An Invitation, a Love Song, a How-to Manual: Practicing Privacy Literacy in Academic Libraries | Peer to Peer Review

It’s easy, as librarian-educators, to be overwhelmed and intimidated by the pace of technological change, as well as dismissive of the need for educating students and patrons about privacy on the assumption that they have fully embraced these technologies and likely don’t care. But the reality is that students do care about privacy, and want to be able to make informed, intentional choices about how they are known by and accessible to others.

Book cover: Practicing Privacy Literacy in Academic LibrariesThere’s an anecdote we like to tell first-year college students in our Privacy Workshop about being teens hanging out in online chat rooms during the "Dark Age of the Internet," when people would type A/S/L into the chat in an effort to suss out everyone’s age, sex, and location. We emphasize that at the time this was considered socially inappropriate, “creepy” behavior. But in the present day, people completely take it for granted that this kind of intimate demographic information—age, sex and gender, and location, as well as race and ethnicity, familial relationships, even political affiliations and religious beliefs—is collected about us all the time as a matter of course, and used to profile, categorize, sort, and target us, simply because we increasingly use networked technologies to access basic goods and services.

For us older Millennials (and earlier generations), this has been a privacy culture shift that we’ve witnessed unfold over the last two decades. Sometimes it feels like it happened overnight and other times it appears to have come about so slowly we forgot to be alarmed. For our students, this is life as they have always known it. For these reasons it’s easy, as librarian-educators, to be overwhelmed and intimidated by the pace of technological change, as well as dismissive of the need for educating students and patrons about privacy on the assumption that they have fully embraced these technologies and likely don’t care. But the reality is that students do care about privacy, and want to be able to make informed, intentional choices about how they are known by and accessible to others. Practicing Privacy Literacy in Academic Libraries: Theories, Methods, and Cases (Association of College & Research Libraries, 2023) advocates that libraries should be the home of privacy literacy initiatives.



When we began working together in 2018, we immediately connected over our shared interest in privacy. Our partnership quickly proliferated well beyond our original plans for a single workshop, and a fruitful teaching-research collaboration was born. In the midst of our work, we connected with dozens of peer-colleagues and hundreds of undergraduate students, all of whom reinforced our belief that there was a strong need for privacy literacy in higher education: That students cared deeply about their privacy but lacked an understanding of the hidden surveillance architectures of everyday technologies, and library workers were palpably apprehensive about the technological expertise required to teach these concepts.

Our prior research identified a strong need for privacy literacy support, with librarians pinpointing barriers such as time (both time to prepare educational opportunities and dedicated instructional time), professional expertise, and support from administration that hinder their ability to execute PL initiatives. Our studies also illuminated some of the amazing PL work already occurring that wasn’t documented in the library literature or open educational resource (OER) repositories. We knew that folks were hungry for privacy OERs to support their work, and that finding a way to promote and share these resources widely could help expand and advocate for academic libraries’ leadership in PL in higher education. Concurrently, the ACRL 2021 Environmental Scan identified privacy literacy as an expanding literacy, positioning our work as an emerging priority in academic libraries.



With the confluence of our PL expertise, professional experience, and macro-environmental factors, we realized there was an opportunity to support busy academic library workers in incorporating PL into their roles by bringing together evidence-based, theory-informed, and practical models. An edited volume felt like the natural progression of our research to create a platform for PL practitioners to share their work across all areas of academic librarianship. With our profession’s unique ethical commitment to privacy, growing social justice issues relating to algorithmic bias and surveillance capitalism, and a dearth of support in higher education for this much-needed literacy, we envision the book as the first of many to establish library workers as campus and societal thought leaders on privacy issues.

Mirroring Article VII of the Library Bill of Rights, which calls for libraries to “advocate for, educate about, and protect people's privacy,” the book is organized into four parts: What is Privacy Literacy?, Protecting Privacy, Educating About Privacy, and Advocating for Privacy. Chapters establish background through PL frameworks and theory; address community member privacy in the context of Access Services as well as archives and digital libraries; offer case studies on educating our communities through a wide array of contexts and topics; and address how we can continue to grow momentum and advance PL practices beyond the academic library and campus.



