anonymity, libraries, and websites

Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation about privacy that stemmed from part 1 of the ALA Techsource webinar Robin Hastings and I lead on social media (part 2 is on Dec 8!). Someone asked about posting staff names on their library website, so I shared what we do in Topeka – whenever someone posts to the site, their full first name and a headshot is included in the post.

Then a few participants responded that they use only first names, would never include a photo, privacy issues were mentioned, stalkers were mentioned, etc.

Certainly some of those issues are serious (especially the stalker stuff – yikes!). So I decided to hash through my answer with Gina Millsap, our executive director at the library.

Here’s what came out of that discussion: libraries can’t really base policy decisions or day-to-day practice decisions on one-time events or on worse case scenarios. We have to base those policies on a library’s strategic plans and on current best practices in order to best serve our communities. And then deal with the exceptions and single instances as they crop up.

A big goal at my library is to be very transparent with our community. For us, that means using first and last sharing our names and photos – on our name badges, at the desk, on the phone, and on our website. None of our staff can be anonymous when they represent the library.

And here’s something else Gina said that made a lot of sense to me – if we choose to hide behind anonymity, use only our first names, or use pseudonyms while representing the library (and yes, I have seen all of these used in libraries, even on nametags) … that sends the wrong message to our community. When we do that, the library is basically communicating a message back to the community. What is that message?

“We don’t trust you” or perhaps “we think you’re weird.” Or something similar.

Is that the message we want to send to our community? I don’t think so.


image by alancleaver_2000

  • Michael Sauers

    If you’re representing the library, chances are you’re a government employee. Sorry, us government employees don’t (and shouldn’t IMHO) generally get anonymity. (Heck, my salary is up on the Internet somewhere since I work for the state.)

  • Librarianinblack

    Agreed – transparency is so important to building trust and relationships. All of our staff blogging on our site ( are using first and last names. We’re representing digitally the same way we would face-to-face. I hope more libraries will follow that model.

  • Ryan Deschamps

    Can’t really say that I agree with that David. Just because people do not have their names on their posts does not imply anything really forget saying ‘we think you’re weird.’

    Great to have a policy of transparency and to build the kind of organization that supports that, but every community is different and every community will see a library’s actions differently.

    For instance, the community might think that adding your full name to a post as ‘self-promoting social media bs artist.’ (clarification: I’m not by any means suggesting this of anyone, just that it is a possible [even likely!] perception by the public). In the end, it’s all about strategy and branding. Opportunities for the public to criticize always exist no matter the policy. It’s much more important to focus on strengths, gather support from all the players and execute to the best of your ability.

  • Rosario

    It is very frustrating when I go to a library’s website and I can’t even find the director’s name! And it is just as frustrating when I ask why something is done in a certain way and the response is “back eons ago we had one incident which prompted us to set up a policy….” So, I totally agree with your posting and Michael’s comment!

  • Joe Grobelny

    I agree, since we’re civil servants (to use an old term), I think we should be held responsible to a higher standard of transparency and ethics than others. That’s the heat of the kitchen.

  • Kreger_c

    20 years ago, I was one of the first employees to have only my first name on my nametag at my library. I suggested it because of previous bad experiences with crank callers at a previous customer service job (the call is worse somehow when they use your name). I also thought that just first names seemed just as friendly. When you know people, you are often on a first name basis.

    However, I am all for staff names (even if just first names) and images on websites and other virtual presences. For many, that may be their library and we should be just as friendly and approachable only as in person. I also never hesitate to answer patron questions via my work e-mail, while others have been hesitant to risk becoming someone’s personal librarian and prefer a generic work e-mail account.

    There is quite a bit to think about with privacy these days, but I agree that policies should be set with the assumption that patrons are inherently good vs. evil.

  • Mylee

    Often in libraries we create rules or policies seeking to exclude every thing that can possibly go wrong. I’ve often wondered if in some cases it would be much more user friendly and cost effective to deal with the exceptions if and when they happen rather than put something in place “in case”.

