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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A word about privacy

Last Friday, April 27, our Library Data and Student Success team presented our findings at the ARLD Day at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Our session was preceded by a presentation by two representatives of the ACRL Value of Academic Libraries project so the day actually flowed quite nicely. First, attendees were given a broad overview of how they can start measuring the value of their libraries, and then our presentation highlighted a tangible example of a library doing just that.

Our presentation went well, but through questions and other attendee comments it became clear that privacy implications are a big hold-up for other libraries doing this kind of work. Obviously, in order to do this kind of work libraries must track our usage in ways we maybe haven't done before, including retaining some user information regarding material check-outs and renewals. This should come as no surprise, but most libraries have strict policies in place that prohibit the retention of user data around material circulation and resource/services usage in general.

When we started this project at the University of Minnesota we quickly realized that we needed to alter our privacy practices while at the same time maintaining at least a baseline of privacy for our users that they would be comfortable with. To be crystal clear, we realized we needed to retain user information, namely the U of M Internet ID of our users for each resource or service usage. By retaining the U of M Internet ID we could then get at some of the demographic and success measures we were seeking to find out about our users.

What we also realized, however, is that we didn't need to retain exactly what our users checked out or accessed. We only needed to tie user ids to broad activities such as "checking out a book" or "using an ejournal." In other words, we are not retaining specifics about user activity. Maybe this table will help describe our efforts further:

We kept this:But not this:
Checked out X booksActual book titles
Attended X workshopsActual workshops
Reference interactionSubstance of interaction
Logged into library workstationDate, location, duration
Used an ejournalActual ejournal title

Hopefully this makes our activities clearer. To be blunt, we had to stretch our privacy policies to make this project a reality. For the first time, we are retaining some user information in order to find out 1) who our users are, 2) what types of resources they use, and 3) how this use impacts their success in the classroom. There is no way this project could have happened if we didn't tie actual users to their library activities in some way. However, we are confident that user privacy is still being maintained. Data is only being reported in the aggregate, and the data we are retaining is being kept in a secure location with the Office of Institutional Research.

So far, so good. Any questions? Let us know!

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