Monthly Archives: November 2007

Archives, personal records, and privacy

Greyson alerted me to an article from the Vancouver Sun detailing new access policies for British Columbian archives that contain private personal data. Researchers who want to access records with sensitive personal data are being subjected to security checks of their computers, offices, and even homes. Apparently such checks, which seem on the surface outrageous (not to mention expensive) are already being carried out on Canadian and US researchers.

Draconian rules on archives use cast a chill on researchers
Stephen Hume, Vancouver SunPublished: Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Part of the problem seems to be in the definition of personal information. As Hume writes, it is defined as:

“an individual’s name, address or telephone number; race, national or ethnic origin, colour or religious or political beliefs or associations; age, sex, sexual orientation, marital or family status; an identifying number, symbol or other particular assigned; fingerprints, blood type or inheritable characteristics; health care history including a physical or mental disability; educational, financial, criminal or employment history; anyone else’s opinions about the individual; the individual’s opinions, except if they are about someone else. In other words, it’s a big net with a fine mesh.”

But as badly conceived as these definitions and the resultant new policies seem, they echo concern for an important point: archives do contain some truly sensitive personal data, and the permissions for reuse of that data can be difficult to determine. If personal data is collected in government records for one purpose, and then stored and used by researchers for another, has an individual’s privacy been invaded? How can archives be sensitive to both the rights of the subjects of their collections, and the needs of future researchers?*

The problem with the approach described in Hume’s article seems to be that it places the responsibility for privacy protection solely on the researcher, and assumes that security checks are the right tool to enforce that responsibility. This errs in two ways. First, invading the privacy of researchers in order to protect the privacy of records subjects seems awfully counterproductive. Second, it it is the archive that has collected, processed, and made this information available, and the archive should therefore bear much of the responsibility for privacy protection. Archivists need to be much more proactive in setting privacy policies and incorporating an ethic of privacy directly into appraisal decisions (“appraisal” is the process by which archivists decide to keep or discard a record or group of records). If less sensitive data is retained in personal records, there is less risk to the persons documented in the records. Archivists should carefully consider keeping records with data so sensitive that they could not entrust it to an outside researcher.


*For a nice discussion of archival ethics of privacy, those with access to the archival journals Archivaria or Archival Science can see Cook, T (2002) Archives and privacy in a wired world: The impact of the Personal Information Act (Bill C-6) on archives, Archivaria, 53(Spring), 94-114 and Iacovino, L, & Todd, M (2007) The long-term preservation of identifiable personal data: a comparative archival perspective on privacy regulatory models in the European Union, Australia, Canada and the United States, Archival Science, 7, 107-127.

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Filed under archives, preservation, The Profession, Uncategorized

‘Forgetting’ Part 2, or, it’s opposite: Data retention legislation in the US

Related to the themes of ‘forgetting’ I brought up in my first post are the recent policy discussions in the United States, the EU, and Canada about data retention legislation. Data retention refers to policies that mandate lengths of time that companies like Google and your internet service provider must keep your search and surf records before they are deleted. Mandatory data retention creates the opposite of forgetting: a scenario in which someone (powerful companies, the government) will always be able to find out what you have been doing online.

While both Microsoft and Google have recently agreed to the (eventual) deletion of your online search data, parties in the Bush White House and the the US Congress would like these companies to retain records of your online activity indefinitely. Fortunately, it does seem to be a hard political sell, and this problematic policy hasn’t made it to the floor of the US Congress yet. (The case is different in Europe; see Electronic Privacy Information Center, Data Retention

Mandatory data retention policy is problematic in many ways. Retention bills frame the need for such surveillance measures around fighting online evils such as terrorism and child pornography. However, permanent surveillance of everyone’s online histories to track small numbers of offenders creates a costly trade-off. We have virtual identities and practices that intersect with our real-world selves (see blogging.) We use the internet to find information (that may be controversial), to express opinions (that may be controversial), or to communicate with others (who might be controversial). This sort of participation in public life has traditionally been encouraged by civic institutions such as libraries.

In fact, the professional ethical principles of librarians and information professionals (codified in statements such as the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association) generally converge upon the importance of intellectual freedom and protecting the privacy of information seekers. Information professionals not only support but protect privacy and confidentiality in information seeking and acquisition, a primary purpose of online activity. I believe that information professionals have an ethical obligation to resist mandated data preservation.

If the ethical arguments against such broad surveillance as data retention policy allows are not convincing, practical problems abound as well. For instance, implementation may not satisfy the intended purposes of tracking and catching those responsible for internet crimes. Tracking online activity via IP address has several technological flaws. Among these is the widespread use of wireless routers, which allow many people to share one IP address. Encryption services, virtual private networks (VPNs), and anonymizing services all exist specifically to mask a user’s IP address. If data retention can be avoided by the very criminal element it hopes to track, it may end up only surveilling the innocent or those without enough technology experience to avoid data retention measures.