    We understand “just in time” vs “just in case” in document delivery and collection development – perhaps we need to extend it to include these types of situations?

  • ananka

    I don’t know why, but library staff seem to be highly likely to have stalking problems. I know of at least 3 at our system this year. They were all young women and they had to move branches. They were not librarians, but there have been librarians in other years. I don’t think you quite understand the ramifications for women in this line of work. However, having our names on our nametags probably isn’t going to make much of a difference.

    On a different point, there are folks that like to use our names in a creepy way, or condescending way. Some people use the knowledge as a power wedge–as in I know your name and I can get you in trouble. Or I know something personal about you and I am going to remember and call you by name every time I see you.

    I don’t mind if people know who I am–we give out business cards with our full name–but I understand others wanting to keep as much of their privacy as they can, especially circulation staff.

  • Kristi

    Absolutely. Our citizens are entitled to know who we are, and beyond that, librarianship is about connections, and it’s pretty difficult to build relationships if you’re being deceptive about your identity!

  • davidleeking

    Interesting take. I know our community actually likes to see names and faces – they’ve told me so during focus groups.

  • davidleeking

    So … why did the library system move staff rather than deal with the stalking problem? I’m guessing at my library, we would have 1. banned the stalker from the library, and 2. had them arrested for trespassing if they appeared again.

    And – I would hope our patrons called us by our names! that can only be a good thing – it means they use our services, they trust us, etc. Again – those exceptions DO need to be dealt with. But not by attempting to hide behind privacy (which you simply can’t have in our line of work), or by being passive in other ways.

    But thanks for sharing – I’m getting a lot of very interesting comments on this issue, yours included. Appreciate it!

  • davidleeking

    So … why did the library system move staff rather than deal with the stalking problem? I’m guessing at my library, we would have 1. banned the stalker from the library, and 2. had them arrested for trespassing if they appeared again.

    And – I would hope our patrons called us by our names! that can only be a good thing – it means they use our services, they trust us, etc. Again – those exceptions DO need to be dealt with. But not by attempting to hide behind privacy (which you simply can’t have in our line of work), or by being passive in other ways.

    But thanks for sharing – I’m getting a lot of very interesting comments on this issue, yours included. Appreciate it!

  • cybermac33

    I personally do not like wearing my full name nor would I be happy with my picture online. I do agree that you have a valid point about transparency however I think it should be a personal choice as whether or not you want your image on the website. We all have a right to privacy.
    I love the people and community that I serve but I do not like being mandated to put myself out there if I do not want to.

  • GeekChic

    I have been stalked and assaulted by patrons. Arresting them does nothing because they are out in hours. Banning from the library doesn’t help because they just wait in the parking lot. If they knew my full name I shudder to think what else they could have done besides lurk at my place of work.

    Sorry, you’re not getting my full name and you’re definitely not getting my picture. Does this indicate that I don’t trust my patrons? Darn right! And I have very good reason not to!

  • threegoodrats

    At my first job out of library school, we wore name tags with our first and last names. When I started getting obscene phone calls from a patron, we got new name tags with just first names. I know for certain that I’m the only person in the state of MA with my last name, and I was pretty creeped out by the implications.

    Then I worked at a job where we had no name tags and staff refused to even give out first names. It was so incredibly unfriendly and, I really think, a disservice to our patrons. Sure, I’d prefer not to be stalked, but I also don’t want to constantly act out of fear of being victimized. I agree that we should base policies on the type of service we want to provide, not on worst-case scenarios. Realistically, those stalking situations are very rare.

  • polly

    Oddly, I don’t think I’d would want my last name on a name tag in certain work settings. As you know, I’m pretty open about who I am and share a great deal of information online. I’m not hiding. But over the years, I’ve been robbed, mugged and had a problem with a stalker sort of situation. None of that happened while I was working in a library, though I’ve seen problems in those settings too. Each incident left me feeling pretty wary for a very long time and sometimes irrationally so. And even when you know you’re being irrational, fear can be a pretty hard thing to overcome. Everyone deals differently with matters of privacy and for a wide range of reasons. I’d argue strongly for flexibility on this emotional issue.

