“My brain hurts!” – How can libraries create a space to think about and debate issues around data privacy?

August 4, 2017

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by Brian Ashley. Director, Libraries, Arts Council England

This is part of a blog series examining the theme of online data privacy and public libraries. More information about the wider project can be found here.


“My brain hurts.” This was my first comment after returning from the extraordinary opportunity to reflect on the theme of ‘Public Libraries and Online Data Privacy.’ To hear from policy thinkers, librarians, advocates and government agencies gave us a much food for thought and discussion.

Two things immediately struck me. First, how important this issue is, striking at the heart of our self-identity, integrity and our relationship with authority. Secondly, that there is an almost irreconcilable tension between our desire for privacy; and our desire for convenience and security.

Why would we want to be the ‘tagged pigeons’ referred to in Catherine Stihler’s earlier blog, until we want to find the quickest way to the best food nearby? Why would we want our private contacts with friends and colleagues to be seen by anyone else, until we realise how grateful we are for the security services in foiling a terrorist attack?

Trying to imagine a coherent policy response that reconciles these tensions is why my brain hurt! In this context we were fascinated to hear about the role libraries and librarians have played in North America as high profile advocates for citizens’ rights with regards to data privacy and in educating the public about their rights. Future blogs will begin to reflect on how libraries might develop that role in the United Kingdom.

I think that there is a further role that libraries can play, in particular through their burgeoning relationship with the arts and culture. This is to give others the space to delve into the range and depth of issues this topic throws up. To develop an understanding of the impact and implications of the decisions we take – both as individuals and as a society. Perhaps more exciting, would be to create an environment in which those tasked with developing policy and regulatory frameworks can engage with those who will be most affected.

Into this arena we can welcome the artists and creatives who delight in unpicking such complex issues. Last year a Berlin based non-profit group called the Tactical Technology Collective took over a gallery in Lower Manhattan. They installed large screens, display cabinets and tablets, creating a space familiar with anyone who has been in an Apple Store. As people engaged with the technology they found themselves not in control but being controlled – discovering how little we know about privacy and data security.

Artists have a role to grab our attention by creating work that forces awareness of our current political and economic landscape and to challenge us to consider the direction in which we are heading. This is not a new phenomenon. Shakespeare’s plays have often been set in contemporary contexts to show how the issues he explores remain relevant. Nicholas Hytner’s 2010 production of Hamlet at the National Theatre was set in a world of security guards and CCTV. Nor is this always confined to traditional arts venues.

Libraries have long been places where art happens and can be discovered. We know they reach a demographic that conventional arts organisations would die for.   In recent years they have been developing their own practice and working with a wider range of arts and cultural organisations to present a huge range of work across theatre, dance, music, and the visual arts in spaces that people know and trust in their community.

In classical times libraries were the places where the great philosophers debated ideas. Nowadays we see ways in which libraries around the world are seen as places where communities can debate and explore issues of local and national importance.

It was clear to us in visiting New York that there is a real opportunity for libraries to open up debate about the issues of online privacy and data security. Much of this will be practical in nature; understanding the tools, rules and pitfalls when navigating online. It was also clear to us that it is an area rife with sensitivities. By engaging with artists and creatives, libraries can add an extra facet to help individuals, communities and society at large to understand the issues and find the best solutions.