Some further resources about the debate:

From the Center for Democracy & Technology:
Child Safety and Free Speech Issues in the 110th Congress.
Libin, N., & Dempsey, J. Mandatory Data Retention – Invasive, Risky, Unnecessary, Ineffective.


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Filed under media democracy

Indigo and Canadian school libraries

Dalton McGuinty, newly elected premier of Ontario, made a campaign promise of increased funds for school libraries – increased funds to the tune of $80 million for books. According to McGuinty, this is “the biggest investment of new books in Ontario in a generation.”

Great, right?

The catch: McGuinty named pal Heather Reisman’s company, Indigo Books & Music, as the “sole supplier” of this $80 million worth of books.

Indigo assures us that the books will be passed on “at cost,” which is cold comfort for many independent publishers and booksellers, existing school library book suppliers, and intellectual freedom and media democracy advocates.

Ontario is such an influential province that there is concern that this could be a trend that sweeps the country.

Is Indigo qualified to serve as major supplier to school libraries? Concerns have been expressed over materials processing (not a service of Indigo), as well as Indigo’s book selection (known for being skewed toward the mainstream and “inoffensive”) being ill-equipped to meet the diverse needs of our school library collections. The many small, niche publishers and distributors who have served the school library market for years and thus built developed an expertise in Canadian curricular requirements may not be Liberal party insiders, but they seem to be doing their job well as is.

The increased funding should go directly to school librarians, for them to use for the selection and purchase of new materials from whoever may be the most appropriate distributor.

Of course this is all being couched in the charity and “good works” of Indigo Books, which has recently released a film about Canadian (il)literacy and provides some grants to schools through its “Love of Reading” foundation. I’m sure there’s no need for me to launch into my full rant on “corporate social responsibility” and the limits thereof right now – let it just be said that when materials are being provided by a monopolistic big box store “at cost,” part of that cost is increased squeezing out of independent competitors.

Other coverage:
Very uncritical interview of Heather Reisman by SLJ

More critical article in the Globe & Mail, which unfortunately requires subscription access:
Adams, James. (2007, October 8 ) Educational book sector alarmed by Indigo deal. Globe & Mail, p.R1. (*cough* but try searching the title of the article in your favourite web browser if you don’t have a subscription *cough*)

Girard, D. (2007, September 20). Library books for schools have a McGuinty imprint. Toronto Star. Retrieved November 23, 2007, from .

Doble, M. (2007, November 2). Indigo in election pledge row. The Retrieved November 23, 2007, from .


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Filed under media democracy, school libraries

Link to Survey Results – The Black Experience In Library School

A link to a study of racism in library school was passed on to me by the fantastic librarian and archivist of the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies Library and Media Center. The link below to the work of Toccara Porter, an M.L.I.S student at Kent State, includes data from her survey on racism encountered by Black students in library school as well as a brief background on the study. She will be working on a publication from the data soon, but I thought even the raw data was worth sharing widely.

I thought it was interesting to note that alienation is the most-reported racist experience in library school. Library schools continue to enroll few students of color, and even fewer faculty of color. This leads not only to glaring gaps in classroom discussions and a lack of diversity among professional librarians (and archivists – especially archivists!) but, as Porter’s work shows, alienation on the part of the students of color in these programs. As Porter writes: “Fifty-six percent (20) of respondents suggested that LIS administrators can address racism by creating mentor programs, with 50% (18) suggesting the active recruitment of ethnic minority students and faculty” (p. 1).

It is my hope that studies such as this can help to contribute to the hiring dialogs at library schools and I-schools across North America. Groups such as the American Library Association’s Association of College and Research Libraries have released planning documents for increasing ethnic and racial diversity among librarians. Where are the similar efforts for the I-schools and library schools?


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Filed under LIS education, racism, The Profession

Blogging, Remembering and Forgetting

Blogging, Documentation and Retention

As I hemmed and hawed over my first blog post – changing topics, editing, deleting – I realized that behind my newbie jitters was lurking an issue I’ve been devoting a lot of time and space to over the last year. And that is: will this blog post be around forever? If I press ‘post’ and decide, in three years time, that the topic was all wrong, that my thoughts on the subject have now changed, that what I wrote was misguided or misinformed, will my text remain out there on the interwebs to haunt me?

This all stems from a series of talks, conversations, blog posts, etc floating around out there about ubiquitous memory. As an archivist, digital media’s promise for documenting communities from their own perspective is exciting. Projects like the Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive and the ReMap LA project are exciting examples of different, promising sorts of digital archives.

But at the same time, forgetting can be a useful process for personal and social growth. Forgetting allows us a new start, to protect private identities or reinvent those identities. This comes home to me as I sit here trying to perfect my first blog post, with the realization that whatever I say in print, even – or especially – digital print, doesn’t have a clear expiration date.

