Privacy vs Efficiency

library-488670_1280My library recently changed it’s procedure for users to pick up their items on hold. In the old system, a label with the user’s name was adhered to the spine of the book. The books were then placed on a shelf for users to come and find the books themselves. The general trend in libraries is for as much self service as possible and this set up (along with self check out) allows for a pretty streamlined user experience. Put the book on hold at home, wait for the email notification that it has arrived and then pop in to the library, grab the book, and checkout. Pretty quick. A user can spend three minutes in the library, tops, and avoid the judgmental stare of us librarians.

However, giving even a little thought to this set up reveals privacy red flags. Your name is right there! Want to know which of your neighbors are reading Fifty Shades? Whose checking out parenting books but hasn’t told you they’re expecting? Whose checking out divorce books shortly after the Ashley Madison scandal? Just browse the holds shelf.

The new setup fixes this by taking the names off and using a combination of initials and abbreviated card numbers. This is great for user privacy and maintains the ease of self service. This is a good example of a library taking proactive steps to protect user privacy.

Yet, despite all the warnings about privacy we’ve received lately, users seem rather ambivalent. They want the old system back. After I explain we did it for privacy reasons, they scoff. The old way was better. This was a mistake. It’s too difficult. They have to remember to bring their library card with the number on it. What?!

The Internet and the world really try hard to take a person’s privacy away and make it difficult to get it back. One can’t function in the world without having an online presence on numerous websites that always seem to want to know everything about you. Add to the that the burden of having an unlimited number of hard passwords stored in your long term memory and maintaining privacy becomes a chore akin to mowing the lawn with a push mower when its ninety degrees outside.The library was making it easy; doing all the work.

Here are a few more examples of what most libraries do to protect user privacy: by default, check out history is not kept, public PCs delete everything after a user session, to reveal what is on an account a library card or photo ID is required, and requiring warrant before any user information is released to the police or law enforcement.

I imagine this is a case of “I don’t have anything to hide so why should I care? I just want to check out my book.” I can understand that sentiment. But our users could be LGBT kids, students researching a controversial topics, or someone with a health condition. It’s a good policy and is a rare example of an institution taking user privacy seriously.

Privacy vs Efficiency

Carrying Buckets of Water

BucketsMy wife and I are from Texas, so when we heard that Turkmenistan, the country where we’d serve our Peace Corps mission, was a desert we thought we’d feel perfectly at home.

“Your shirt is frozen.”


Our room was small and situated along the wall next to the garden of our host family’s home. My wife stood at the door, holding the clothes we had left out to dry that morning. We had only been on site for a couple of days, having come from Ashgabat in a van, an eight hour drive across the desert. She had closed the door but held up a shirt that looked more like a white plank of plastic than a cotton pull over.

“How’d that happen?”

“It’s really cold outside. And its snowing.”

I jumped out of bed and looked outside. Indeed, I could see the big heavy flakes falling in the compound lights. The sun had only gone down an hour or so before, so the fact that my shirt was frozen was extraordinary.

“Good thing we got here when we did.”



We awoke to our host mother calling. She was a widowed doctor and ran the house like a determined matriarch. Her grandson and daughter, lived with her, while her other two sons lived out of town.


We stumbled out of bed and got our clothes on. We hadn’t expected to be awoken so early. Neither one of us needed to be at work for quite a while. When we opened the door we were greeted by half a foot of snow blanketing the garden. Off on the other side, beneath the car port, our host mother stood, holding buckets. As soon as she saw us she started talking in Charjoski, the regional dialect that was a wild mix of Turkmen, Uzbek, and Russian. Our training was in Turkmen, so we had no idea what she was saying.

“I think,” said my wife, “she’s saying something about water.”

We walked over to her and then she went to the spigot that faced the garden and turned the knob. Nothing came out. She then looked at us and spread her hands wide, as if we could some how will water to pour forth. She walked us outside and to the street where another spigot appeared to be working. The concrete around the spigot had been broken apart and dug up and a small fire roared, presumably to keep the pipes warm. Another neighbor was already carrying a bucket away. I was very relieved that water was close at hand. We carried several buckets into bathhouse and filled large drums.

“This will probably be thawed by tomorrow,” I said. We lived in a desert after all.


It was not thawed the next day and we soon found out that the temperature had fallen to -20° F. We bucketed more water in, but by that evening the spigot outside our house was frozen. We now had to walk to the end of the street. A couple days later that one had frozen and it dawned on us that the pipes were not buried far enough underground. Why would they? They lived in a desert! It would be up to 120° F in the summer.

