Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Analytics and the Academic Library: Peaceful Coexistence? LAK12

There is one thing you must know about librarians: we prize intellectual freedom and the privacy of the individual user. For example, the American Library Association's "Intellectual Freedom Principles for Academic Libraries" states:
"The privacy of library users is and must be inviolable. Policies should be in place that maintain confidentiality of library borrowing records and of other information relating to personal use of library information and services."

In many US states, there are laws stating that library usage records can only be divulged in the case of user consent, subpoena, or court order. Librarians throughout American libraries have resisted the US Patriot Act, which infringes on the civil liberties of library users to access information free from the "watchful eye" of the government.

Given these values, imagine my surprise to read statements such as this one, made by George Siemens and Phil Long in their piece in EDUCAUSE Review, "Penetrating the Fog: Analytics in Learning and Education:" "Similarly, most analytics models do not capture or utilize physical-world data, such as library use, access to learning support, or academic advising." [Here, they weren't stating that it shouldn't be done, but that libraries presented a data stream that just has not been captured yet.]

Don't get me wrong...I am deeply interested in learning analytics from the viewpoint of an educator and learner and I think that it holds promise in reaching goals of degree completion and retention (if these are indeed the right goals). But can academic library usage data be used in learning analytics in an ethical manner that remains true to ideals deeply held by my profession? Or will the ideals of intellectual freedom and privacy be overcome by the college completion agenda? These questions I look forward to exploring in LAK12.


  1. I'm very interested in the topic of analytics and academic libraries. It seems to me that there is great potential, certainly for collection development, but also information literacy instruction. I would love to be able to see how students' use of library resources changes over their four years here. It could give me an easy graphic way to see how well our program is working, and to identify areas for intervention and improvement.

    I'm no expert, but it seems like this could be doable while still protecting privacy. When a student logs on, the system knows, somewhere, the student's year, major, number of credits, GPA, etc. What if we captured that info, along with details of how the student interacts with library resources? What might we be able to see? What might we be able to do with what we find? How might the students be able to learn with it?

    We wouldn't need the student's name or any other personally identifying information. In fact, we probably wouldn't even want to see information on the individual level. It's at the macro level where it would be interesting. We could separate the "personal" from the "use of library information and services" so that privacy would be as protected as it is now.

    Yet our profession is so fiercely protective of privacy that I wonder if there wouldn't be heavy resistance to collecting any kind of information. Do our ideals and ethics work to our disadvantage?

  2. Hi Nancy - great questions about ethics and ideals. We're going to spend a bit of time later in the course working through some of the thorny aspects of this discussion. Reducing barriers between data sets and services (what google is doing now and creating an uproar in the process) can provide important analytic opportunities. Unfortunately, it can also create a level of analysis that learners may not want to hand off to an institution...