I was honored today to be a part of the LLAMA Thought Leader Series for Libraries, talking about innovation. I focused on my own career in libraries, and the aspects of things I’ve done that I considered innovative…efforts and projects that I thought were interesting. The conclusion of the presentation was talking through what the commonalities are in those projects, what I think is necessary for innovation in libraries, and how leadership can support said innovation. If you’re interested in downloading the video or slides, you can find those on the LLAMA website, or watch below.
During an appearance on the LITA Top Technology Trends panel in 2014, I was discussing privacy of patron data, and mentioned that I thought it was a good idea for libraries to run Tor nodes on library servers. So when the Library Freedom Project launched their Tor in Libraries project, I was totally behind them…I even did a Tor workshop for Librarians for their workshop at ALA Annual in San Francisco.
If you aren’t familiar with Tor, I recommend reading the Wikipedia article. The TL:DR version is that Tor is a protocol and a network that is currently the best mechanism that we have for accessing information on the Internet anonymously. There are a few ways that one can use Tor, ranging from using an operating system that routes all your Internet traffic over the Tor network to just using the Tor browser, which just anonymizes your web traffic.
The way that Tor anonymizes your traffic is through a combination of encryption and blind routing, When you initially connect to the Tor network, the connection is encrypted in much the same way that the connection to your bank would be, via a public key encryption system. When you make a request for a website through the network, the Tor protocol bounces the request from one network node to the next, encrypting the traffic at every hop. Once the traffic gets a couple of hops away from the originating computer, it’s impossible to know where the request came from. Eventually the traffic exits the Tor network, back onto the regular old Internet, and gathers what you asked for, then reverses the process to get back to you.
The result is that, under ideal conditions, it is completely impossible to track or trace what’s being transmitted via Tor. For Tor to continue to operate, it needs two sorts of nodes….relay nodes that act as the “bouncing” nodes for inside the network, and exit nodes that are the places where the traffic goes out of the encrypted Tor network and back onto the regular Internet. You need both, although a ratio of more relay nodes to fewer exit nodes is fine. The traffic that goes across relay nodes is completely anonymous…from the perspective of both the network and the individual server, it is just a random string of binary code. Only at the exit nodes does the traffic decrypt, and thus exit nodes bear the brunt of all of the requests going across the network. The traffic for the broader network all has to squeeze itself through exit nodes, and the fewer exit nodes there are, the easier it is for them to be monitored…although you can’t tell where the requests for the information came from without advanced knowledge.
So why am I talking about Tor? Because I wanted to set up the story that broke last week about the first library in the US to publicly go live with a Tor relay (a middle relay) getting pressured by their local police to turn it off. The police were, in turn, pressured by the US Department of Homeland Security. From the original article on the event:
In July, the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, was the first library in the country to become part of the anonymous Web surfing service Tor. The library allowed Tor users around the world to bounce their Internet traffic through the library, thus masking users’ locations.
Soon after state authorities received an email about it from an agent at the Department of Homeland Security.
“The Department of Homeland Security got in touch with our Police Department,” said Sean Fleming, the library director of the Lebanon Public Libraries.
After a meeting at which local police and city officials discussed how Tor could be exploited by criminals, the library pulled the plug on the project.
“Right now we’re on pause,” said Fleming. “We really weren’t anticipating that there would be any controversy at all.”
He said that the library board of trustees will vote on whether to turn the service back on at its meeting on Sept. 15.
That’s tomorrow, for those keeping track at home.
Why do I think that libraries should be running Tor nodes? I had a long discussion about this on Twitter recently, but let me use the freedom of more than 140 characters to try and talk through my thinking on this. Tor is, currently, the best option that people have for anonymous speech on the Internet. It is possible to create accounts without using your real name, it’s possible to use wifi at coffeeshops and your local library to prevent your IP from being recorded…but for real anonymity of network traffic, nothing beats using Tor.
Anonymous speech is important because it is a necessary component of the freedom of speech. The US Supreme Court has ruled again and again that the right to anonymous speech is a protected part of the First Amendment, saying in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission:
Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority…It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation…at the hand of an intolerant society.
Libraries have been concerned over time with the Freedom to Read, but to doubt the role of the library in the Freedom of Speech in the US is to fundamentally misunderstand the Library (and possibly speech itself). Speech is a necessary precursor to Reading, as creation is a necessary precursor to consumption. Libraries are and should be cornerstones of free expression in the United States, and have worked to provide access to the tools of speech for years and years.