  • Andy Woodworth

    A couple of things pop into my head with this post, David.

    First, you are posting this under your real name on a website that is your name. I don’t think you have a problem with your name being out in the public forum. I use my real name as well (it’s not on my blog, but it’s one step away through links), but I’m relatively in the same boat as you are. There are people who are fine with using their real names online and (as a matter of course) using it at the library.

    In my system, we are county employees and we wear county employee ID badges. It has our full name on them. Some have taken to making a tag to go over this so that it just shows the first name; others have opted to wear it with just the back showing (hiding their name). Certainly, there are different comfort levels going on here; I would imagine they might have the same feeling for their names being on a website. Some might like just a first name, others might be ok with a picture, but I bet the people with the backward badges would not be ok with both.

    Second, I think there is a gender aspect to this. As a 6’3 and not exactly a lightweight guy, I may not have the same physical security issues as one of my 5’4 and petite female colleague. Putting my face and name on the website has different implications for me than the aforementioned coworkers. Now, a good counterargument is this is that it is not a gender thing, but a physical security thing. A 5’4 man could have the same issues as a 5’4 woman. But I digress.

    I think there is a decent compromise on the substance of your post. If there is a staff member who is comfortable with their name and face being online, why not turn them into the public face of the library? Companies have been doing that with Twitter and Facebook where they have an individual who portrays themselves as “Hey, I’m Bob from Ford.” Why not do that with the library? You can put a face on the library using the people who are comfortable with it and let people who are more private still operate behind the scenes.

  • Booktender

    I am of many different minds on this. I’ve been around the same library system for 23 years. It used to bother me to have customers know my name. Now I don’t care. Our badges show both names and it is small enough that it really doesn’t matter to me.

    As professionals we do need to have our names out there for accountability. Since we work for a government-type agency, all of our staff must pay this price for the priviledge of public service.

    That being said, stalking will happen no matter what you do or where you are. If you are a public servant, wearing an id, first de-list your phone number. Having a listed number resulted in two of our staff members receiving threats at home and, in one case, a stalker on the doorstep. That’s simple safety.

    From the good examples given, I do feel I need to put a PSA out on the topic:

    Stalkers stalk for many reasons. They do not always stalk because of a failed love affair or because their object is pretty. It is not always because the stalker is angry.

    A stalker may decide that you have given them a secret message simply because you picked up a pencil or said a harmless word. You could be male or female, fat or thin, old or young.

    It is important to let victims of stalking know that there was nothing they did wrong. It was the other person’s choice to behave the way they did.

    HR needs to have procedures in place for this occasion. Other staff need to know the id of the stalker so they can protect their coworker. Simple safety rules.

    And yes, sometimes it is necessary to remove the victim from the proximity of the stalker, even if the police are aware of the problem. It’s an inconvenient and sad consequence of being a public servant.

  • aarontay

    Very interesting. We have our full names on tags as far as I know no-one complains.

    Fairly recently, we started on libguides, which has a librarian profile and the question of whether to add profile pics came up. Currently, we leave it up to staff to decide if they want to put up a real pic or not. Some have suggested group photos instead etc.

    It’s quite interesting to see that some libraries (academic libraries in particular IMHO) have full blown profiles with pictures, bios etc, while other libraries, just have a line with numbers..

    It would be really interesting to see how many percent of librarians have put up real photos in the Libguides system which gives us a feel of librarians comfort level with putting pictures of themselves online.

    To be honest I’m kind of surprised there are name tags with no first or last names.

  • ellen forsyth

    It is about trust, and having a good clean up strategy. Call the police when you need to. Don’t treat all the library patrons as if they are all untrustworthy. It is professional to sign your work, and nice for the community which already knows the library staff, to know who has posted each piece.

  • Rglightyear

    I am fortunate to work in an elementary school library. Although I am not a teacher, I expect the same amount of respect from students that they would give to their teachers.