There’s been a lot of academic-y talking about what to do about digital technologies and forgetting, but not a lot of writing. I expect we’ll see more in the next year, but an accessible (both literally and technologically – you don’t need a journal subscription to read it) article which says all this better than I have:

Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School

More soon on a related issue: data retention legislation and its incumbent pressures on data ‘expiration’.


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Filed under archives, business, preservation

CHN Part II – Replacement Resources?

What resources will fill in for the CHN when it no longer exists?

Let’s consider our options…

  • The US NIH, via MedlinePlus (not Canadian, necessarily US-biased…which makes little difference in some areas and a whole lot in others, like pharmaceuticals)
  • Provincial Health Portals/Guides (Typically not in-depth and underutilised)
  • There is that new Canadian government consumer health website, Healthy Canadians (unfortunately, it only covers the 6 topics the current government wants you to be thinking about)
  • Hospital or Clinic websites (How many of these are still non-profit and impartial, particularly if they are US institutions?)
  • For-profit medical websites such as WebMD and (Supported by advertising…need I say more?)

The CHN is big, well-used, and non-commercial. These are non-trivial attributes in an information source.

Interestingly, at the same time as the primary, premier source for Canadian consumer health information is being defunded, another source of health “information” is proliferating – one that I wager will ultimately cost Canadians far more than the piddly price of a few librarians, nurses, and IT folk who appear to make the CHN happen. This flourishing source is, of course, pharmaceutical industry advertisements.

Is it merely coincidence that there are more public “reminder ads” (the kind that are legal here in Canada – you can get away with much more in this arena in the USA and NZ) around my city this fall than I’ve seen since moving here? Bus shelters encourage us to have warm fuzzies about Celebrex (a Vioxx-like drug), subway ads ask us if we’ve had a HPV vaccine, among others.

There is currently a battle going on in this country over how far drug advertising should be allowed to go, and the pro-ad argument tends to fall back upon the unproven notion that pharmaceutical advertising is somehow educational to patients in a way that can improve health outcomes, not just teach then to ask for drugs. While I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next lefty, I’m not suggesting that the rise in drug advertising has been deviously crafted to fill the void we will feel when we no longer have a national health website on which to look up arthritis or human papilloma virus. I am however, quite concerned over the trend here.

When a pro-privatization government cuts national funding to social infrastructure and, at the same time, turns a blind (or at least feeble) eye to corporate challenges to public health and social policy regulations…well, I guess that’s where all that information literacy training we librarians are always pushing comes in. Because health information with a profit-motive is clearly not in the public interest. But without a not-for-profit health education, will we recognize it when we see it?

Resource list inspired by:
Evans, M. (2007, November 13). Searching for sound medial advice online. Globe and Mail. Retrieved November 19, 2007 from:



Filed under Health

The Canadian Health Network: Part I – Pulling the Plug on a Success Story

As a health librarian, I suppose it’s only fitting for me to start us off here with a health information issue. So here we go. That said, this is not really “just” a health information issue – it’s an issue of social infrastructure, government priorities, and the current Conservative* government.

The Canadian Health Network is being shut down at the end of March.

What is the Canadian Health Network? The CHN is a bilingual website that, for the past 8 years, has provided neutral/balanced, quality-assessed information pages and links to information for Canadian health. Use of the CHN has exploded, growing each year since inception, and increasing 70% in the past year alone.

The CHN provides in-depth information on 25 “key health topics” and links to over 20,000 appraised information sources on other topics. Health professionals, librarians, and the public go to CHN for info on diabetes, domestic violence, bird flu, or what to do when someone dies.

The CHN is maintained by cooperative efforts among libraries, government entities, and academic health centers, and trains users in health literacy skills while delivering health information. There is no resource quite like the CHN in the world.

In short, the CHN is a huge Canadian success story, part of the national commitment to health care as a human right.

The federal government, along with many of the provinces, is running a fiscal surplus.

Which begs the question: Why is the government, particularly in times of plenty, pulling the plug on the CHN?

For coverage of the defunding, see also:

Goar, C. (2007, November 16). Conservatives axe health network. Toronto Star. Retrieved November 19, 2007 from: .

*N.B. for the USAmericans in the crowd: In Canada the 2 largest political parties are the Liberals and the Conservatives, roughly analogous to the Democrats and Republicans.



Filed under Health

Getting this show on the road

Welcome to the Social Justice Librarian blog!

The idea for this blog has been bumping around in my head for a while now, and I think it’s probably time to open it up and try it out.

What is the idea? A blog that is centred on social justice issues that relate to information and/or librarianship; that is not exclusively/primarily USAmerican focussed; and that combines newsy posts with viewpoints, analysis, fun, and whatever else comes down the pike.

Right now there are two of us blogging at SJL, and hopefully we’ll suck in a couple more info-people from other sectors and/or geographic locations. We’ll try to keep posts coming at a reasonably steady pace.

Pull up a chair -thanks for joining us – I hope you enjoy the show.


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Filed under business