Privacy, Data Literacy, and Libraries

Libraries are a digital lifeline for members of underserved communities in the United States. They provide connectivity, offer one-on-one assistance, and teach digital literacy. As concerns about digital discrimination and protecting online privacy grow, the capacity of libraries to meet patrons' data literacy needs becomes urgent. By providing frontline staff at libraries with knowledge and skills to confront these concerns, this project aims to improve library's capacity to support meaningful digital inclusion of the Internet's most marginal users in an age of pervasive data collection, sharing, and profiling.

Photo of Seeta Peña Gangadharan
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The New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute (OTI) in partnership with the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) proposes a project to promote data literacy among library professionals, especially those serving patrons with the greatest digital literacy needs.

During the first portion of the grant, OTI will develop a staff training module on data literacy. The training module will build upon prior digital privacy literacy research completed at Brooklyn Public Library and other digital literacy organizations. Through focus groups with librarians and technology trainers and facilitated discussions with key staff, OTI ascertained that staff—not just patrons—require greater understanding and awareness of digital privacy and how data about individuals flows on the Internet.

During the bulk of the grant, OTI will conduct staff trainings for library professionals who seek the services of METRO. METRO will develop an innovative recruitment plan to engage library professionals serving patrons with marginal digital literacy skills. It will also develop opportunities to learn in real-time or asynchronously, at METRO and in members' locales. Across the project grant period, both partners will ensure that data literacy becomes a more frequent topic of conversation among key stakeholders involved in privacy and universal broadband debate.

The outcomes of this project include increased growth in knowledge and teaching capacity among library professionals in the New York metropolitan area, particularly those serving marginalized populations; broader adoption of data protecting tools among library professionals; and, creation of reputational capital of libraries among key stakeholders about the importance of data literacy to digital inclusion.

Data literacy is increasingly a critical component of digital inclusion. The ability to benefit from computers and Internet access—whether in civic, economic, social, or cultural terms—depends on the integrity of one's personal data. With a grant from the Knight News Challenge, the METRO-OTI partnership aims to establish libraries as leaders in bridging not just the digital divide but also the divide between data "subjects" and data "holders," and adequately preparing patrons for the privacy and discriminatory challenges brought about by pervasiveness of surveillance technologies in digital communication networks today.

To evaluate its efforts, OTI will work with Brooklyn Public Library and one other library system in the METRO network, to:

-ascertain baseline privacy and data profiling knowledge and data-protecting skills;
-gather feedback on the effectiveness of the training; and
-conduct focus groups to determine midterm impacts of the project.

Results from this evaluation process will function as a means by which to upgrade the training curriculum as well as provide systematic evidence of the role of library professionals in serving the data protection needs of patrons.

In ONE sentence, tell us about your project to strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation.

Through this project, libraries will get us one step further in protecting against privacy intrusions and digital discrimination and help ensure that the Internet's most marginal users can participate in digital society on their own terms.

Who will benefit from what you propose? What have you observed that makes you think that?

Primary benefits include greater awareness among library professionals of privacy problems and discrimination in a data-driven world--as well as solutions; adoption of data protecting techniques by library professionals; and, greater knowledge sharing among library institutions regarding patron's data protection needs.

Longer-term impacts include increased capacity to field patrons’ concerns about digital privacy or digital discrimination and deepened public trust in the library's role as a community anchor.

Finally, this project will help patrons more capably confront the challenges of going online.

Prior research completed at OTI has demonstrated the integral role of social infrastructures--such as the wealth of social support provided by library institutions--in successful digital inclusion initiatives.

What progress have you made so far?

We have a network of library professionals eager to learn; material to build off of for staff training; a clearly demonstrated need for this kind of work; and, a history of research evaluating this kind of work.

What would be a successful outcome for your idea or project?

METRO-OTI will triangulate between enrollment numbers, clickstream data (for asynchronous portions of the training), evidence of changes in knowledge and skills-use, stories from librarians "on the floor" and in the classroom, to determine the effectiveness of the staff trainings at both the staff and patron level.

More broadly, we will regard our project as successful if our training material and methods find a home in other library councils and other digital literacy training networks around the country.

Overall, in doing this work, we hope to establish some baseline standards and baseline practices for engaging community anchor institutions in data literacy.

Who is on your team, and what are their relevant experiences or skills?

Seeta Peña Gangadharan is a Senior Research Fellow with the Field Team at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute (OTI). Her research lies at the intersection of technology, civil society, and communication policy. She researches the nature of digital inequalities, data and discrimination, social dynamics of technology adoption, communication rights, and media justice. She also writes about the politics of communication policymaking, who’s heard, and who has power in debate and decision making.

Jason Kucsma is the Executive Director of the Metropolitan New York Library Council. Jason's range of experience in library science includes emerging technologies, digitization, and digital preservation. He started at METRO in 2008 as the Emerging Technologies Manager, managing METRO's online presence and digital services including grants and professional development opportunities.


New York, NY, USA


Join the conversation:

Photo of Francesca

Thanks Seeta and Jason. Whether this receives Knight funding or not, I look forward to following the develop of this project on the OTI blog. I am interested to know the level of concern about personal data and privacy from library patrons and library digital technology staff.

Photo of Seeta Peña

Thanks Francesca! Here's are links to OTI's prior research on the topic (and that pertains to libraries): and Would love to hear your thoughts.

Photo of Francesca

Thanks for sending these. I look forward to reviewing.

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