Libraries, Privacy, and… Tropes?

Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat!

A popular way to procrastinate at LDH is to dig through the pile of articles and other literature about all facets of privacy: regulations, ethics, practices, current events… the current events pile is at overcapacity at the moment. In these piles of articles, we come across one particular trope that we’d like to address – libraries as exemplars of privacy ethics and practices.

This trope is similar to others in other mainstream stories that use libraries as exemplars for other things, such as community engagement, democracy, and learning centers. The “library as privacy exemplar” trope coexists with these other tropes, sometimes in the same story. Other times the trope is front and center of an article. An example of this is an IAPP article about general privacy practices at the library. At best, this article demonstrates the attitude and tone of how many writers think about the library as an enlightened entity with their focus on privacy. Near the end of the article comes another trait that these articles tend to share, which is modeling privacy practices off of the library profession: “While library culture tilts heavily in favor of protecting the ‘citizen from state’ intrusion, that same culture can be mobilized to advocate for ‘customer’ privacy as well in relation to third-party service providers.”

All of this leads us to a hidden danger in the “library as privacy exemplar” trope, which is unquestioned trust in libraries in all matters of privacy and data ethics. Some of that trust has been earned – there are several library privacy initiatives, such as the Library Freedom Institute, that are very active in the greater community in their advocacy and education around data privacy. In addition, LDH’s conversations with technology workers in other fields have made it clear that professionals in other industries wished that they had strong professional ethics and standards like the library profession.

Nonetheless, others from outside the library profession take this trust too far. For example, in Emma Trotter’s “Patron Data Privacy Protection at Public Libraries: The Ethical Model Big Data Lacks”, Trotter proposes that libraries should become personal data stores (PDS) where people can gather their data in one secure place and then manage the processing of their data by third parties. Trotter is very confident that libraries can become the ethical role model for Big Data with this marriage between PDS and library privacy ethics. Overall, Trotter believes that the ethical issues around Big Data would be negated once libraries become front and center in the overall management of Big Data.

While libraries do have a strong ethical basis around advocacy and adoption of privacy practices, libraries also have their fair share of privacy issues and gaps. Libraries are not immune to the same threats and vulnerabilities as other professions and industries, such as data leaks and breaches, ransomware attacks, phishing, and even underfunding or undertraining staff in ways to protect patron privacy. Librarianship also deals with ethical issues around their collection and processing of patron data, particularly for marketing and user profiling, as well as working with vendors who also collect and process patron data without giving the patron control over what is collected and processed. One doesn’t need to search too far to find an example of such – one being the Santa Cruz Public Library’s Civil Grand Jury Report about the numerous ethics breaches surrounding their use of patron data without full patron notice and consent, among other violations of patron privacy.

Yes, other industries can learn from libraries about how to approach privacy in their daily work, including ethics and advocacy, but libraries also have to be honest about the profession’s struggles around data privacy, both on a practical and ethical level. Part of that is being public with these struggles in the public discourse, be it with patrons or with people from other industries who are looking for a model to base their professional privacy ethics and practices on. Another part is re-evaluating how we, as a library profession, market ourselves as privacy experts and safe-keepers of data to our patrons. Again, libraries set themselves apart from other industries regarding privacy ethics and advocacy, but they cannot set themselves apart from the reality that is working with data in the real world that has real needs that fall into ethical gray areas and real data security and privacy risks.

CRMS 101

Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat! Today we have a brief overview of an acronym that is becoming a popular tool in libraries – the customer relationship management system [CRMS] – and how this new player in the library field affects patron privacy. While some folks know about CRMS, there might be others that are not exactly sure what they are, and what they have to do with libraries. Below is a “101”- type guide to help folks get up to speed on the ongoing conversation.


What is a CRMS?

A customer relationship management system [CRMS] manages an organization’s interactions with customers with the goal to grow and maintain customer relationships with the organization. CRMS products have been used in other fields outside of librarianship for decades, mostly in commercial businesses, but the increased importance in data analysis and improving customer experiences has led for wider adoption of CRMS products in other fields, including libraries.

What is a CRMS used for?

Many organizations use CRMS products to track various communications with customers (email, social media, phone, etc.) as well as data about a customer’s interests, demographics, and other data that can be used for data analysis. This analysis is then used to improve and customize the user experience (targeted marketing, personal recommendations, and invitations, etc.) as well as making business decisions surrounding products, services, and organization-customer relations. This analysis can also be used to create user profiles or for market segmentation research.

What are some examples of CRMS?

There are many proprietary and open source options, though Salesforce is one of the most recognized CRM companies in the overall field. In the library world, several library vendors sell standalone CRMS products, such as OrangeBoy’s Savannah. Other library vendors have started offering products that integrate the CRMS into the Integrated Library System [ILS]. OCLC’s WISE is one such example of this integration, while other library vendors plan to release their versions in the near future.

What data is collected in a CRMS?

A CRMS is capable of collecting a large quantity of very detailed data about a customer. Types of patron data that can be collected with a library CRMS includes (but not limited to):

  • Demographic information
  • Circulation information like total checkouts, types of materials checked out, and physical location of checkouts
  • Public computer reservation information
  • Electronic resource usage
  • Program attendance

In addition to library supplied data, other data sets from external sources can be imported into the CRMS ranging from US Census data to open data sets from cities and other organizations that could include other demographic information by geographical area (such as zip code) or by other indicators.

How is patron privacy impacted by CRMS?

The amount of information that can be collected by a CRMS is akin to the type of information collected by commercial companies who sell services and products. By creating a user profile, the company can use that information to personalize that customer’s experience and interactions with the company, with the ultimate goal of creating and maintaining return customers. Traditionally libraries do collect and store some of the same information that CRMS products collect; however, it is usually not stored in one central database. Creating a profile of a patron’s use of the library leaves both the library and the patron at high risk for harm on both a personal and organizational level. This user profile is subject to unauthorized access by library staff, data breaches and leaks, or intentional misuse by staff or by the vendor that is hosting the system. This user profile can also be subject to a judicial subpoena, which puts patrons who are part of vulnerable populations at higher risk for personal harm if the information is collected and stored in the CRMS.

Further reading on the conflict between the CRMS, data collection, and library privacy:

What can we do to mitigate privacy risks if we use a CRMS?

If your library chooses to use a CRMS:

  • Limit the type and amount of patron data collected by the system. For data that is collected and stored in the CRMS, consider de-identification methods, such as aggregation, obfuscation, and truncation
  • Perform risk assessments to gauge the level of potential harm connected by collecting and storing certain types of patron information as well as matching up patron information with imported data sets from external sources
  • Negotiate at the contract signing or renewal stage with the vendor regarding privacy and security policies and standards around the collection, storage, access, and deletion/retention of patron data, as well as who is responsible for what in case there is a data breach
  • Perform regular privacy and security audits for both the library and the vendor

We hope that you find this guide useful! Please feel free to forward or pass along the guide in your organizations if you are having conversations about CRMS adoption or implementation. LDH can also help you through the decision, negotiation, or implementation processes – contact us to learn more!