Finding water became a sort of expedition, liking searching for oil, wandering around the neighborhood to find a working spigot. The joy of finding flowing water would be short lived as by the next day it would be frozen. We started following the wandering crowds with buckets. By the end of the week, the only spigot left was several blocks from our house, at the edges of the neighborhood. A sign was posted above the spigot in Turkmen demanding that no one turn it off. Beneath it was a frozen pond, the water flowing in drips over it. We filled our buckets and by the time we reached our house the top layer of water was frozen.

The water was frozen for over a month and we developed a sort of routine of waking in the morning and getting water, going to work, returning home, and getting more water. It was the worst winter in Turkmenistan in twenty years. We had arrived at site just a couple of days before the storm hit and had not had contact with any volunteers since arriving. Part of this was mandated by Peace Corps as they wanted us to acclimate to our new homes before seeing Americans again. However, the roads had become inaccessible. There was no way for volunteers to get to the city if they had wanted to. Slowly, though, the process reversed itself, and the pipes began to thaw. Just a day before my wife’s birthday, when we were expecting a group of volunteers from the village, our host mother screamed that the water was back on. We were relieved.

When the volunteers came, we heard stories of how they had survived. Cows had died during the winter. There were rumors that a volunteer in another region had eaten pigeon. They spoke about how they couldn’t get water to boil because there wasn’t enough gas in the distant villages. The gas lines first ran through the city where we lived, the large population sucking most of it for themselves. The villages at the end of the line barely had a whisper of gas coming out. Suddenly, carrying buckets of water didn’t seem so bad. We had food, gas, and a warm room.

We drank vodka and toasted to the beginning of our adventures. We had just survived the worst winter to hit Turkmenistan in twenty years. We could take anything.

More Tales From Turkmenistan

Carrying Buckets of Water

The Out of State Reference Question

A pretty standard reference desk.

I have this theory that the most interesting reference questions come over the phone. On several occasions I’ve given the person on the other end the time of day. One time I looked up an obscure golf rule to help settle a friendly dispute on the green. Recently I looked up the difference between anaerobic and aerobic fermentation. Perhaps it’s the quasi anonymity provided by the phone or just that some of those odd ideas only pop up when one is away from the library.

“Hello, I’m in Mississippi, and I was wondering if you could help answer a question for me about your Schools.” He had a deep voice and a slight accent. One that a grand father might have.

I guess I felt sort of privileged that the man decided that he should call us instead of his own library. Part of this was generational. I could be wrong, but he sounded beyond middle aged. It always strikes me when someone calls and asks a question I think could be easily answered with Google, but my early adult years were the advent of the Internet search engine and its barrage of answers so I am conditioned to think Google first. I am the kind of person who in the midst of a conversation where a question arises must resist the temptation to pull out my phone and Google it. The twitch in my hand screams, “The answer is right there! Find it! Close this neural loop!” However, the digital divide is real and not everyone has a connection to Google at their finger tips. What made this even more interesting was the gentleman was calling from out of state. Again, his own library could have found the answers, the same way I was about to, but he went to what he deemed was the primary source.

“Sure, what’s your question?”

“Is it true they’re going to let students use whatever bathroom they want?” The tone clued me into his opinion on the matter, but he never stated it outright. In my experience, few people feel compelled to voice their opinion to an organization unless its to express disappointment, especially from out of state.

“I don’t know.” It was about all I could say. I found it interesting that he thought the library was the best place to answer this question. I briefly wondered how he got our number and whether he had tried and failed to get the information he seeks from them.

“Could you look it up?” It broke me out of my trance and I remembered I was a librarian with a job to do.

“One moment.” I was glad I was on the phone. I was able to keep my voice light and friendly and I briefly thought that all my librarian training had prepared me for this day. I was here only to provide the information asked for.

“I have a newspaper article here saying that the board is going to vote on a non-discrimination policy for LGTB students.”

“So it’s true?”

“Well, no. It says parents are afraid it could lead to that, but that is not the policy.”

“Ok.” Then he asked a different question. “So who’s the superintendent?” He made no other comment. I’m not sure if he thought I agreed with him or not, but it seemed he took our conversation to be one of strictly information exchange. I got him the name and then he wanted the contact information. There was no direct phone number and he wasn’t going to use email. I gave him the school’s informational phone number as well as the physical address to the superintendent’s office. He was also going to write a physical letter. I had the strange sense I had gone back in time.

Once I had given him all the information he wanted, he said, “Thank you very much. You have any brothers or sisters?”

This felt like an awkward question and I was a little afraid of where it might lead. Was he going to ask if they had kids in the school system? What their views were? Whether they use “whatever bathroom” they want?

“I have one brother and one sister?”

“Well, you tell them they’re lucky to have such a great brother as you. You’ve been most helpful. You tell them that.” I had only provided him with the same service I would have given someone asking for Christmas recipe books or how to use the computer.

