Privacy and the public library: NYPL’s chief digital officer looks to raise awareness in Seattle visit

Tony Ageh, chief digital officer of New York Public Library. (Wikipedia / Maxim Thompson Photo)

If you want to see how a public library adopts technology at scale, consider heading to New York City. There, the New York Public Library has 92 locations and more than 50 million items. It is arguably the largest public library in the world from which everyday people can check out materials, free of charge.

It has a similarly outsized concern about privacy as libraries embrace the digital age.

“It would be true to say that it keeps some people in the libraries awake at night,” said Tony Ageh, chief digital officer of the New York Public Library, during a visit to Seattle this week. “We have a person whose only job is to worry about patron privacy … he worries a lot about it.”

Ageh discussed digital privacy and other issues with me Tuesday evening in a public interview at the Seattle Public Library’s Central Library. SPL invited Ageh to Seattle to discuss the digital transformation of libraries with SPL leadership and staff. He thinks caution is warranted as both materials and patron records wind up in digital formats, leaving a potential trail of activity from searches on library computers to how much of a borrowed ebook was read.

Ageh is quick to point out that libraries, including NYPL and SPL, “delete all of those records, and we delete them the moment we possibly can.” But, he said, “I feel all of these are great vulnerabilities.” Especially when it comes to third-party systems that libraries rely upon for certain services which “may not have the same diligence and the same concerns.”

“Every library I’ve ever been to, every librarian I’ve ever spoken to, seems to be far more concerned about it than I think the public think they are,” he said. “And in most cases than the public are themselves.”

New York Public Library’s Rose Main Reading Room. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

When it comes to questions from the public about privacy in a digital age, “we’re not getting as many as we would like or expect,” he said. “I think we are aware that we need to stimulate more questions and more challenge.”

In case you get the impression that all Ageh sees is the downside of digital, that couldn’t be further from reality. It’s just that there’s a natural tension between making materials accessible to as many people as possible using digital technologies, and protecting individuals’ privacy. Especially as archival material that once was available only to those who visited a physical branch, and spent time laboriously flipping through paper pages, suddenly is widely available online.

Some people, he said, would prefer the public, “not to know certain history of their tax records or other correspondence. So there’s a very difficult line for libraries to be able to make available public information that should be in the public domain, while at the same time respecting the rights of an individual to remove information from the public domain.”

NYPL’s Tony Ageh (R) and GeekWire’s Frank Catalano (L) at Seattle Public Library. (SPL Photo / Jennifer Cargal)

Patrons, he finds, seem to have a limited perspective of what “digital transformation” means in a library setting. “I think the first question anybody asks me is, ‘How long is it going to take you to digitize all the books?’” But he compares what libraries hope to do with their services with what an airline does with air travel at every step of the process, from booking a ticket to scanning a boarding pass. Basically, providing a helpful digital interface at every step.

“The role of the library would be the same, virtually everything that you do in some way or other touches some digital activity, whether that’s the catalog, or booking a hold, or paying your fine,” he said.

Much of this likely won’t come as a surprise to patrons of the Puget Sound region’s two major public libraries, SPL and the King County Library System. Both are considered national leaders in adopting digital technology. As a matter of fact, when asked about what he considers the most significant digital service a library has provided, Ageh said SPL’s loanable WiFi hotspots are “high on my list.”

But Ageh’s 20-year vision goes much further, beyond the information and communication functions currently provided by devices in almost everybody’s pockets. He points to Seattle Central Library’s variety of materials, human support and sense of community.

“What I’d really like to see is that multiplied at such scale that there are libraries or things that act like libraries distributed literally onto every street, maybe even kind of versions of libraries in people’s homes, some aspects of the role of a library that people can have with them all the time,” he said. “That kind of sense of community and support, that sense of knowing that whatever it is you need, whether it’s an information need or something to support your creativity, or your ability to self actualize, is with you all the time.”

If he had to pick one thing that was born digital and available today that he wishes a library would have produced, Ageh suggests Wikipedia.

“The great goal for a library is to make available material to the widest number of people in the most equal way we possibly can,” he said, noting Wikipedia’s accomplishment of creating an authenticated information process that operates at scale, and is available to anyone for as close to free as possible. “I think that’s a pretty good example of the kind of thing that I wouldn’t say a library would do, but it looks very library-shaped.”