Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The right to be left alone

Greta Garbo is famous for saying "I want to be alone."1

The right to be left alone is the right of privacy. We have the right to keep our private lives private. This is now referred to as the Vegas rule.2 However, sometimes we reveal parts of our private lives, which is our right.3 This right does end generally when we die.4 This becomes important to us with some digitization programs. For example, if you are digitizing burial records, it is important to know that technically nothing on the record is private. Some people may want to redact (or black out) the cause of death, since it may reveal information that the family doesn't want shared. Oh, your father died of that?!

I tell people that even though privacy ends at death that they may want to use some common sense in deciding what to digitize. For example, if you were digitizing information from a family and in those papers there was evidence of abuse, you may decide to not make public that information. It could be that you do not want to bring a spotlight to that part of a family's private history or that you are concerned about the spotlight that will be shown on your project. Some people feel that this is being a censor and we -- especially librarians -- have a hard time with that.

Do programs find themselves not digitizing materials of deceased people due to a concern about privacy? I would suspect that the answer is "yes." I would also suspect that it doesn't happen very often and that when it does, the course of action is clear.

By the way, this topic came to me as I watched ABC This Week on Sunday morning. Each week, they do a brief segment on those who have died, and include photos and sometimes quotes. The quote used for Heath Ledger came from his most famous movie5 and was:
"Why don't you just let me be huh?"
Sadly, after his untimely death, he is not being "let be." Because of his fame, he hadn't had a truly private life in years and will not even in death.

1 Although reportedly what she really said was "I want to be let alone."
2 What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Or more correctly, "What happens here, stays here."
3 With Vegas' new ad campaign, this will soon be known as "Your Vegas is showing." Although it seems that people don't like this slogan.
4 In the U.S., the right of privacy is governed by laws at the state level.
5 If you listen to the media, you might think that he had done very little before playing a cowboy in the 2005 tragic western.

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Scott Nicholson said...

Shortly after reading this, I saw this video. It's humor, but shines another light on another digitization effort with privacy implications.


Josh said...

Jill --

One of the things you don't mention about the right to privacy we have while we are alive is the responsibility to protect that privacy.

If you are visible from a public place, you can be photographed for news use without your permission (this is true whether you are at a festival, or standing in a window in your home that faces the street).

If you post information about yourself on the Internet, even in what you think is an innocent way (say, a gardening forum), anybody in the world can find it -- your boss, your landlord, your ex, your mother.

So, yes, there's a right to privacy, but we live in a world where privacy isn't encouraged, and people can easily ensure they don't have any.

Anonymous said...

Jill, I just came across this site from Charlotte Mecklenberg County Pubic Libraries. They have, apparently, digitized divorce records from the 1800s to 1969.


Anonymous said...

Correction: "digitization" was inaccurate. What they've done is create a database with names of the people who have been divorced. The actual records are only available in person. But still...


Jill Hurst-Wahl said...

Ben, well only the index is online, although the library has the complete records. Who would think that their divorce records would be housed in the public library?

BTW I wonder if anyone has found out that someone was divorced -- using this index -- when it was never known that the person was married?

Thanks for finding this!