Monday, December 8, 2008

Omnipotent OPAC

With the proliferation of digital technologies and the advent of OPACs in many libraries around the world, there has been a dramatic increase the amount of somewhat personal information being gathered and stored. This pattern inherently leads to ethical questions of privacy and potential conflicts with patrons. This situation is not new; there are many companies that tract the websites an individual visits, stores the data, and attempt to use it by catering advertisements to their particular interests. The worst part of this trend is that during most of the instances that this information is being stored, it is being performed behind the scenes and unbeknownst to most people. As the cost of digital memory has decreased and the number of library institutions using OPACs has increased over the recent years, this trend has even spread to many people’s local library.
In order to use some OPACs, or at least in order to use certain services provided by the OPAC, many individuals need to log-on using their personal library card. After logging onto the system, any search or transaction that is made can be recorded in a database. The most typical use is to simply keep a record of what the individual has checked out to serve as a reminder to that individual of what he or she has read. While this may seem like harmless information, it does represent personal information that some people would rather not be kept. What is worse, most people are completely unaware of the potential for the recording of the information. This data gathering has taken on increased importance in recent years as any information stored by the library could be legally seized by the government under the Patriot Act. The question is how libraries should handle gathering this information.
One option would be to allow the OPAC system to automatically record and store the information for future use. If a particular patron decides they do not want this information stored on account of their privacy rights, they can notify the library staff, who can then turn off that option in the OPAC. The OPAC will then not record the data for this particular patron. Another method would be to allow this information to be gathered, but only store it for a short amount of time. This means that the library would protect all of its patrons’ privacy rights; however, this also means no one can enjoy the potential conveniences provided by the services based on the stored data.
Another option would be to initially turn off this feature on every patrons account so that there is no information automatically recorded or stored. The library could then make it known to their patrons that they have the option of allowing certain information about their accounts to be stored, which brings them certain conveniences and additional services. If they decide that they want this service and approve of that information being stored, they can opt into the service. The library staff can then turn on that feature to those who notify that they want to take part in it. This method has the benefit of protecting the privacy rights of patrons while allowing for those who are unconcerned with the privacy issues to take advantage of the conveniences offered by the service. This not only protects the patrons of a library, but also protects the library itself from any ethical dilemmas.

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