    So, on my first day, when one of the students (in grade 4, I think) asked if she could call me by my first name, the answer was a rather firm “No” followed by saying what my last name is. Admittedly, my last name is a bit of a tongue twister.

    Since then, she started calling me Mr L, which I have absolutely no problems with. Other students shorten my name to the first syllable, which I also have no problems with, since they add “Mr” in front of it.

  • Deborah Fitchett

    I obviously put my name out there myself quite willingly, but/because I’ve been lucky not to be stalked. But I know people who, if having their full name and photo out there was a condition of employment, would decide to forgo employment in favour of their safety; and that would seem a great waste of talent if their employer couldn’t take their need for safety into account. My own inclination is that it’s great to set a default in favour of transparency, but it’s also vital to make it clear to staff that they can opt out if necessary, and to give them a safe (understanding, not challenging them) method of opting out.

  • Bluetadpole

    The message this post is sending me is that a desire for personal privacy is suspicious and abnormal. Brave New World was more prophetic than 1984.

  • Jrogoz

    One the one hand, I give my business card with my full name and work phone to any patron who potential might want to follow up on anything I help them with. I provide tech support for all of our online resources, so my work email is all over our web site. On the other hand, I keep my home phone number unlisted, and although I’m walking distance from the library, I drive to work out of fear of being followed home.

  • cbaseball

    I was stalked. My stalker tracked my home address and had my email address. He sent some horrendous things to me. I don’t know if I can convey how vulnerable I felt. He knew who I was, where I lived, how to phone me, send me mail, send me email… I had no idea who he was. At the time I was single and lived alone. I was constantly concerned – so much so that I slipped into depression.

    My stalker was identified and would have been one of the first people prosecuted under my state’s cyber-stalking laws. He died before his case came to trial. I did not want him to die, but I now consider myself fortunate that I do not have to worry about him coming after me again. At the time of his death, I was accused of causing it.

    So, I am not willing to have my full name and picture displayed. Ever. Anywhere. I was not tremendously supported by my library system during this case. I would hate to feel pressured into doing so by my library system. With the current economy, I don’t think I could quit my job, but I would want to. I can pretty much guarantee that being force to post my full name and picture would send me into another depression.

  • Steve Matthews

    I read a Post earlier this morning regarding the Netflix issue, and the Blogger asked readers to substitute “books” for “DVDs”, etc. So the thought struck me that if we substitute “clerk” or “cashier” or “sales person” for librarian, how would that change the scenario or circumstances? In NO store that I’ve ever done business has the “clerk” or “cashier” or “sales person” ever given or shown me their last name (normally you’re lucky if you get a first name unless you ask).

    So, I’m curious why a library system would feel it is important to be proactive in making employees’ names public information.

    I understand sending a message of trust to the public, but maybe that trust could be sent in other ways, like no fine for overdue – because we trust that the overdue was unavoidable. Or, no fine for damaged books – because we trust that the damage was reasonably unavoidable. In fact I know of one such library. It is a community of about 45,000, and the director has taken many years of effort to “train” the patrons (customers) to respect their library and its employees, in exchange for similar respect. A raport of mutual respect between library staff and customers takes time and effort.

    I agree with putting a personal face on the library, but not sure I agree with giving that face a first and last name.

  • davidleeking

    Hi Steve – thanks for the comment!

    I’m not sure a clerk or cashier is a good substitute for librarian. Yes, possibly for circ staff.

    But how about reference staff? They answer questions in person, over IM, the phone, and email (guessing most have a footer in their email). They sometimes meet with patrons for extended reference services. At my library anyway, they write blog posts/articles on our website. They give presentations out in the community.

    Most of these job-related duties are way more “public” and “personal” than a clerk or cashier, I think.

    Just thinking out loud here…

  • Lori Fisher

    Our public focus groups in 2009 indicated that they wanted staff to wear name tags, which we have done — with first names only. One reason is because we had a stalking incident here which was dealt with by legal means but the scars remain on both the person who was stalked and the employees who were here at the time. Another reason for just first names is to give the impression of intimacy. The first-name-only name tags serve as a permission for any of our patrons (including children) to call me Lori instead of Mrs. Fisher. The patrons love it, and not one has asked us to have name tags with last names.

