Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Library Records: the future of our history

In addition to your personal library habits, I would like to discuss the practice of maintaining library records for historical research. Pawley was able to access records that indicated which books a patron checked out and how often a patron visited the library. Libraries today take very serious measures to make sure those exact records are not accessible, and in many cases, do not exist. Do you believe that this practice will have an affect on the quality of library history that is written in the future? If so, how do we strike a balance between protecting personal information and providing a true historical record?

15 comments:

Alycia said...

I was thinking about this a lot as I read Pawley's book as well and I wonder if there is a way to track info about a book (how often it is checked out, requested, etc.) and not necesarily about the patron that checks it out? Or the general info about a patron and not the specifics (some sort of demographics about them not tied to their name)? All of which unfortunately makes for pretty unexciting or unhelpful sources to the historian, however...I would love to hear if anyone knows more about what is being done in this area?

hannahreese said...

I am just not sure exactly why librarians do this. I'm sure it must have something to do with the patriot act, but i'm not sure how. who are the librarians hiding this information from? and what are they protecting? i just don't have a clear idea on this.

anne said...

I believe that the ILS that the UW uses allows librarians to track the records of an idividual book but not of a single user. I am not sure if that means names are tied to a the circulation record of a book but I do know the libraires can track the university status of the patron of each charge and reports can be created from that information. Can someone who works more closely with the circulation interface explain further?

Kelly said...

At the library where I work, our checkout program allows us to see how many times a particular books has been checked out, but not by whom. The computer keeps a list of who has books that are currently out, but it doesn't save the names once the books are scanned back in.

If for some reason a book is returned without having been properly checked out in the first place, or if a book is used in-house, I just check it out to myself and then check it back in again to make sure the circulation records accurately reflect how often the book is used.

Kelly said...

Oh, in response to Hannah's question, librarians are hiding information from the FEDS! Under the Patriot Act, the FBI could demand access to patron records without a warrant. Most librarians oppose this because they want patrons to feel free to check out any books they like without worrying that someone will later use their choice of reading material against them.

Bethany said...

Awesome question. I was wondering this myself as I was reading Pawley. I would just say that I'm not sure it's important to know the exact patron checking a book out for historical records, but more of how many times a book was checked out, was in popular, was it popular for a particular period, or was it steadily useful to individuals. I think that tracking what an individual patron has been checking out is a dangerous line to cross in regards to privacy- I also think that the FBI having access to those records makes it susceptible to serious misuse- not everyone who checks out materials about bombs is a bomber, obviously not everyone reading about terrorism is a terrorist- For more than one class I've had to check out materials about terrorism. I think there is a big leap between educating oneself about something and becoming that thing- are we what we read? So, I guess I'm willing to sacrifice a bit of history in order to preserve the rights and privacy of the patron- I think this will help the library more in the long run.

Katie Hanson said...

I thought a lot about this issue too as I was reading, but even more so at the conclusion of the book, where Pawley brings up the issue of electronic texts and materials that are much more ephemeral. I guess by extension, it also brings up the issue of how well catalogs with electronic records will survive in the future. There are good reasons for today's situation for deleting the use stats of patrons and occassionally purging the catalog of unneeded materials (the Patriot Act and just general privacy concerns being major ones), but I fear that research similar to that done by Pawley will be impossible in the future. Yes, we can run reports and say that so many books circulated in such and such a time, but the connections between individual patron and book have been lost. I doubt that few libraries would be convinced of the need of creating a preservable record of library use and collections simply for the sake of future historians. The priority simply isn't present right now. Will this result in a very different sort of library history in the future, one that might have to force out the individual patron and focus solely on the 'big picture' as generated by library stats today? Or will we have to rely on other sources (preserved readers' blogs? book club materials? individual recollections? bookstore records?) to compile a picture of the print universe today?

Katie K said...

Reading on the Middle Border frustrated me because I really wanted to know if Pawley saw Osage, IA as an exception to the rule or as the norm, specifically in terms of patron records. I, like many others, was amazed at the depth available, but I wanted to know if it was common among these small, pioneer town public libraries to keep such detailed circulation records.

hannahreese said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
SarahStumpf said...

I worked at a library when I was a teenager (1998-1999) that also did not keep any reccord of who checked what out after the book was returned (unless you accrued a fine, then the fineable title and book barcode number were listed), this was not a post 9/11 phenomena. I don't know enough about library history however to know why they used software like this, or even if it was more widespread then just Green Bay WI. I wonder if the ALA has some kind of official position on this....

Lia said...

All the libraries I have worked in (four total), have used software that immediately purged records. I have had so many patrons over the years come up and ask the reference and circulation desks wanting to read a book they had checked out years previous, sometimes even months, but there was no way to find that info because it simply wasn't there anymore. This has been the case before 9/11 when many libraries converted from paper systems to computer systems. I wonder if it isn't a matter of storage space, in addition to privacy. Records like (especially when patrons can take out a limit of 100 items) can take up so much needed space. I agree with Katie Hanson's comments about how the research Pawley has done cannot happen with the systems as they are now and wonder where that will leave us in the future.

Gillian D. said...

I myself miss the days of the cards you'd sign your name on to checkout the book. It was always fun to see who shared your reading habits. And also to see how many times you had checked out a favorite book.

The change to unpreserved computer records also does mean a severe loss to future historians trying to learn from circ records.

Molly said...

In light of all of the privacy restrictions today, it is interesting that the UW is still in the process of getting everyone to switch over from a social security number based ID to a random ID.

On another note - those of you who have already read The Dismissal of Ruth Brown for another class know that circulation records are also a focus of that book. Louise makes a point regarding the fact that without those records much of her research could not have been accomplished. I will be interested to see the turns historical research takes in the future (both library related and non-) as a result of electronic documentation and email correspondence. How will such things be kept "for posterity" if they are not printed out?

Hannah Gray said...

In terms of striking a balance between protecting info and keeping a true historical record, I think it is significant that although Pawley had access to very detailed records and knew who was checking out what, she still had to make a lot of guesses. Even when she knew a person's name and status within the community, much of the time Pawley did not truly know why someone was checking out a book. Was someone reading a book because they truly enjoyed it, or someone else had reccomended it, or were they just curious? Even with very detailed library records there are limits to the amount of information one can glean from the records. You don't really know if the reader actually finished the book. I understand the concerns someone may feel at having their book selection disseminated (especially by the government), but really how much information do these records reveal? Pawley often found herself speculating and that's all this information really is-speculative.

potter said...

I would agree with Alycia, it seems that there must be some way to keep track of what is being checked out and by who without divulging specifics. Additionally I know that with a lot of information it can't be accessed for a number of years, does this hold true for library circulation inforamation? If so it would make it difficult of researchers today but it would still be availble for future reasearchers.