For the Department of Homeland Security to use the boogie-man of “bad things happen on Tor” as a lever to get the relay turned off is the worst sort of fear mongering. Any tool can be a weapon, and any communications mechanism can and probably will be used to enable illegal activity. There is enormously more illegal activity on the open Internet, and yet libraries everywhere provide open and robust access to the Internet via both terminal and wifi. To paint Tor as a haven for thieves and drugs and child pornography is to misunderstand not only the Tor network but to, in my opinion, to mistake the forest for the trees. Yes, tools can be used for immoral and illegal things. But that does not make the tool either immoral nor illegal.
The only rational explanation for the DHS pressuring the library to shut down their Tor relay node is that the DHS doesn’t want individuals, including US citizens, to have more robust mechanisms for anonymous speech. Per the US Supreme Court’s rulings on the links between anonymity and freedom of speech, this indicates to me that the DHS is actively attempting to prevent free and open speech on the Internet.
That is not ok with me, and it absolutely should not be ok with libraries.
If you have made it this far, please visit the EFF’s Take Action page on this effort and sign.
This was my first week as a Berkman Fellow, and there were a couple of articles that came out about my time here. The first was a very kind article by my Alma Mater, the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science. The second was from Berkman themselves, an interview with me about what I’m working on while here.
From the UNC-SILS article:
“I’m most excited about connecting with the people associated with the Berkman Center, and by extension the library community in the Boston area,” Griffey said. “Berkman has a history of supporting the mission of libraries, but I’m really excited about the opportunity to spread the word about the amazing work that libraries are doing and make connections between them and the other fellows. I’m also looking forward to finding people to collaborate with on my own project, and see what new voices and minds can bring to it.”
and from Berkman:
“I am interested in the rise over the last several years of what I am calling the “hyperlocal webserver”. A number of projects are attempting to provide access to digital resources to users through the use of inexpensive, low-powered offgrid and offline webservers, including my own open source project LibraryBox. Others in this space include PirateBox, the RACHEL project servers, occupy.here, The IDEAS Box project, the OLPC project’s School Server, and many more. These projects have in common that all are designed to allow for local connectivity without access to the broader Internet. The power of localized digital delivery is only now being realized, especially in areas where there is insufficient infrastructure to support the demand for information access.
My interest is in the potential for these technologies (and possibly others) to allow for shadow networks to arise quickly where needed and wanted. The ever-shrinking costs of hardware capable of supporting these sorts of hyperlocal micronetworks drive the overhead for building one down to trivial amounts, but the technical knowledge needed to set up and manage one is still more than the average Internet user can handle. I want to reach out to the projects above, hardware makers, UX designers, and network engineers to try and develop a process and project that makes it as easy as possible for anyone to create or assist in community-based networks that allow for digital sharing and communication even when offline or offgrid. I am interested in what happens when communities are given the tools that can allow for unmediated and uncontrolled sharing and communication, and what sort of emergent behaviors and services might arise from those tools.”
On Wednesday, Sept 16, I will be doing a webinar for the Library Leadership & Management Association, known in library circles as LLAMA. This particular webinar is part of a series called the LLAMA Thought Leaders, which has been host to a ton of amazing librarians that I look up to: Ben Bizzle, Susan Hildreth, Barbara Stripling, Sari Feldman, with fantastic upcoming episodes with Rebecca Smith Aldrich, Steve Teeri, Tod Colegrove and Tara Radniecki. I’m honored to be included in such brilliant company.
I will be talking about innovation in library technology and leadership, and how I’ve managed to carve out the career I’ve had, from leading the technology team at at academic library, running a successful open source project like LibraryBox, building a new way to understand how our patrons use our buildings and resources with Measure the Future, and now as a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. I’ll be taking questions from the audience and I hope to have a great conversation with the attendees. Come and ask me questions!
Register and join me! 12noon until 1pm Central Daylight Time (1pm Eastern, 10am Pacific) on September 16th.
Fantastic guide and video showing how to break apart a TP-Link MR3020 and rewire it to be able to fit, battery and all, into a Moleskine style book from the gang over at NODE. Really neat hack, I haven’t done it yet but it’s totally on my list now.
The original v1.0 of LibraryBox used a book as its case, but that was a large hardback with the MR3020 still in its own case and everything. This is much more elegant. I particularly like the use of a MicroSD adapter as a USB source for the install. Clever!
I was listening to an episode of Accidental Tech Podcast, Not a Cactus in Sight, (one of my favorite podcasts, mostly because I’m a total John Siracusa fanboy), and during their discussion of the Reddit community John mentioned two tweets by Laurie Voss that totally made my brain explode with thought:
The tragedy of all online community spaces is that the goals of “inclusive” and “safe” are, at the extreme, mutually exclusive goals.