  • shortlibrarian

    I think sharing your first name and a headshot is more than enough. It is “transparent” enough. I don’t believe that it is necessary to share the last name of any staff other than management staff.

    My library wears name tags — a relatively recent development — and we decided to only put our first name on these ids. It’s personal and friendly. Because of the name tag, I have many patrons ask for me by name or refer back to an incident in which I helped them without them having to indicate me in a potentially uncomplimentary physical description.

    However, for the most part, I don’t want to be my patrons’ best friend. I don’t want to use my last name unless it is required by my job position. I am a civil servant — not a civil slave. My off hours do not belong to random people calling me at my home.

  • JS

    Growing up, someone once told me: “Never put a principle above a person.” I agree that “transparency” is an important mission, however, if it compromises the safety of your people – it’s not right.

    I work for a library in an urban setting (more urban than Topeka, obviously!) and I applaud the strides we’ve made in recent years that address the conditions in which we work. A large portion of our patron population is homeless and mentally ill. We’ve had patrons bring weapons into buildings, staff has been stalked, threatened, assulted while on duty, etc, etc. Measures need to be in place to protect us. My library never requires us to give out our last names (on a badge, online, or in person) if we don’t feel comfortable doing so, all of our locations have security guards who document problems, and we’ve even recently discussed what to do in the case of a live shooter in the building. This is reality – this is the world we live in today – as sad as it is.

  • jtfburgess

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts David, and for providing a forum for this to be discussed. I guess the concern I have is that you are setting up a situation where a professional may have to choose between two forms of safety, financial and bodily, and that seems vaguely unfair to me. Calling a stalking situation a worst case scenario makes it sound like it is about as likely as being attacked by Africanized bees in the Waldorf Astoria. Surely it’s not that exotic? I’m all for accountability, but there are other ways of monitoring performance, rather than making a person abandon their privacy. Especially for the sake of a policy based on an ideal, rather than a goal. If what you want to create a comfortable atmosphere that invites people to seek out knowledge, you should probably make sure that the ones providing access to the knowledge feel safe and secure. I know I would be a lot more open and friendly if I felt that my administrators took my safety concerns seriously.

  • Rachel Storm

    I’m not sure how I feel about all these claims that just because we’re public servants, we don’t have a right to privacy. Especially in light of the other stories people have told about being stalked or harassed. I do wear a name tag with my full name and thankfully have not had anything bad happen because of it but it does make me a bit uncomfortable. I don’t want to hide my identity, but I do want people to respect my right to a private life in addition to my public/professional one. Some people have a difficult time doing that and I feel our culture makes it worse by encouraging that type of behavior. I’m not sure what libraries can do to deal with this reality, but ignoring that it happens, or suggesting that sacrifices (stalkings, harassment, inappropriate invasions of privacy) need to be made in the name of transparency is unacceptable.

  • Nathan

    I applaud transparency, and in fact I’m currently designing a new blog & public communication system for the major urban public library where I work. In that blog, I’m pushing for staff who post to have small headshots & first names.

    I won’t be pushing for them to have last names, because I know it won’t be accepted and it shouldn’t be. Stalking isn’t a ‘worst-case scenario’ here; it’s an everyday concern. We have a fairly large population of homeless people & mental patients in the city, & multiple stalking or harassment events each year.

    Stalking isn’t confined to the library building, so it’s not a matter of merely banning the offender & calling the police if they return. Our main branch has late-night closing hours on weekdays, and we’ve had staff harassed by stalkers waiting for them in the parking lot, and even being called at home.

    Our staff would flatly refuse to have their last names put out in public, & I agree with them. We’re public servants, not celebrities; we have as much of a right to personal privacy as everyone else.

    Of course, it’s a different matter if you email someone or hand them a business card in the course of a work-day; after interacting with them there’s a certain degree of being able to judge ‘rationality’. If you’re putting yourself out into the wilds of cyberspace, that judgement no longer applies to anyone who can stumble across you.

