Protecting Library user data

By Amber Lautigar Reichert | March 22, 2023

Data matters to the UVA Library. It helps identify what resources are heavily used and what groups of people use them. The Library uses data to assess trends and inform collection building, to make decisions about service desk staffing and service improvements, and to improve teaching and learning services. Data is critical to making smart financial decisions and justifying budget spending and requests.

But some data is sensitive, and the Library is guided by a stringent professional code of ethics, as well as by University policy and state law, to be good stewards of all data. Although all U.S. libraries are exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests about how people use libraries, the Library is still subject to court orders and vulnerable to security breaches. Further, some companies allow the collection of user data that can be used for surveillance purposes, a practice that libraries strongly oppose. For instance, in 2021 a legal research and data brokerage firm, LexisNexis, signed a multimillion-dollar contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency to provide on-demand location tracking.

How does the UVA Library use data?

  • To inform collection building through usage trends.
  • For outreach to underserved user groups.
  • To identify areas that could be enhanced by Library instruction materials.
  • To verify Library usage by individual schools and units.
  • To locate lost items.
  • To validate survey results.
  • To corroborate staffing decisions by location and peak usage times.

A recent Library project led by Director of Strategic Technology Partnerships & Initiatives Robin Ruggaber focused on reducing risk to user privacy by eliminating or anonymizing more than a decade of circulation data. The project team first extracted data from the Library systems that run the online catalog, interlibrary services, and request services. The data was then either deleted or anonymized and stored in a new database that can be queried by librarians for business reasons.

Special Collections circulation and digitization requests must be stored for five years due to insurance requirements. However, most circulation data the Library collects is now only retained for 90 days, and the Library is working on policies that will formally codify new data collection procedures and timelines.

Data the Library keeps helps answer the questions of when, where, how long, and how much Library materials are used, and provides some demographic details about the people who use those materials. Sensitive personal information is removed, leaving valuable details about the circulating item
and the date, time, and location of transactions; subject, language, and item type (book, DVD, etc.); and borrower profiles including school and department.

Ruggaber noted that the project to eliminate or anonymize data — a collaboration with UVA’s Chief Information Security Officer, University Records Officer, Institutional Review Board for Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Institutional Research and Analytics — was a significant success. “We have achieved what many thought was impossible,” said Ruggaber, “to provide a way to search and mine anonymized library usage data critical for improving library services while also radically reducing risk to user data.”

This story originally appeared in the Library’s Annual Report for FY 2022-23. Download the full PDF to read more.