For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
July 29, 1998 - E-mail Policy Issues
I use e-mail. A lot.
At work, I'm logged into a high speed network that makes grabbing my messages a snap. I do it many times a day -- it's a good filler for those odd moments between tasks. When I get home, I usually check my mail at least once again before I go to bed.
Most of the e-mail is work-related -- usually from other librarians who can't keep off their computers, either. Some of it is just for fun, keeping up with friends, swapping jokes and poetry. As is true of so many people, my job is not just a job, it's a lifestyle. The lines between work and fun blur sometimes.
But checking e-mail in two locations (work and home) occasionally leads to trouble. Most e-mail programs fetch messages from a central server, transfer them to your hard drive, then delete the mail from the server. So when I fetch my mail from two computers, sometimes my work messages wind up at home, and my just for fun messages wind up at work. That's fine until the message I really need to review before a meeting -- isn't there. It's at home.
I mention this not because my e-mail habits are exceptional. In fact, I think they're fairly common. But that leads me to a library issue.
I announced in a previous column that our computer system now has the ability to send out e-mail notices. When your hold comes in, when you have something overdue, or for any of a host of other reasons having to do with your library card, the notice goes to your e-mail box. I thought some people would like the option and it might cut down on phone calls and postage.
Almost immediately, what I thought was a minor patron convenience turned into a ticklish policy question. The very first person who asked for the e-mail option also wanted it for everyone else in her family. But she wanted all the notices to come to her e-mail address.
At first blush, you may ask, what's the problem? Isn't an e-mail address like a postal address?
No. It's not. When we mail a regular notice to somebody's house, it's because that's where the person lives. We imagine that the person has access to his or her mail. It may be the case that someone else opens the mail. (Not, I want the world to know, in MY family's house. We view these things as sacred.) But when the library mails a piece of paper to somebody's house, we know that we've done our job. We've notified the person at the place where that person lives.
E-mail doesn't work like that. Let's say a husband and wife share an e-mail account. Both of them have access to it. Both of them grab their mail from work and from home. But suppose the husband is at work when he snags the e-mail message (a book on hold) for his wife?
There are two questions. First, why is the library automatically revealing to the husband what the wife is reading? Second, even supposing that the wife gave us permission to do so, have we, in fact, delivered our message?
When we leave a voice message on a phone machine, at least the wife can listen to the message herself. But if it's on her husband's work machine... Well, we're going to get yelled at because she never KNEW about the message, and she's been waiting for eight months for that book, and now we've gone and given it to the next person on the list because she never came and got it!
Then we get into the issues about the right to privacy of children. Again, parents may feel they have the perfect right to open their children's mail. That's between them.
But I have to wonder, does the child even have access to the e-mail account? By delivering his or her mail to somebody else's account, it seems to me that I not only haven't delivered the message, but I have just handed over whatever confidentiality used to exist between that child and the library. I realize that this is the worst case scenario, but suppose the book on hold is about incest?
Should a library allow a new technological wrinkle to rewrite whole library policy and procedure?
As I say, this automation stuff gets tricky. About fifty percent of my job, lately, is steering our institutional raft through the rapids of computer-induced change.
At any rate, I have informed our staff that e-mail notices only go to individual e-mail accounts, not shared accounts. If we catch a duplicate, we'll ask the family to choose: who gets it? This procedure prevents goof-ups, protects patron rights, and makes sure that the mail goes through to the person intended to receive it.
And that's ALL we're trying to do here.