    I think it’s all a matter of degree; what’s perfectly reasonable in a small-town public library is a very different matter in one of the major libraries in the state capital!

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  • davidleeking

    Just curious – do you have a facebook account? Most people show first & last names and a pic there (even if their privacy settings don’t let someone go further than that).

  • ananka

    It was to save the staff member having to run into the patron in the neighborhood and giving them a chance to fade out of the patron’s view. Sometimes it hasn’t gotten to criminal acts, just leering and other inappropriate conduct–but harder to prove as such. Should a staff member have to continue to work in an environment where a person makes them afraid? Not if it isn’t necessary.
    Why should we have to give out both names? Does a last name really mean anything? They know my first and where I work, which is enough to identify me. I give out my card to those interested in my specialties, which are teen services and adult computer instruction, which has my first and last name. The difference is that when you wear your name on your chest, and some creep has decided they want to know more about you, they have the key without any additional work.

    Having our names online with our salaries isn’t that big of a deal, because our pictures aren’t there. Someone isn’t likely to go through the salary list and pick out people to stalk. They are more likely to see someone, most likely a young woman, but not always, at a branch and decide to go look them up. If their full name is on their name tag, then they will find that salary information, and perhaps much more if the person is in the phone book, etc.

    The question using full names online…well, in the case of a directory without photos, probably not a problem unless the stalker has found the person in a branch and then looks them up on the library page. As to a blog post, a lot of personality and opinion goes into them and someone who is likely to stalk someone might find that enough to want to get to know the staff person better.

    There are a lot of library folks talking about how upset they are by you belaboring this point with your 3 separate posts on the subject. You have a lot of power in the library world. I hope you only use it for good.

  • ananka

    I have a facebook account and my picture is of a green bowling ball. My name is there, but I have my privacy settings set very high, so that’s as far as they get (as long as facebook doesn’t … change their privacy policies again).

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  • Martin

    I’m all in favour of using at least first names and faces. I think it presents a professional image when you’re willing to let you’re name stand behind your work. Can you imagine a doctor or lawyer who was not willing to tell you their name, or a builder or plumber? What kind of impression would you have of their professionalism, reliability and the quality of their work?

  • cybermac33

    yes I do however, I have my privacy set so that you cannot search me by name and I have no pictures of myself on facebook. I choose not to post my location, employment or education. I am just confounded by loss of control over my identity for work. I am a private person and I feel that having my picture and bio on a library website makes me uncomfortable. I absolutely love my job and my community– I am trying to understand how a job can make you put your identity out in cyberspace like this.

  • davidleeking

    Well, for us anyway, it’s simply part of the job. Our vision for the library is to provide highly personalized service to the community. Check out Topeka’s vision statement – it says stuff like “we want to be on your speed dial” and “we want to be friends on Facebook.”

    Our public services staff can serve on community committees and boards, sometimes they’re on local TV talking about ebooks (I’m probably going on tv next Tuesday), etc. People see us out and about, they see us on TV, they read our blog posts on our website, and when they have questions, like “I saw that ebook spot by Sally …” we want to be able to provide easy access to Sally – the ebook expert at the library. The best way to do that is by providing full name, work email address, and a work phone number.

    We think part of working a public service job is being visible to the community, and part of that visibility includes sharing our names.

    But that’s just us – certainly not every library is like that!

  • cybermac33

    I can appreciate being out in the community. One my favorite aspects of my job is doing homebound deliveries, readers advisory in the grocery store, Post Office or even on my Sunday walk. I am not saying that I am against being “out” there — it is more a control issue. If I do not want my picture out there or my identity out there then I should have the final say. If you work and live in the same community and the community is small then the lines at times can get blurred as to what is personal and what is private. It becomes too familiar at times– and we as employees can not escape it! So if I can opt out of providing even more information then I should be able to. I should say that I wear a nametag with my full name. I can accept that– it is taking things even further and requiring a FULL online identity as well.