“Thank you,” I said. “I will.” Then we got off the phone. I didn’t know how to feel. I am often thanked once a reference transaction is done and many times people seem genuinely happy I was able to find the book they wanted or the obscure fact, but never is such grandiose terms. That I was thanked for providing information on a controversial topic made it all the more strange. Perhaps he was just grateful that I had provided the information without comment. I certainly was grateful he never asked my opinion. In such situations I try to remain neutral, often giving the oblique, “Well, it’s complicated. I’m not sure.” when a user asks, “You know what I mean?” to topics where I am sure I hold a contrary opinion. My professional stance is that I am here to direct the user to the information without editorializing. And I wonder if the man had already tried to get the information somewhere else and was rebuffed. In a strange way it seemed to confirm the necessity of libraries.

The Out of State Reference Question

There was a knock at the Door

Apartment Door.
The door to our apartment. It caught fire one day when someone tossed a cigarette at it and the butt got caught in the fabric. Most apartments have a metal outer door. Ours appears to have been ripped off the concrete wall.

Something pounded on the door. It startled my friend and I as we sat on the floor of my apartment reading mail, swapping stories, and keeping cool underneath the steady breeze of a fan. It was about noon, and Elaine was, as far as I knew, going to be my only guest that afternoon. As one of two Peace Corps volunteers with apartments in the regional capital, volunteers who lived in the distant villages often stopped by using the apartment as a sort of base of operations when they were visiting the city to check mail, go to the Internet café, or shop at the bazaars. They usually texted first.

The door was pounded again and it sounded impatient. Visitors weren’t uncommon, but it was generally known that the American lived here, which, living in a paranoid dictatorship, had the effect of keeping most potential visitors away lest they be labeled as a spy for associating with an American. And that pounding didn’t sound friendly. It became pretty steady as I pushed myself off the floor and went to answer it.

I opened it and discovered a man, leaning against the wall, breathing heavily, and smelling of vodka.

“Ahmed bar-mei?” Is Ahmed there?

“Yok,” I said. No.

He slammed his hand against the wall.

“Ahmed bar-mei!?” He tried to push his way into the apartment and I closed the door. Bolted it. Chained it. Elaine was standing behind me.

“What did he want?”


“Who’s that?”

“I don’t know.” But I had a clue. One look at the apartment let you know that it was a little unusual. It looked like someone had cobbled together a living space by grabbing discarded appliances and furniture off the street. The stove was missing all its knobs and only two burners worked. The refrigerator stood on wooden blocks and the freezer had to be deiced every few weeks. The doors to the rooms were more like wooden planks on hinges than doors. Turkmen take great pride in their homes, keeping them clean and in working order, so this apartment was an outlier. In fact, when I had looked at it when shopping around for a place to live, it looked liked someone had ripped every loose piece of furniture, appliance, and light fixture out. It was completely bare (but the price was right). The theory among us volunteers was that the former occupants were drug addicts and had stripped the place bare and sold the items for cash. This was uncharitable and highly presumptuous of us, but the man at my door did little to squash this theory.

I went and grabbed my cell phone and called the Peace Corps security officer. I might have called the police myself, but I didn’t feel my Turkmen was sophisticated enough to explain the gravity of the situation. And neither did Elaine.

“How are you doing Gary.”

“Fine, Agajan. I have a situation. There is a drunk man at my door demanding to speak to an Ahmed. He won’t leave.”

“Give the phone to him. Let me talk to him.”

“You want to talk him?” I asked, looking at Elaine with a puzzled face.

She mouthed, “Why does he want to talk to him?” I shrugged. I trust Agajan implicitly. This is a man with ample security experience and has been keeping volunteers safe for years. He’s been known to get volunteers out of tough situations and open stubbornly locked bureaucratic doors. I never second guessed the man.

I went to the door and unbolted it, but left it chained. I opened it a crack. The man was still leaning against the wall, breathy heavily and gave me a distant look, but said nothing.

“He’s drunk,” I said.

“What!? He’s drunk!? Close the door. Stay inside.” His sudden intensity had me a little confused but I was glad we were finally on the same page about the situation.

I turned around and found Elaine holding a large knife in her hand and looking quite formidable. I felt safer.

“I will call the police.”

“Thank you,” I said. And hung up. “He’s calling the police.”

“Oh good,” Elaine said. We went back to the living room, satisfied that Agajan would handle the situation, and sat to continue perusing our mail. She had received a stash of American chocolates and we ate them in silence as the pounding continued. My phone rang sometime later.

“Gary, I have some bad news. The police are on lunch break.”

“Lunch break? All of them?”

“There is nothing to be done. My advice is to stay inside. Maybe he will leave. Let me know what happens.” Agajan was eight hours away in Ashgabat. There was little he could do.

