Frances Jacobson Harris on next steps for libraries and youth privacy

At the close of the American Library Association’s Privacy and Youth conference held in March, participants were asked to gather in small groups to address next steps. We had spent time explicating the issues and airing our concerns. Now was the time to recommend action. Here are some of the themes that emerged from our discussions.

1. Make it clear that youth privacy is a library issue. Several participants noted that privacy issues were a hard sell in their libraries. And it’s true – we often find ourselves in the position of trying to convince our own ranks that privacy is a core professional value and that we can and should integrate issues of privacy into much of what we do. But the impulse to protect privacy may sometimes feel in conflict with other important professional principles. For example, as a school librarian, I have had to put enormous focus on the allied youth rights issues of information access and freedom of speech. I’ve been all about opening information and communication doors in both directions – in as well as out – perhaps at the expense of privacy concerns. My own light bulb moment came during the conference when Cory Doctorow opined that “librarians speak with enormous moral authority,” and that a person can’t say bad things about librarians without “sounding kind of like a jerk.” The reputation he describes cannot be bought; it gives us a golden ticket to take the high ground on privacy issues and highlights the role of libraries as (physical and virtual) centers of civic engagement. The challenge lies in determining how to promote use of the information resources and communication technologies that empower and enable young people, while also giving them the tools and understanding they need to protect their own privacy and the privacy of others.

2. Enlarge current notions of youth privacy. Privacy is not just a Facebook issue for young people. If we truly want to empower youth to take charge of their privacy, we need to talk about all manner of threats. The effort needs to go beyond “think before you post on Facebook” to include “count the number of surveillance cameras at your school, the mall, the places you hang out” and “ask what information your school’s monitoring software collects about you.” We need to make sure young people understand that if a product is free, it generally means they are the product – their personal information is being traded in exchange for “free” tools or services.

3. Cast a wide net. In my small group we spent quite a bit of time trying to define the audience and the scope for library-driven privacy initiatives, finally coming to the conclusion that an effective and sustainable effort has to be multifaceted.  No one-size-fits-all strategy will meet the needs of our varying audiences and communities. Rather, our programs must employ multiple strategies and target an array of different audiences and circumstances. With shrinking budgets and staffing, online access to privacy information will be essential. We need  resources that educators and others can draw on at will. Efforts also need to consider the needs of vulnerable populations like homeless people, new immigrants, and low income patrons. Finally, we also need to keep in mind that individuals and groups may have different perceptions of privacy and that targeted resources should reflect those distinctions.

So – what next?

The approach. Participants universally agreed that simply lecturing young people about privacy could only be counterproductive. Instead, they should be given opportunities to talk to one another directly, share their stories (personal stories can be so powerful!), and create their own vocabulary around the issue. Speaker Nathan Wright noted that the term “privacy” isn’t necessarily in teens’ vocabulary, but that they do talk about feeling safe, in control of a situation, trusting certain people and groups, and feeling an understood or implied sense of intimacy. When we (adults) hear phrases like “avoiding drama” and “minding your own business” instead of “privacy,” we need to recognize the link and help make it explicit. We can also build credibility for our own efforts by approaching the privacy topic through our strengths in defending First Amendment and information access issues. Finally, we lose any ground we might gain if we use fear tactics; instead, our emphasis needs to be on giving young people the tools to become critical consumers.

The team. Privacy is a many-player endeavor. Librarians don’t have to go it alone, nor do they need to reinvent the wheel. The Office for Intellectual Freedom set the precedent for ALA by inviting other organizations already engaged in privacy work to participate in this conference and by maintaining relationships with partners. At the implementation level, librarians should first check resources developed by the likes of (and its sister sites), the Internet Education Foundation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, OnGuardOnline (a federal government and technology industry collaboration), and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada before creating their own from scratch. Local organizations and social service groups may be interested in collaborating with the library. Commercial partners might also add popular appeal (and dollars!) to a campaign. Just make sure that partner organizations share the same values about privacy issues.

Parents are certainly key players. Programs that are directed to parents can initiate a trickle-down effect, particularly if accompanied by family discussion guides and other tools that help one generation talk to another. Hook parents and caregivers with child safety materials, then move on to the more granular issues. Let parents know they can communicate with their children without violating their privacy. Schools, both private and public, are an essential part of the team. Educators can have a huge impact on youth privacy – for good or for ill – so they must be brought on board sooner rather than later. Some school librarians don’t understand the privacy issues with library circulation records, let alone with Facebook. Many teachers haven’t devoted much thought to the issues at all. Privacy instruction can’t be sold as another add-on, but should and can be integrated into existing curricula and programs.

The methods. Here are but a few of the specific strategies mentioned during the conference. Each one assumes that the messaging is tailored to its audience and is designed appropriately for its delivery mechanism.

  • After-school discussions, at school or in the public library
  • “How-to” privacy settings workshops, led by peers, librarians, or teachers
  • Toolkits – infinitely customizable for a multitude of audiences
  • Bite-sized handouts – bookmarks and calling cards
  • Privacy workshop road shows
  • Youth-produced videos on privacy themes
  • “How-to” video tutorials on privacy settings on the ALA YouTube channel
  • Privacy calendar with reminders to update privacy settings and change passwords
  • An app with “Did you know?” or “Tip of the week” features
  • Public service announcements and READ-style posters that feature celebrities
  • Social media delivery, from Twitter to YouTube, targeted to diverse audiences
  • Handouts (and other media) that address privacy issues related to ebooks and circulation records
  • High quality content on the website
  • Video, poetry, and writing contests on privacy themes
  • Research grants to study privacy and youth issues
  • Focus and discussion groups on privacy issues
  • “Privacy IQ” Survey
  • ALA Emerging Leaders involvement
  • Continuing education and privacy curriculum for teachers and librarians
  • Book or film discussions on privacy-related themes
  • Logo and other visual identity material
  • A list of “Top Ten” questions to ask before posting on a social network site

I’d like to end this blog entry with a quote from one participant’s post-conference personal reflections:

“I left the conference feeling more strongly than ever that we need to focus on education, not protection, when it comes to young people and privacy. We want to provide young people with the resources they need to make informed decisions for themselves, NOT to limit their information and choices under the guise of safety. This is true both for issues of online identities/digital footprints AND for broader issues of surveillance from schools, parents, and the government.”

Hear, hear!

Frances Jacobson Harris is a school librarian at University Laboratory High School, and Professor of Library Administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She blogs at


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