ILS migrations and even the move to an automated library system can introduce data quality issues in the patron record, including age.
    • For example – one library that moved from a paper-based system to an ILS in the mid-1990s still found patrons whose birthdays were listed as the date of the migration years later.
  • Notice and consent – patrons have certain expectations when giving data to libraries. Some of these expectations come from what the library states in their privacy and confidentiality notices, as well as other communications to patrons from the library. It's safe to say that libraries don't list "wellness checks" in their patron privacy notices as one potential use of patron data. This gets into the issue of using data outside of the stated purposes when the data was exchanged between the patron and the library. Recent data privacy legal regulations and best practices address this by requiring businesses to inform about the new use and to get affirmative consent before using the data for said new use.
There are some other items brought up in the Twitter discussion, such as different expectations from patrons, the size of the community, and patron-staff relationships. Some patrons chimed in as well! Like many other real-world data privacy conundrums, this one is not as clear cut in terms of how to best approach addressing the issue at hand – making sure that patrons in under-supported or vulnerable community groups get the support that they need.

We want to hear from you – what would you do in this situation? Email us at newsletter@ldhconsultingservices.com and we’ll discuss the results in a future newsletter. We will not post names or institutions in the newsletter results, so email away and we’ll do the rest to protect your privacy as we discuss patron privacy. Let us know what you think!
Have a question or topic that you want us to write about? Email us at newsletter@ldhconsultingservices.com!