We were joined in this effort by 31 other intrepid scholar-practitioners who agreed to share their experiences with privacy work for the volume. In retrospect, it is remarkable that contributors undertook this work beginning in spring 2021, at a time when many library workers were still operating remotely and adjusting to new modes of conducting our work (not to mention our lives outside of work!). At the same time, responses to the COVID-19 pandemic—including contact tracing and location tracking for public health, academic surveillance of students in remote learning environments, and bossware and workplace surveillance—made privacy a highly salient topic for consideration.

As volume editors, we exercised an ethic of care to support each writer’s (or writing team’s) process while progressing toward a complete manuscript. An important element of our framework was a flexible timeline—not just a final manuscript deadline, but a series of touchpoints, including initial drafts, peer and editorial review feedback, and final chapter manuscripts—that chunked the process of crafting the book into manageable steps. In the year and a half we took to write the book, we reached out to authors every other month with updates, highlights from privacy in the news, reminders on the writing timeline, and an open invitation to contact us with any questions or concerns. We also met virtually with authors or teams to work through any issues that came up in the writing process, adjusting their timeline as needed.

Contributing authors also served as peer reviewers for at least one other chapter in the volume, with the option of participating in an anonymous or open peer review process. After dividing the pool of authors based on their preference for review modality, we assigned chapters by shared areas of expertise. As editors, we compiled and synthesized observations from peer reviewers to give authors feedback for their final manuscripts. This model enabled us to pool the collective knowledge and wisdom of our contributing authors, preserve author privacy and reviewer anonymity where desired, and provide authors direction to ensure that chapters addressing similar concepts did so in complementary rather than redundant ways.



Practicing Privacy Literacy in Academic Libraries is a palimpsest—an invitation, a love song, a theory deep-dive, a how-to manual, and a historical account.Our vision is to provide a record of PL initiatives in their time of emergence, and to establish PL as an area of specialization within librarianship. Readers will learn how contributors planned, resourced, and carried out impactful PL initiatives across a wide range of library functions and areas of practice, often in collaboration with partners on campus and beyond. They will also learn the names of contributors, some of whom have been working on notable privacy efforts in relative obscurity, and so identify professional role models and potential mentors for entering into privacy work.

Contributors took great care to situate these PL efforts in the practical contexts of their librarianship and community needs, but also in a broader theoretical context that enriches the work. This attention to theory crafts PL applications that transcend oversimplified approaches focused on privacy settings and technologies, pulling back the curtain on otherwise hidden surveillance architectures and privacy harms. Through a values-based, theory-informed approach, library workers can develop PL initiatives that are evergreen and resilient to the vicissitudes of technology trends and evolving regulatory environments.

We advocate that people—not data or technologies—are the rightful center of privacy work. A deep affection for our students, patrons, colleagues, and other community members, and concern for their well-being, permeates these accounts of PL efforts. In many cases, contributors pursue PL initiatives in addition to their job duties and without official support, making privacy work a veritable labor of love. By collecting their stories, we are laying groundwork to advocate for formal recognition, resources, staffing, and other means of official support for privacy work as library work.

Practicing Privacy Literacy in Academic Libraries is, at its heart, an invitation. We sought to demonstrate the myriad ways PL can find expression in library work, and in so doing, to inspire others to join the effort. As we say to conclude the book, “the next chapter of privacy literacy work in libraries is yours to write.”

Sarah Hartman-Caverly is a reference and instruction librarian and liaison to Engineering, Business and Computing programs at Penn State Berks. Alexandria Chisholm is a reference and instruction librarian and liaison to Penn State Berks's First Year Experience program and Science Division. Together, Hartman-Caverly and Chisholm created the Digital Shred Privacy Literacy Initiative, comprising an open-licensed privacy literacy curriculum, a practitioner-facing toolkit, and related scholarship, earning the Association of College and Research Libraries Instruction Section’s Innovation Award in 2021.

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