“Thank you,” I said and sat down and ate some more chocolate. We weren’t in any immediate danger as there was little chance of him breaking in the door. However, it was a little disconcerting that the police wouldn’t be coming.

“Lunch break?” Elaine said, and she pulled the knife off the table onto her lap. We decided at that point that it might be a good time to catch up on Lost and I went to fetch the portable DVD player. At some point he’d give up, we reassured ourselves, as the opening sequence of Lost played.

Then my upstairs neighbor could be heard yelling in the stairwell. She was raising two kids on her own and had been very friendly with my wife and I. I’d recognize her commanding voice anywhere. Then silence. Then a gentle rapping at the door.


I went and opened the door and there was my neighbor, dressed in a green Turkmen dress and head scarf looking like she was coming from work, and no sign of the man. I knew she was a tough woman, but I now had a new respect for her.

Then she asked me up to her apartment for tea, like nothing had happened. I called for Elaine, and I think we were both so rattled that tea sounded like an excellent choice given the alternative option of staying in the apartment.

As we ascended the stairs to her apartment I thanked her, but she waved it off. I told her the police were on lunch break. She said, “Tsk tsk” and shook her head, like, “What did you expect?” She then started talking to Elaine and asking her about her work, clearly wanting to move on. I’d have to bake her kids some cookies later as a silent thank you.

More Tales From Turkmenistan

There was a knock at the Door

Cinderella In Space

My daughter is a fan of princesses and pink, much to the chagrin of my wife and I. She does also play with cars and dinosaurs and her favorite program is Wild Krats, leading us to believe she has a healthy diversity of play, so perhaps I don’t have all that much to complain about. However, I am always on the look out for books that challenge the standard princess tropes. I’ve had hits and misses, with her growing bored with many of books I offer her. But a recent find, thanks to this great article reviewing six such books, struck princess gold: Interstellar Cinderella.

It is a reworking of the Cinderella story in which the young tool loving girl is an aspiring rocket mechanic. After receiving an invitation to the prince’s rocket parade, the Step Mother steals Cinderella’s tool box and flies off with the step sisters, leaving Cinderella alone with a broken rocket ship. The rest of the story is a great science fiction twist on this old princess tale, filled with great illustrations and catchy rhymes. And my daughter loves it. I think we read it three times when I first brought home from the library and everyday since. It has become a favorite bedtime read. And recently when we were spending some quality family time together assembly a bed, she held up her toy tool kit and exclaimed, “I’m mechanic Cinderella!”

Cinderella In Space

The Moon Shatters in Neal Stephenson’s New Book

I don’t feel like it is giving too much away to say that the moon is destroyed in Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves as this is stated on the first page and sets up what was one of my favorite reads of the summer. The whole idea of what humans would do when faced with certain annihilation was thrilling, and Stephenson does an incredible job of showcasing human ingenuity and future planning as the tension and conflict continues to rise. The book contains much of Stephenson’s love of detail and explaining the science and workings of the ideas on the page. These can feel like info dumps at times, but each one of them has a pay off as the implications become clear and then terrifying as people try to survive the end of all things. In fact, the technical details make how dire a situation the human race is in and their race to create a viable and sustainable civilization in space more compelling and believable. No Deus Ex Machina is coming to save humanity; they have to learn to survive. Seveneves is a great blend of apocalypse, science problem solving, thriller, space colonization, and first contact (with a twist). It is also a great contemplation on human sacrifice, behavior, and culture. I recommend putting down what you’re reading now and running to your local library to pick up a copy.

The Moon Shatters in Neal Stephenson’s New Book

The School Summer Reading List Fail

It is somewhat inevitable that towards the end of summer a barrage of young people, usually with parents, sporting an I-am-not-amused face, in tow come stumbling into the library and each one of these young people will ask for a book. I will recognize said book not as the hottest young adult read or next summer blockbuster, but as a book from the school’s summer reading list. It has been asked for hundreds of times over the summer. And I look up the book, already knowing what I will find.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “That book is checked out and there are 143 holds on it.”

“Oh,” she says, a crestfallen look befalling her face. A glance at the parent indicates my answer has not amused them. The poor kid probably has a week before school starts.

The thing is, these books were checked out almost immediately after school ended and probably haven’t graced the library shelves all summer, as the holds probably reached beyond 100 shortly after the second week. That these kids are going to the library so late into the summer for their school assignment is almost beside the point. We wouldn’t have had the book anyways. Schools getting us their lists right before the summer starts and general budget issues prevent us from having extra books on hand.

“Would you be interested in something else? Or another book by the same author?”

“Uh…no…That’s ok.”

At this point, the parent mentions buying the book and they walk away. Probably the only time they entered the library in the past year and they left empty handed. Will they come back? Perhaps next summer.

The School Summer Reading List Fail