Libraries need Leaders!

September 18, 2017

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By Trisha Ward, Assistant Director, Libraries NI

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.


An invitation that starts ‘would you be interested in joining a group of key stakeholders as a guest of the Carnegie UK Trust on a study trip to New York’ is unusual in my inbox. And when the purpose became clear ‘to explore how American librarians and libraries are facilitating and advocating for citizen’s online data privacy and freedom of expression’ I couldn’t refuse. And it was eye-opening.

First Impressions

One of the joys of travelling is the opportunity to pop into different libraries. I was struck with the New American’s i.e. immigrants corners. NYPL provide cards advising non-citizens of their constitutional rights to privacy and a great range of programmes. We heard about American librarians telling customers by putting up a poster (so called’ warrant canaries’), warning that the FBI haven’t asked this week about customers’ use of the internet.  In a proactive way organisations like the American Library Association (ALA) are challenging the data sharing practices of third party software providers.

If we can agree that social justice is the way in which human rights are manifested in everyday life then I believe libraries have a role in social justice. In America public libraries have played this role and have become, in a very high profile way, advocates for citizens’ rights especially in relation to privacy. The #LibrariesRespond campaign against decisions by the government on the so called Dreamers Charter (DACA) is one example of how much more political American libraries are than libraries in the UK and Ireland. Personally I believe that it’s not a role which should be peculiar to America. I’m not sure everyone would agree.  However I have no doubt that we have a responsibility to take on a leadership role in relation to protecting our customers’ privacy rights.

What Next?

Libraries have multiple roles. Brian Ashley in his blog referred to the role of libraries in creating space for debate. This is very true in Northern Ireland where the lack of other ‘neutral’ civic spaces is very evident. Aude Charillion wrote about the need for individual authorities to be transparent as service providers in how they use data and their role as educators.

But libraries are so much more. We are procurers of services and data processors. Through the provision of information, of facts rather than ‘fake news’, we enable people to engage in our democracies. Most importantly we are a national trusted brand in the delivery of services which help the public operate in an online environment. If we lose this trust, have we lost a unique selling point?

I think there are two main issues to be addressed. Both are about leadership in the profession.

Martha Lane Fox, speaking to the House of Lords this month said ‘We must ask ourselves: do we have the digital understanding to provide the leadership we need in this time of technological change?’  I’m not sure that we do. In New York we met lawyers, IT experts and educators who all were working in leadership roles in libraries and with bodies like ALA to support libraries. Are the same skills available in public libraries in the UK and Ireland?

This is more than skilling library staff to give support to individual library users and ensuring they are always (at least) one step ahead of customer expectations. It is about ensuring digital is in the DNA of our leadership and also about identifying the skills we need to have in our organisations. And if we cannot ensure that we have the skills in-house, that the Council’s legal department understands the issues we face, let’s ensure one of the bodies who provides national leadership can support this deficit.

A Co-ordinated Approach

Martha Lane Fox also pointed to the admirable work of a network of public organisations who can ‘more tangibly build our nation’s digital understanding’. I like to think she was thinking of libraries in that network. However she pointed out the need for co-ordination and focus. Surely libraries can contribute to this conversation – but whose role is it to co-ordinate libraries. CILIP, the library and information asociation obviously have a role and it is great to see the more recent moves by our professional body to take on this leadership role. In the recent poll on ethics, Respect for confidentiality and privacy in dealing with information users gained most support so obviously the debate is happening.

And what are we going to do? There is a role for all individual authorities in modelling good practice. This extends from service delivery through to procurement and data processing but obviously the starting point is developing a privacy policy. That’s what we are going to look at in Northern Ireland.


P.S. CILIP Update just arrived and Privacy is on the front page –can we keep it at the front of all of our agendas.