Although people are increasingly turning to Google to search for information, a corporate search engine is not the same as a trusted librarian. And while libraries are used to buying and preserving books, they are now often unable to buy and own digital materials because of publisher licensing restrictions.
The tension between the interests of business and the public was the focus of a conversation hosted by the Internet Archive and Library Futures on April 28. Wendy Hanamura moderated the event with guest panelists Joanne McNeil, author of Lurking: How a Person Became a User; Darius Kazemi, an internet artist and cofounder of Feel Train, a creative technology cooperative in Portland, Oregon; and Jennie Rose Halperin, executive director of Library Futures.
A recording of the event is now available:
Doing an online Google search can feel private because you are doing it alone at home, but corporations are accumulating your information and using it, said McNeil. The tools involved are imperfect and there are trade-offs involved.
“The experiences that a user has on the internet can be quite profound, creative, and very human,” McNeil said. “But to participate with a lot of the social media and websites, especially nowadays, you are dealing with corporations and you don’t have the elements of control.”
In Lurking, McNeil traces the evolution of the internet and how it has profoundly changed the way people communicate. She also examines concerns that people have online including privacy, safety, identity and anonymity. In the book, McNeil contrasts the short-term memories of companies with the preservation mission and public accountability of libraries.
Kazemi noted that working with librarians on research there is an understanding of privacy—something that is lacking when engaging online. “It’s a totally different accountability chain,” he said.
Rather than giving your personal information away on a social media network, Kazemi advocates having individuals or even libraries maintain small, independently-run online communities (see https://runyourown.social).
“Facebook can’t understand norms of what passes for civic discourse in every location on the planet. It’s impossible,” Kazemi said. “Libraries already spend time thinking about the norms of their communities,” making it natural to have content moderation at the local level.
Halperin said it’s important for public libraries to have autonomy to be able to fulfill their mission. Her work with the nonprofit Library Futures centers on advocacy for an equitable publishing ecosystem that serves authors, users and communities.
“Artificial scarcity that’s put on digital objects—as a way to create a market for digital books—is really hurting the public,” she said. “I think it’s one of the most important consumer protection issues right now.”
McNeil said the best thing to happen to her, as an author, is for people to read her book. Whether buying or borrowing from a library (in print or electronically), she wants to reach the largest audience.
The panelists said by working together, libraries can provide tools that reflect the public’s values and teach users smart digital citizenship. When corporations control what people have access to in searching, they are embedding bias into the distribution of information, said Halperin. “Libraries must engage in more than just individual information seeking needs, but also in the information seeking needs of communities.”