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Cyberpunk Librarian: Why You Need to Remove Your Google Search History


I love working the front desk and my boss is kind enough to put me on the front desk at least three to four hours per day. Today, I’ll be on-desk for five hours. Like you, when I hit the desk, I need certain programmes and apps to do my job. I need the ILS, the cash management and POS system, email is a good thing to have open, and I need Chrome.

There’s never a desk hour that I don’t use Chrome to answer a question, get data, and generally help people. Like millions of librarians, I tend to help people through the use of Google.

Now then, props to Google for making everyone aware that there will be some serious changes to their privacy policies and that these changes are coming very soon. They went out of their way to tell you, right down to a forced log off, to force you to log in, and then presenting you with an information screen about the changes. That’s pretty cool. If Facebook forced you to log off for a privacy change or update, you’d get kicked off every other day.

Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation posted a how to on removing your search data from Google and why you should. I’m not going to reiterate their work, as it’s good work and you should just go read it. What I’m going to do is build on that for a second and tell you why you as a librarian need to remove that data.

I use Google all day, every day. I’m sure you do too. I don’t know about you, but I’m also signed into Google while I’m doing it. I check my Gmail, I’m dealing with Google+, setting up appointments using Google Calendar, and so on.

And I’m also searching for information regarding patron queries while I’m signed in. What that means is that there is data within my own data set that has nothing to do with me. There are laws, ethics, and all kinds of reasons why patron information is confidential and, until March 1, 2012, that information on Google is confidential. After March 1st, Google will use that data to build a better Google which means offering you better ads, recommending videos, and that kind of thing.

But that data isn’t mine, or at least part of it isn’t mine. It’s data that was generated helping a library patron. I propose to you that such data, for all intents and purposes, belongs to the patron. That data wouldn’t have been generated if not for the patron, just like a library card wouldn’t have been generated if a patron hadn’t applied for one. Since we, as librarians, are tasked with protecting patron information, we need to protect that information too.

So, unless you never, ever log into Google and then search Google for patron queries, I really think you need to head over to the EFF and follow their very simple instructions for deleting and locking your Google search history. It takes less than five minutes to do this and, at the end, you’re not only protecting your data, but those of your patrons as well.


  1. One browser for you and a different one for patron searches?

    • You know what’d be prime? Use an Chrome incognito window for patron searches. The thing is, when I’m busy, I know I wouldn’t keep track of that. And really, if I find something I want to keep or remember or somehow get back to later, there are a slew of services that will let me do just that.

      So I prefer to just delete all of it, and then “pause” the collection of search history which generally shuts down that bit of Google. :)

  2. I think what I’ll start to do is use Chrome Incognito, as all that information is separated from other Chrome windows. It’s what I already do if I have to let a patron sign onto something on my computer (typically following printing problems that are unresolvable on the public PCSs.)

    Of course that assumes that you don’t mind Google tracking your searches when you are searching as you.

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  4. I’m not sure I follow your logic. The searches you do on behalf of your patrons can’t be tracked back to them, so it seems highly unlikely that their privacy would be compromised. It is much more likely that they would have their search terms snooped by someone using Firesheep while they are surfing the library’s open unsecured WiFi network. Are you saying that those search terms are the intellectual property of the patrons and should thus be kept out of Google’s hands? And why would you log into your personal Google account at all while working? Or are you using a Google Apps account that is administrated by the library?

  5. I don’t really understand what the problem is here. Surely the only reason to log off would be to help Google collect data that is more accurate. It is interested in *you* and *your* interests; if you search on behalf of someone else, Google gets an inaccurate picture of what you are interested in.

    Why is this a problem to anyone but Google? It is not a problem for your users because Google knows nothing about them, in the same way as a trolley of returned books would not jeopardize patron privacy as it has no reference to who borrowed them.

    Staying logged in may even help protect your own privacy – a jumble of data collected on behalf of library users will keep your real interests away from Google’s prying eyes.

  6. Both Laura and Rick make some good points that I’ll follow up on in another post. I’d do that today, but I have a freakin’ meeting on the other side of the County today, so I doubt I’ll get it done. Let me just throw out this answer to their concerns.

    It’s not what Google does with the information, or even if they do anything with the information. It’s that they have the information at all. If I gave someone a list of random barcode numbers for library cards, that won’t tell them much about the patrons those cards are connected to nor would it be easy to divine anything about borrowing habits or what’s checked out now.

    Yet we would never hand out someone’s library card number for any reason. It’s not about what people would do with such a list, it’s that they’d have the list to begin with.

  7. So, Daniel, Google has the notion that I AM a librarian. They also think I’m gay, by the way, based on words mentioned in emails sent me by gay friends – I get awful ads because of that. So, let’s assume that they someday decide to track what I search for during weekdays to get an idea for marketers of data for the city I work for. If I do a lot of searches for recipes, they decide to reopen the one chef’s supply store that closed down a year back. The patrons who come to ask me about cookbooks then rejoyce, won’t they?

    Moreover, if I were a Google employee, and I wanted to find the proclivities of people in my town, I would go to WorldCat, see if the collection is regularly weeded based on the average age of the books, then look at the subjects of the oldest books as those books are most likely popular or they would have been weeded, and from that get better information than collecting one librarian’s searches. Thus, should we remove our catalogs from the internet as that’s also an invasion of our user’s privacy?

    • Sure Google could go to WorldCat and probably glean some interesting data. But as an interlibrary loan coordinator, let me tell you, the information contained in WorldCat can be wildly inaccurate. I get requests for books that our library system hasn’t had for years and similarly, I see requests denied for the same reason. WorldCat and FirstSearch have old or inaccurate data, not nearly as accurate as data acquired through Google searching.

      Funny thing is, you’re not a Google employee and what you said makes no sense to one. I actually know a couple of Google employees and let me assure you, the only data Google really trusts is it’s own data. They’re not going to go bouncing around WorldCat or anyplace else trying to gather information when they already have a massive data set at their disposal. So no, you shouldn’t remove your catalogues from the Internet because that’d be stupid.

      The fact of the matter is that the data generated under the specific circumstances I outlined, isn’t just your data. It’s data supplied by patrons that doesn’t belong to you nor should it be housed by Google. If you don’t want to follow my advice, fine. I seriously doubt any harm will come to anyone if you, or anyone else, decides that I’m completely wrong and disregards everything I’ve said.

      It’s simply a matter of ethics and opinion. I’d suggest not taking it so personally next time.

  8. I actually think letting patron searches mix in with your own searches increases both your AND your patrons’ privacy, practically speaking. It gives Google a much fuzzier picture of who you are and absolutely no picture whatsoever of who your patrons are, assuming they haven’t logged into Google and searched for themselves before visiting your desk.

    I mean, I follow your logic. On principle, perhaps, this counts as “patron data.” And we protect patron data. But, again, practically speaking, I think this is better thought of as anti-data.

  9. Also (sorry, didn’t finish my thought before posting), I should say, I have history turned off in my account. I can’t follow EFF’s directions to delete data, because, in theory, there isn’t any. So, regardless of whether I convince you, or you convince me, my patrons are going to be equally safe. … If that makes you feel better? :)

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