— Laurie Voss (@seldo) July 13, 2015
At some point you have to exclude someone. You get to pick if it’s the people feeling unsafe, or the people making them feel unsafe. — Laurie Voss (@seldo) July 13, 2015
(here I think Voss is using “inclusive” in a legalistic/law oriented way, not in a norm or cultural sense…inclusion means “the ability to be a part of a community regardless of any aspect of your identity”…a lack of exclusion of any type)
Prior to the World Wide Web, I was an avid Usenet user, falling deeply into any number of alt. and rec. subgroups. Usenet was, in retrospect, where I learned so many things about “being online”, including tone, behavior, expectation….the entire culture of many parts of the social web were preceded and predicted by Usenet. Reddit is one of these spaces, as the concept and execution of a site that’s basically many user-driven bulletin boards is, in abstraction, just a modern execution of Usenet.
Reddit has been in the tech news a lot lately, and while I’m not interested in debating the pro and con of the decisions that have been made there, I think it’s fairly obvious that there’s a lot of terrible things on Reddit and that the response to said terrible things has been horribly blundered. I agree with the ATP guys above in their analysis…if you want to build a horrible place, keep doing what you’re doing Reddit…but that’s not a place that non-horrible people will choose to continue to hang out. I think there are lots and lots of other online communities that have been ran very well and have managed to be smart and useful places to have discussions online…the premiere example of this is probably Metafilter. It isn’t clear if Twitter and Facebook will do as well over time dealing with their respective issues.
There is, however, another social space that includes text based information resources that I am very attached to and fond of: the library. And in thinking about the axes of “inclusion” and “safety”, I realized that the rhetoric of the library world is very much the same rhetoric that is often used in the online spaces to justify what is usually horrific behavior. The oft-used quotation is Jo Godwin’s fantastic turn of phrase “A good library contains something in it to offend everyone.” Library collections are constrained by collection development policies that are driven by their local boards and communities, while calling back to the ALA Library Bill of Rights:
- Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
- Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
- Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
- Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
In a way, a library collection is a conversation between the librarians and the community, written not letter by letter or word by word, but book by book over the course of decades or even centuries. That conversation is under the same tensions that online conversations are as it relates to safety and inclusivity. When someone challenges a book, they are in effect saying “this is a kind of speech that makes me feel unsafe.” And as Voss notes, the library gets to decide who to side with: those that feel unsafe, or those that make them feel unsafe. In the library, that answer is almost always the latter.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t limits…each library draws its own limits of the things they are willing to collect. In my personal opinion, not collecting particular items is not problematic; for example, I would have no trouble as a librarian not purchasing nor shelving anything published by the KKK.
I’m intentionally trying to frame this in the most difficult way, because I think it’s a difficult thing to navigate. Let me state my own position, straightforwardly: I think that the Library Bill of Rights is a positive document, and that the library providing access to material that the majority of their patrons would disagree with is absolutely fine. I also think that individuals deserve to be protected and feel safe in their activities and surroundings. The tension between these two positions puts me in a disharmony…I dislike being contradictory in my positions.
It has been pointed out by those much smarter about these things than I that librarianship has inclusivity issues written deep in its core. While our collection development statements tend towards inclusivity of multiple perspectives on social issues, once purchased those collections are often described and presented to the community using a grammar that is anything but. For many public libraries, the Dewey classification system is massively problematic, and Library of Congress subject headings are no better. We have inclusivity issues baked into our classifications (indeed, it’s likely epistemologically impossible to categorize without exclusion of some sort).
I don’t know how these issues get reconciled. How do you square inclusion and safety of spaces, both real and virtual? What are your thoughts on that dichotomy? Is it a false one? I’d love to hear from the library community about these seemingly opposing perspectives.
Attention Library (and Library-friendly or Library-adjacent) people!
If you’ll be in the Boston area on September 15th at Noon, I’ll be doing a talk as part of the Berkman Luncheon series at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University entitled “When online is offline: the case for hyperlocal webservers and networks.” I’ll be talking about LibraryBox (and other similar projects) and why I think they are interesting. The formal description is:
The LibraryBox Project (along with other emerging projects like PirateBox, occupy.here, IdeasBox, and others) is an attempt at bridging the divide in delivery of digital information in areas where there is a lack of communications infrastructure or where that infrastructure has been damaged or is overly monitored or controlled. As self-contained, non-connected portable servers, these devices can be used to circumvent governmental firewalls, distribute information in areas of political upheaval, reach the most remote areas to deliver healthcare information, and help recovery efforts after natural disasters. This presentation will be an overview of the LibraryBox project and its current state, goals and development roadmap, and a discussion of possible next directions and needs.
