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.
June 21, 2001 - O Brave New World, Such Big Brothers
At the beginning of the computer revolution, circa 1985, PC's offered the promise of individual liberty. In the work place, managers could run their own spreadsheets instead of waiting for the mighty MIS (Management Information Services) department to generate a report from the mainframe.
Instead of big, centrally administered computers, we have had millions of independent machines, all doing whatever their owners wanted them to do. This fundamentally changed the balance of power in many a company -- and enabled a headlong rush into general productivity.
That era is coming to an end. Why? The Internet has changed things. More and more information resides not on local machines, but on servers.
More and more of our work consists of not just the private manipulation of data, but the communication of that data. To facilitate this, more and more of our machines are directly wired into some kind of broadband system, with files flying both in and out of our machines all the time, and sometimes, without our knowledge.
Internet browsers now feature cookies: files on your machines that allow the vendors you visit to track your browsing habits. Juno.com, which once offered free e-mail, recently changed the terms of the arrangement: when you're connected to the Internet, Juno is using your machine to add to the general processing power. It also, incidentally, has total access to the contents of your hard drive, and will use your hard drive to write other files from other users.
Did you know, by the way, that all your e-mail (whether in business or in government) doesn't belong to you? At work, it belongs to your employer. In government, it belongs to the public, under the Open Records Act.
Then there's junk e-mail. Colorado citizens are all heated up about telemarketers, unwarranted intrusions into your private phone line by people trying to sell you something. Ask yourself what percentage of your e-mail these days comes from automatic programs that harvest your e-mail address from all over the place. Why? -- to send you offers so stupid that it would be funny, except that it takes longer and longer each day to receive, then delete them.
Then there are the programs that sniff around the web intercepting all sorts of information, but mostly how often sites are visited generally, and which passwords are entered as clear text over non-secure connections.
What does this have to do with libraries?
Well, just a couple of weeks ago, I got a call from a lawyer wanting to get a list of everything a woman had checked out about sex education; he was defending an alleged child molester, and wanted to explore just how innocent the child victim (the woman's daughter) had been.
More recently, a teenage hacker, in violation of our policies, had exploited a security hole in our network to download some software to our server. We spotted it, shadowed his session, and printed out records of where he'd been and what he'd done. He did not know we did that.
More recently still, "harassing" e-mail was sent from our library terminals, by patrons using web-based e-mail accounts. In one of these cases, the "harassment" was nothing more than free speech: somebody voicing his opinion, on his own time, about things that happened at work. (We got a copy of the message from his employer.)
In another recent case (not in Douglas County), somebody actually made a bomb threat from a library terminal.
At present, libraries have tried, quite consciously, NOT to permit our automated systems to gather information about you. When you check in a book, for instance, the connection between the book and your borrowing record is severed.
In none of the above cases, has the library provided any information to anyone outside the library. Yet we cannot allow our Internet workstations to be used to commit crimes. We can, and when conditions warrant it, WILL gather evidence to ensure that library use remains law-abiding.
The future of library computing seems to be based on something called "patron authentication." You won't just walk up to a computer that is open to the Internet. You'll log in as yourself. There will be many benefits: you'll be able to pick up where you left off the last time, you'll be able to customize all kinds of information, you'll be able to use your preferred search engines to search favorite commercial sites, paid for by the library, or to restrict the Internet access of your children. You could even set things up so that certain books or magazines that match your interest, will automatically be put on hold for you, or will e-mail themselves to you.
But you'll also have a profile of your computing and reading habits sitting on a library server. And that information will be available, through subpoena or court order, to duly appointed authorities.
O brave new world that has such Big Brothers in it.