Alan Harnum

Public Libraries, BiblioCommons, and COVID-19 Conspiracy Platforming

06 Oct 2021

BiblioCommons is a popular software as a service (SaaS) platform for public libraries looking for a better online catalogue experience for patrons without having to build and maintain it themselves; they offer other features and products, but my sense is that the generally excellent online catalogue experience is the main selling point, especially for large library systems.

Per my (potentially outdated) understanding, they connect to or source data from the integrated library system (ILS) and provide a discovery layer including social media features like comments and user lists. User comments and lists exist worldwide between different public libraries using the platform, while each public library's instance carries their logo and other branding.

I never dealt with Bibliocommons directly during my time working in public library technology, but I've had a generally favourable impression of them for being quite ahead of other library vendors in their attention to patron user experience, their support of integration with a wide variety of ILS, and the overall quality of their design and technology. The company is also Toronto-based and I ran into a few people from it over the years at library conferences and similar, and they generally seemed like decent folks making a product that both public library patrons liked and public library decision makers were willing to buy (these two don't always go together).

That's all as preamble to my embedded tweet below, where the operative word is gobsmacked:

Gobsmacked that Bibliocommons, a system in widespread use by public libraries in Canada, has features making it possible for people to stick up COVID-19 conspiracy theory booklists and commentary underneath the library's logo and branding. @VPL example:

— Alan Harnum (@waharnum) October 6, 2021

You can see the whole Twitter thread for more detail, but my summary version is as follows:

tl,dr: Bibliocommons, the popular discovery interface used by many public libraries in Canada (Edmonton, Vancouver and Hamilton were the ones I specifically found) has a user lists feature that can be used for publishing booklist content by anyone worlwide that will then appear under the library logo, site navigation and other branding. This includes COVID 19 conspiracy misinformation.

There is, as I said in the Twitter thread, A Lot™ going on here. Let's unpack a bit!

Freedom of Speech

Much smarter commentators than I have written about the practical and philosophical challenges of freedom of speech, intellectual freedom and similar formulations in public library spaces, and the impact of public library free speech maximalism on marginalized groups. These issues have come up primarily of late in regards to public libraries hosting anti-trans speakers and holding anti-trans works in their collection.

These issues are complex and contested among people who think seriously about public library values and mission. I wouldn't count myself among that crowd these days, but for what it's worth I am firmly on the side that believes the construction of free speech and intellectual freedom as abstractly achievable matters is reductive and dangerous. I also significantly value artistic and intellectual freedom, and value differentiating these from a belief that a public platform should be provided to anyone who wants one without protest or pushback.

I also believe public library leaders advocating free speech maximalism should extend that same privilege to their staff to criticize their decisions around that and other matters - on that day I will arrive on the first layer of hell, snowsuit in hand, to applaud their fullsome commitment to intellectual freedom even at the expense of their own comfort and authority, as they are quick to advise others to do for the greater good of society at the expense of things more precious than authority and comfort.

That said, I don't think this particularly instance is anywhere close to complex or nuanced. I do not think it is responsible or advisable from a standpoint of professional ethics (or more mercenary pragmatic considerations like brand and reputation management) for public libraries to have COVID-19 conspiracy content appearing as part of their web presence in this way. Support for intellectual freedom does not need to include making yourself and your reputational halo available as a publishing platform in this manner, under any sensible definition of supporting intellectual freedom.

Branded Technology Outsourcing and Seamless UX

I've done extensive work throughout my career to try and weave cohesive user experiences from disparate technology platforms, some under the control of internal teams, some provided by vendors. Having struggled with making this happen with third-party products, it's impressive how close some Bibliocommons instances appear to library-controlled web platforms, primarily through consistent footer and header design, but also with good attention to typography and other considerations. Compare the Edmonton Public Library Home Page and the EPL Bibliocommons Catalogue - a trained eye will notice the seams, but it's a lot better than products I've seen in the past where you were only able to add an organizational logo. A small notice in the lower left of the footer is the only obvious sign you aren't on the library's own platform.

From long experience, I do not believe that the average library patron understands the difference between the library's own web presence and a vendor-run SaaS, or between library-created content and community-created content pulled in from around the world, particularly when presented with only subtle indictations that the list is community-generated content. Everything online with the library's logo, branding and navigation in it is "the library's website" to the average patron.

What is to be Done?

I consider this particular instance a pretty clear-cut issue: being able to use Biblicommons in this way makes it a vector for distributing dangerous medical misinformation (as well as many other forms of problematic content) under the seeming sanction of public libraries in Canada and elsewhere, and I think public libraries need to make sure this doesn't happen under their reputational halo.

I specifically tagged the Edmonton, Vancouver and Hamilton public library systems via Twitter to ask for responses there, as well as Bibliocommons.

QT to ask for official reply from @VPL, @HamiltonLibrary and @EPLdotCA here. I'm also tagging @bibliocommons, since this is their product. Many other public libraries in Canada and elsewhere use this, vector for disinformation with what's easy to perceive as library endorsement.

— Alan Harnum (@waharnum) October 6, 2021

As of this writing (7:24 PM on 2021-01-06) I've received a pretty generic reply from Bibliocommons (it can be viewed in the Twitter thread), and no response from any of the public library systems.

I will update this post when (if?) I receive replies from the public library systems on Twitter, and I intend to email the systems more directly with these concerns.

Update 2021-10-07: I emailed the members of each public library's leadership team in charge of technology directly this morning about this issue.

I should also note that I chose these three systems because they're all large public libraries, but many other public libraries (large and small) in Canada and elsewhere will have this same issue with Bibliocommons. The "Appropriate Use When Posting Content" section of the Bibliocommons terms of service are extremely broad, and don't appear to mention COVID-19 misinformation specifically, or medical misinformation generally. This makes their terms of service around appropriate usage in the pandemic less up to date than those of Twitter or Facebook.

There are obviously topics of interest here around the need have in-depth understanding of what the systems provided to you by vendors are capable of doing, and the context collapse of having global social media features in a discovery layer largely experienced by end users as a digital presence of their local public library, but those are of less immediate concern.