If you want to attend in person, you can register at the Berkman site, the talk will be on the Harvard Law School campus, Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East B. If you aren’t in the area it will be webcast at that same link the day of, and archived for later viewing. But if you’re a library type, I’d love to see you there…would mean a lot to have some friendly faces in the audience.
Last week I attended the Aspen Institute Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation, a gathering of 30 individuals from a variety of backgrounds (both library and non-library) whose goal was to have 3 days worth of discussions about how to make libraries in the United States more innovative. I don’t know if the entire list of participants has been made public, but the attendees were easily some of the smartest and most thoughtful people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. As I mentioned in my initial post about the Roundtable, I was concerned about diversity in the voices in the room, and while I’m not qualified to truly judge how well that went, I did notice one particular bias that I am interested in calling out and pursuing as a part of the conversation. But more on that in a minute.
The roundtable opened day one with a presentation by John Seely Brown, otherwise known simply as JSB. If you aren’t familiar with JSB, take a second and look over his wikipedia page to get an idea of his importance. His speech was interesting and set the stage for a lot of the discussions that sprang forth over the next few days. Take a look:
Day two began with a presentation on Design Thinking from Michelle Ha Tucker from IDEO. I’m totally sold on human centered design as a key to rethinking the way libraries do what they do, and have done a number of workshops on process on that front. If you aren’t familiar, take a look at her presentation, framed well around library issues:
From our initial discussions about innovation considered broadly, we broke up into three working groups that set about considering what it would take for Libraries to innovate in different areas. The areas identified were Engagement/Access/Inclusion, Learning & Creativity, and Public Forum & Citizenship, and each group discussed what innovation in each of these areas looked like, how that could be translated into the library sphere, and what a project might look like if it attempted to instantiate that solution. I was a part of the Public Forum & Citizenship group, and we spent most of our time revolving around the problem of libraries acting in concert with one another and bemoaning the lack of overarching structures for working together…a common theme from the larger discussions of the Roundtable.
There were several of these emergent themes that repeated themselves during the week. The lack of some form of national organization that allowed economic centralization for libraries was maybe the largest though…the non-librarians in the room were flabbergasted to discover how very local the library economy is, and how much it prohibits collective purchasing efforts.
The largest tension in the discussions for me was the bias that I alluded to earlier, that of urban vs rural libraries. There was repeated use of a statistic that I’m still not clear on the provenance of, that 295 libraries in the U.S. serve 30% of the population of the country…obviously all of them in large urban areas. Anyone familiar with Libraryland could name the large public library systems included in those numbers: New York Public, Los Angeles Public, Chicago Public, Boston Public, Miami-Dade, Denver Public, and a small handful more. Given that there are roughly 9000 public libraries in the U.S., I understand the concentration on those areas of easy implementation…but I rankle more than a little at the lack of acknowledgement of the greater need for support in rural America. The poorest parts of rural America are much poorer than the equivalent urban poverty centers, and they lack nearly any support system for their poverty. In much of the poorest areas of the U.S., the rural south, the public library is the only place that’s accessible for educational resources beyond school age.
So while I understand striking with efforts where the highest number might be affected, I also want to keep reminding people about the needs of the rural United States. Let’s not forget those that need us most even while we try to maximize our efforts.
One of the largest discussions of the Roundtable revolved around the FCC and its eRate plans for internet access in libraries and schools. An FCC staffer was there to walk through the options for libraries, and to give us numbers on how bad library participation in eRate really is. Everyone in the room agreed why this was the case, the CIPA requirement for filtering. It was nice timing that just after our discussion of this issue, the ALA released a formal statement on CIPA that begins, in part:
“CIPA specifically requires public libraries and schools seeking e-rate discounts for internet connections to install technology protection measures, i.e., content filters, to block two categories of visual images that are unprotected by the First Amendment: obscene images and images of child pornography.”
“CIPA-mandated content filtering has had three significant impacts in our schools and libraries. First, it has widened the divide between those who can afford to pay for personal access and those who must depend on publicly funded (and filtered) access. Second, when content filtering is deployed to limit access to what some may consider objectionable or offensive, often minority viewpoints religions, or controversial topics are included in the categories of what is considered objectionable or offensive. Filters thus become the tool of bias and discrimination and marginalize users by denying or abridging their access to these materials. Finally, when over-blocking occurs in public libraries and schools, library users, educators, and students who lack other means of access to the Internet are limited to the content allowed by unpredictable and unreliable filters.
