The conundrum of the well-meaning Information Professional.

Privacy debates usually centre around either secret government intelligence agencies or companies that thrive on the commercialisation of personal data, like Facebook and Google. In a post-Snowden world, reasons to treat both of these types of entities with apprehension when it comes to data aren’t hard to come across. But what to think of organisations that hold and accumulate large archives of personal data but that don’t exist to turn a profit and are not concerned with overcoming a possible threat to security?

I recently attended the KNVI yearly congress for information professionals, mostly aimed at those working at public, academic and other institutional libraries. As part of a series of talks called Customs, I heard Tjarda de Haan speak about De Digitale Stad, the first online community in the Netherlands. Tjarda is an e-curator and web-archeologist for the Amsterdam Museum, and is concerned with the reconstruction of this virtual city that existed between 1994 and 2001. The project will allow a fascinating glimpse into the early stages of a social, digital life. Modelled closely after physical manifestations of public and private spaces, inhabitants of the city could own a house and gather for public discussions at squares that were conveniently distinguishable by theme. As in ‘real life’ (to speak in the vernacular of the time) De Digitale Stad also facilitated private conversations between individual inhabitants. All of this means that, although it was a bottom-up initiative and philanthropically aimed at making the internet accessible to all, the growing server centre was – in the end – host to personal data that could now be potentially used for purposes not envisioned by the users at the time.

Fast-forward to the end of the congress, Frank Huysmans asked Lily Knibbeler of the KB (National Library of the Netherlands) what they do with the data of their visitors. At the KB you have to register to enter, and so the data they gather goes beyond who borrows which book. Lily reassured Frank that, at the moment, the KB doesn’t really do anything with that data, and if they ever would want to, they would let their users know in advance. An opt in/out system does sound reasonable, but would a visitor also be able to permanently delete or copy any data that they have previously produced? And who’s to say Lily’s successor shares her position on this? To illustrate the range of opinions that exists on this topic among librarians, let me quickly describe a discussion earlier this year. In March, I took part in a session for information professionals at the VOGIN-IP conference. The librarians present were asked what they would do if a police officer would ask or demand access to the library’s user database. Tellingly, the group was quite evenly divided between giving instant access and being highly protective of their users’ private data.

Here we have two instances of organisations (museums, libraries) that enjoy a large amount of goodwill. Tjarda mentioned being contacted by a former inhabitant of De Digitale Stad who was concerned that his private conversations on the platform with his then-girlfriend (now-wife) would be disclosed in the reconstruction of the virtual city. Like Lily did with Frank, she reassured this user that they would handle this private data carefully. You have to wonder though, how this dilemma of the information professional will play itself out. On the one hand, their job is to restore, archive, make accessible and navigable large accumulations of information. On the other hand, as the congress showed, they are aware of the possible negative effects the storing of this data might have. It was certainly interesting to hear from different points of view during the two events, but I wonder what form this discussion takes in library and museum organisations regarding actual courses of action.

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