Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Libraries are highly technological places. From books to microfilm readers to computers – a library that is free of technology is an oxymoron. Granted, there is a difference between a library being a highly technological place and a library being a high-tech place.
The technologies that one finds in a library are a reflection of a variety of intersecting needs and goals, paramount amongst them: ensuring access to informational resources. Books represent a rather ideal technology for these purposes as they are relatively inexpensive, easy to use, and it is simple to pass a book along from one person to another. As more information has shifted online (from the library catalog, to government information, to job/school applications) libraries have shifted space to make room for banks of computers – and though a patron cannot truly “check out” a computer, libraries recognize that access to a computer represents access to information. For Libraries, technologies have a great deal of utility, especially technologies that promote access without compromising the commitment that libraries have towards values such as privacy.
Libraries are responsible for the technologies found within their walls, both the tools purchased and disseminated by the library and the technologies that patrons use within the library. It is the ultimate responsibility of the library (its staff, that is) to maintain itself as a safe, open, and public space where people can feel free to research, explore, or simply sit and read without worrying about who is watching them. While the values of librarianship may be intertwined with certain technologies, these values are not in and of themselves technological – in other words, the value comes first, not the technology. Libraries need not approach a new device with wariness but with awareness, and with a willingness to tell patrons that the use of certain devices is not permitted within the library.
All of which is a long set-up to reach a simple point: Google Glass should not be permitted in libraries.
While it may seem rather odd to make such a declaration at a point where Glass is more of a curiosity than a common device, it is important to take pre-emptive steps to mitigate Glass’s potential impact before it becomes too common (if that ever happens). It is by establishing a stance towards Glass at the outset that libraries can best position themselves as participants in the discussion around this new technology instead of struggling to adjust once the device has started to raise more issues. Furthermore the fantastically botched job that Google has performed in rolling out Glass has created a space wherein groups and institutions can feel secure in wanting to approach Glass with a healthy degree of skepticism.
At the most obvious level the primary reason that libraries should take action to not allow Glass has to do with patron privacy. Though it is incorrect to think that Glass is always filming or always taking pictures, the fact remains that Glass can easily switch from not filming to filming – and though a little light becomes visible when the device is filming, this light may not be visible to the person being filmed. While libraries are certainly filled these days with people carrying smartphones (which take pictures), if somebody with a smartphone begins taking pictures it is easier to recognize this and ask them to stop than it is to stop a person who can just glance in a direction and say “take a picture.” A library needs to protect the privacy of its patrons, it needs to maintain an atmosphere where individuals can browse the stacks, or search online, secure in their sense that they can trust the library’s discretion. This trust carries over to the library protecting patron privacy from other patrons – a library would not give patron records to other patrons, why would they allow the risk of patrons being photographed by other patrons? To be able to fully explore a library unencumbered a library patron needs to feel that there is nobody glancing over their shoulder be it Big Brother or the big bother wearing Glass.
Much of the concern around Glass in libraries goes beyond simply considering the importance of privacy in a given moment to considering the larger atmosphere that the library seeks to cultivate. For most libraries the goal is to encourage access, curiosity, and to allow for exploration of information within a context where individuals feel safe and comfortable. Most libraries seek to maintain a convivial and communal environment wherein patrons can work unmolested and unbothered – and this requires libraries to consider what types of behaviors and actions are considered inappropriate and disruptive; behaviors and actions can include technology. Google Glass in a library seems an invitation for a confrontation that leaves the Glass wearing patron, other patrons, and the library staff all in a confused state as to the appropriate course of action. For Glass may prove to be just as disruptive to library users as a patron who begins blasting music – but unless a library has clear policies it will leave the staff without a clear course of action.
Confrontation in a library is rarely a pleasant occurrence and the more that libraries can do to minimize such risks the better, not allowing Glass to be used in a library is simple risk mitigation (which is not to even delve into the questions about copyright that Glass poses for libraries). Furthermore, and this is key, to say that Glass is not to be used in a library is not to tell the Glass user they are not welcome, it is to ask them to refrain from using an optional device out of respect for their fellow library users. After all, libraries regularly set in place policies that limit patrons’ technological usage out of respect for other patrons (headphones, no talking on the phone, no taking pictures) – asking people not to wear Glass comes from a similar sentiment. Technology firms may love to speak of “disruption” but in a library Glass is simply disruptive.
A library is a community space, whether that community be broadly defined as the “public” or a “university” or a smaller group; libraries have an obligation to seriously consider new technologies that may promote access for their community. Yet this obligation also entails an obligation to consider ways in which new technologies may harm that community – and people feeling that their privacy is less secure are people who have not been served by their library. Libraries should have no qualms about asking patrons to respect their fellow patrons – saying “we have a no Glass policy” at the outset is just another way of saying “we have a respect your fellow patrons policy.”
Glass is a relatively new technology, it is still being introduced, and Google has clearly encountered some challenges along the way. Nevertheless, Google still seems quite committed to Glass. Therefore libraries need to consider what their policies will be towards Glass – and similar devices – and this is a matter which libraries need to be considering sooner rather than later. As they contemplate such matters libraries should bear in mind that they have a commitment to serving the public interest, not whatever is in the best interests of a technology company.
Libraries are filled with technology; they are also filled with people. By taking a strong stance on Glass, libraries can demonstrate clearly that they are putting people first.
[Looking for a ready made “No Glass” sign? Stop the Cyborgs has some great ones available for download]
[Image Note – the background library picture is “Städtische Bibliotheken Dresden Ecke Prager Straße – Rechnerpool email@example.com” from wikipedia by Conrad Nutschan – the “no Glass” logo was added by the Luddbrarian]