The Public Library as an (Almost) Open-Source Institution

So, Why Keep A Public Library?

Free As In Freedom

The other major line of defense a public library can put up is that they're interested in keeping others away from your data, whether corporate or govermnental, if they keep that data in the first place. Additionally, public libraries, usually as a matter of policy, have a strong commitment to having diverse materials for access and in making sure that everyone, regardless of their identity, ability, or status, can use the materials, programs, and things that are available in the public library. Many public libraries don't keep histories of things library cards have checked out in the past, restrict the types of materials that can be checked out, or monitor internet usage by people to see which sites are being visited.

Libraries of all sorts profess that they will fight censorship whenever it appears, and when it comes from an outside entity looking to restrict books from the collection or seeking records that it really has no business collecting, public libraries and librarians are usually pretty good about fighting off that particular spectre.

Perhaps most prosaically, though, a large part of our computer users enjoy Facebook, Twitter, Google applications, and, in their daily browsing habits, probably provide more information to data-miners, ad companies, corporate entities, and government spies than they might realize. Public libraries aren't always at the vanguard of informing people about how much data is collected about them and in deploying their systems in a maximally-private and secure, yet still functional, manner. There are tools available, but public librarians don't always know about them, nor do they always have the technical knowledge needed to deploy them effectively. Most of our computers are running Microsoft Windows, with Internet Explorer as the default browser. As the PRISM and other NSA revelations pointed out, that's the equivalent of claiming you have a state of the art security system to fight off intruders, but you leave all the doors and windows of your house not only unlocked, but wide open. It is very difficult to protest those things that you cannot see and that do not leave traces of their activity behind.

The world of "private" is rapidly shrinking down, and public libraries are trying to maintain themselves as a place where "private" truly is, as best they know how. Regardless of what you may believe about the successes of these endeavours, that public libraries are trying makes them a valuable ally.

These are not easy concepts to necessarily pull into an elevator speech. Plus, they're arguments for why a public library doesn't need to change. But just sitting in the pocket of "free" isn't going to be enough. Change is a necessary component to relevance, and modernizing and diversifying what goes under the library umbrella is an excellent way to start.