What libraries should protect

In the digital age the idea of being concerned about someone knowing which books we read may seem strange. But as a matter of principle I feel it should be important that this kind of information is not saved. Very often we hear the argument: if you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide.

That argument is so stupid that its incredible. It shows that a pithy statement will turn peoples intelligence off. Think about any persecuted minority and then repeat the statement one more time. I dare you.

So back to the library.

The books I read can tell you a lot about me. But the problem is that you cannot know what books I read and how they have impacted my life from a list of books I have borrowed from the library. This list will tell you nothing about whether I read them, how I understood them, if I read them to criticize or to admire… or just to impress someone else. All you know is that I have borrowed them. Unfortunately, in times of stress, such data will be used as “proof” of something. And not only in times of stress.

In January this year the Swedish Justitiekanslern (Chancellor of Justice) found that the university library in Göteborg (my uni) was not wrong to save data on borrowed books and the borrower even after the books were returned. (case 2356-09-42: Personsuppgiftslagen (1998:204) är inte tillämplig på personuppgifter i ett låntagarregister som förs fortlöpande vid ett universitetsbibliotek decided 2011-01-17

Their reasoning is that the information about the books and borrower fall under the well established Offentlighetsprincipen (principle of public access) and would be saved – and made accessible to anyone who wants it. Information that falls under Offentlighetsprincipen may be removed from the archives under certain conditions.

In the case of the books individual borrowers have borrowed this data is removed two years after the library card expires.

Since I have had a library card at my library since 1997 or maybe even earlier all the books I have every borrowed from my university library are a matter of public record and can be extracted by anyone.

So I am dismayed, but not surprised, by the outcome of the decision by the Chancellor of Justice. But what really gets me annoyed is the attitude of the libraries. This is not the kind of data they should be collecting. This is not the attitude they should be having towards their readers. Their behavior does not promote openness, but rather will decrease the likelihood of people reading “suspect” material – whatever that may be. I thought libraries were all about open mindedness and learning. Now I am sure that what they are doing is convenient for them – and we have come to expect companies selling the souls of their employees and customers for their convenience.

But libraries? For shame.

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