This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

April 24, 2002 - Patron Confidentiality

Sometimes I joke about it. Now that King Soopers and Safeway have foisted their credit cards on me (in exchange for some terrific discounts), I know that they can also track my purchasing habits. Not that my habits are all that weird. I buy tortillas and beans. I buy pre-grated cheese. I buy pre-chopped salad. I buy lots of fruit, and have a fondness for squash, and more rarely, cauliflower.

I like wild rice. I buy more chicken than beef. I have a weakness for sausage (both chorizo and Italian). I LOVE organic apple juice.

And now you know everything they know.

But occasionally, just to throw them off, I buy something I don't want, don't need, won't use. Try to profile ME, will they? Hah!

Childish? You bet. But I'm aware that with the advent of computers, it's getting far too easy to collect such data, both on the individual level, and the aggregate.

On the one hand, I understand that such data gathering is good business.

First, you have a really good handle on who buys what. That means you can identify both your customer base, and their preferences. Together, that translates to good inventory control. You stock what your customers want.

Second, you can target your advertising very precisely. You can generate coupons at the register for just those items people buy. That brings them back for other purchases. You can generate mailings (or sell lists for other people's mailings) for products most likely to appeal to them.

Together, these strategies mean more sales. They also mean, for many customers, that they only get the advertising that interests them.

So why not do the same thing in the library world? To check out a book or unlock a database, you already need (and probably already have) a library card. It would be simplicity itself to build patron profiles.

Many of our patrons have checked out literally thousands of books, videos, and tapes. Just by cross-tabbing our data files, we could easily determine that Ms. B- checks out mostly children's books, the odd mystery, and Vogue magazine.

It wouldn't be hard to take that one step further. What are her FAVORITE children's and mystery writers? When we get a new book, why not send her an e-mail to say we got it? Better yet, why not put it on hold for her automatically?

This would be good for her (less work to get more books). It would be good for us (less work for more use).

So why don't we? Why not adopt cutting edge technologies to push our inventory?

Well, librarians have a bias. We think that your transactions with us are nobody's business but yours. Every time we buy an automated system we demand that it deliberately throw historical data away.

That's worth highlighting. At this writing, there is NO public library computer system that gathers and stores the pattern of your library use.

How come? Because we hesitate to create a record that somebody else (NOT you) could ask for.

Maybe you're reading a book about mental illness. Maybe it's about divorce. Maybe it's about sexual dysfunction, or substance abuse, or bankruptcy.

If we don't preserve such information, then nobody can get it from us.

The recent decision of the Colorado Supreme Court (Tattered Cover versus the City of Thornton) says that "The First Amendment ... protects more than simply the right to speak freely .... it safeguards a wide spectrum of activities, including ... the right to receive information and ideas."

To librarians, the ideas you receive from the public library — the most comprehensive collection of intellectual artifacts imaginable, whose value is far beyond what even the wealthiest of our citizens can afford — are PRIVATE.

That means that the books, magazines, and web pages you read are nobody's business but yours, for whatever reasons you may have.

That means that the videos and DVD's and music you borrow from us, not to mention the questions you ask of us are, utterly confidential.

Frankly, sometimes this troubles me. We could offer you way better service. We could make your interactions with the library far more efficient. Librarians are really, really smart about just what technology can do.

But we've held ourselves back. Why? Because when it comes right down to it, we think that what YOU think about shouldn't be part of a governmental file.

What do you think about that? Are you glad we feel this way? Or is it time for us to get with the program, serving you better in the confidence that the courts will protect you?

I'd like to know. My phone number is 720-733-8624. You can also reach me at jlarue@jlarue.com.

I promise I won't tell anybody where it came from.

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