The negative effects of content filters on Internet access in public libraries and schools are demonstrable and documented. Consequently, consistent with previous resolutions, the American Library Association cannot recommend filtering. However the ALA recognizes that local libraries and schools are governed by local decision makers and local considerations and often must rely on federal or state funding for computers and internet access. Because adults and, to a lesser degree minors, have First Amendment rights, libraries and schools that choose to use content filters should implement policies and procedures that mitigate the negative effects of filtering to the greatest extent possible. The process should encourage and allow users to ask for filtered websites and content to be unblocked, with minimal delay and due respect for user privacy.”
None of this is untrue, and I agree with all of it: Internet Filtering is a joke, a crime against the freedom of information access, a risk to privacy of the reading experience, and simply doesn’t work. However, the current opportunities from the eRate program are…well, if not once-in-a-lifetime, they are pretty close. The FCC is trying very hard to incentivize the construction of fiber to every library. All of them. eRate will pay for between 10-80% of the construction costs for fiber to the library, including things like huge fiber runs into rural areas and the hubs and switches necessary to make it work inside the building. And in places where the State has a matching program, the FCC + State match can pay for 100% of the costs.
This is like the Rural Electrification Act, except for the next-gen connectivity that will be needed by communities over the next decade. In rural areas, getting fiber anywhere is nearly impossible…it isn’t worth the infrastructure costs for providers to run the fiber. But if someone else is paying to run it, and it runs to a conveniently located place in a community like a library, the most expensive part of the work is done. This will enable communities to be connected that could never be previously. The FCC staffer was talking about future-proofing this construction by aiming for 10 Gbps connections to these libraries…a sort of super connectivity. This is important, potentially transformative stuff for communities and libraries.
So what are the difficulties? The first is the aformentioned CIPA rules about filtering…which some libraries are happily complying with now. Note that the rules for CIPA don’t say that you have to filter! They just say that you must “install technology measures”, have a policy in place, and hold a meeting with you constituents about said policy. It is possible to comply with the rules for CIPA at a very low level…blacklisting pornographic sites via DNS filtering on computers in your children’s area, for example. I believe it is possible to meet the letter of the law, not impede access to information, and use eRate funds to increase connectivity in areas that badly need it.
After talking at length to an FCC staffer about this program, I do honestly believe that connectivity is their goal. They aren’t out hunting for libraries that “fail” some CIPA test. If we can find a way to meet the minimum requirements for CIPA and not compromise our information ethics, we should do so.
The second difficulty in eRate funding is the application process itself. It is…non-trivial. In this case, I think we need to find models that libraries can follow, and that consortia need to focus on offering eRate application as a service to their member libraries.
The Aspen Institute will be producing a report from our discussions, with recommendations for libraries. The Knight Foundation produced a nice summary of our work on their blog, and I’m sure that more will trickle out as other participants write up their thoughts. I’m interested in working in the areas I know of rural America to try and use the new FCC eRate push to try and get more communities connected, and I’m very interested to continue these conversations over the next year.
Here’s a presentation by Kevin Carter from DEFCON 2015 about the Piratebox project, but almost everything he points out as a benefit is equally applicable to LibraryBox. I would argue that in a few ways, LibraryBox is even better…mainly in the ease of customization for your own uses. LibraryBox puts all of the files for the web interface on the USB drive, which makes customizing much more straightforward.
He definitely gets the variety of benefits this sort of device can bring, from routing around censorship to providing a secure place to communicate in politically charged areas. These issues are exactly what I’m going to be working on as a Fellow at the Berkman Center this upcoming year.
I’ve talked before on this blog about where I grew up, in Eastern Kentucky. It holds a special place in my heart, as I suppose all childhood homes do, and is a place that I am reminded of often. I am thrilled to see this video, thrilled to see that there is a group working to make the place a better one. If you want to know what it’s like where I grew up, this video is a fantastic place to start.
It does my heart good to see that the community identified the Carter County Library as a vital piece of the rebuilding and re-imagining of the area. Carter County has two “cities” (and I use that word very loosely), Olive Hill and Grayson, with the main library being located in Grayson and a branch library in Olive Hill. My take on the revitalization of the library would include more efforts being throw at Olive Hill, as the town has far fewer other resources for children and adults in the realm of education…read that as “none at all”. Whereas Grayson, as the County seat, has always had more people and more resources.
I’ve also just spent most of this past week at the Aspen Institute Leadership Institute on Library Innovation as a part of their Communications and Society Program. I’m writing a separate post with lots of details on that effort, but one area where I can see Carter County really benefitting is through the new efforts by the FCC to do rural connectivity via fiber optics and the E-rate program. Look for a post on that, and the rest of the Aspen experience, later this week.