No, YouTube is not a library – and why it matters

Last week, en route to deliver a keynote at the 11th annual #libtech2018 conference at Macalester College, I came across a tweet reporting out on YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki’s remarks at sxsw, as transcribed by a Twitter user. Among other things, she claimed that a great model for describing what YouTube is is, in fact, “a library.”

Of course, I couldn’t help myself and had to include a screengrab of this tweet in my presentation, which I’d already finished but simply had to edit. And, predictably, the libtech crowd responded with audible groans. As one astute audience member observed, and I paraphrase, YouTube is a library in the same way a pile of unsorted crap thrown on the floor is “an archive.” Notably, YouTube-as-library exists without librarians; the closest one might come there is the invisible army of commercial content moderators who toil in obscurity to operationalize and enforce the platform’s opaque rules.

But another key difference, rendered all the more acute by this week’s breaking Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, is the social media giant’s treatment of user data (in libraryland, we refer to these people as “patrons,” more typically). In short, in public librarianship, in particular, but in librarianship across the board, patron privacy is key and is understood as an important tenet that _facilitates_ access to information and use of the library. In social media land, these same data are currency. 

Let me repeat that for the back of the room: social media treats user data and user behavior as material to be extracted, analyzed, aggregated and sold. In fact, this process of data mining and manipulating _is the economic engine of social media platforms_. It is what allows the platforms to, among other things, build their products to more effectively encourage user participation and sustained relationships – thereby giving more opportunity to extract data. It is what allows the platforms to connect users like you and me to advertisers, their primary customers. And the existence and ease of aggregation and extraction of these data is also what is proving to be irresistible to a host of actors, from university researchers (I’d love to see that IRB) to nefarious actors keen on manipulating whole swaths of people to benefit their clients. And everyone in between.

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YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki’s remarks at the 2018 SXSW Festival, as relayed in Wired

Libraries are imperfect, flawed institutions. They move slowly and often have trouble with change. They have had a long history of problematic social positions that have needed to be challenged in order to foment change and responsibility. They are underfunded, which leads to a position of being on the defense more often than is perhaps warranted or helpful. But they sure do get some things right.


This sign and others made by Jessamyn West

One thing libraries have done very successfully is to develop principles intended to keep patron privacy… well, private. Laws that govern patron privacy of records vary from state to state, with California having some of the nation’s strongest, and Kentucky and Hawaii being the only two not addressing this issue in state law. In California, “Government Code sections 6250 through 6270 ensure ‘the right of individuals to privacy . . .’ This section is considered the ‘California Public Records Act.’ Sections 6254 (j) and 6267 (a), (b), and (c) refer specifically to registration and circulation records. Registration records are the patron library card records and circulation records are the items checked out on patron library cards.

But best practices within libraries themselves may go further. One example is that of the San Francisco Public Library, which has as its principles:

  • Gather only the data necessary to perform the specific service
  • Keep the data only as long as needed to provide the service or to meet the City’s record retention rules
  • Limit access to the data to those who must use it in the performance of their duties
  • Keep the data in a secure place
  • Protect the privacy of individuals and the collection, use, retention of personal information; disclosure of reasons for collecting, uses.

Further, the American Library Association, the primary governing and accreditation body of American (and other, e.g., Canadian) libraries and library education programs, has its own principles regarding patron privacy, and even a toolkit designed to help its libraries get on board with being good stewards of patron data and its ethical protection and use.

“Why have they done this?” one may ask. Seriously, who would possibly be interested in the list of who checked out what at a public library branch in a suburban area, or who looked at what website in a bustling downtown central library. Well, after 9/11, the US government and its agents got pretty interested. Librarians, in contrast, became especially concerned about the encroachment on patron privacy most recently right after the adoption of the USA PATRIOT Act, and the demands on libraries to turn over information to government agencies – under the mandate that they not disclose to patrons that such demands had been made. This did not sit well with many librarians, who felt they had an obligation to their patrons to at least help them understand the new informational landscape in which they were operating. But it went further than that, and some librarians resisted – and won:

All of this to say that these principles and protections, as well as a core dedication to the patron herself, make libraries something special, unique, and increasingly fundamentally important in the social fabric. It is all the more important, therefore, that we describe what they are so that we can recognize what they are not – and so we can call foul when others try to co-opt the institution for their own purposes. I should also just note that I don’t think it’s an accident or any surprise that some academics who have made a career out of studying, and critiquing, social media (such as Safiya Noble, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Casey Fiesler, Zeynep Tufekci and others) have backgrounds in or teach in LIS programs.

No, YouTube, you’re not a library. Not. even. close.

5 thoughts on “No, YouTube is not a library – and why it matters

  1. has anyone ever audited the San Francisco Library to make sure they are doing what they say they doing?

    Trust, but verify

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