Is Google your primary resource for search? If so, Library Professor Trina Magi wants you to broaden your research horizons.
Magi, a UVM reference and instruction librarian, notes that our online research is shaped by commercial entities, search results are personalized (Google shows you what it thinks you want to see), and what you search for is far from private.
Magi’s job as a librarian is to help students find information they need, as well as to protect information access and uphold free speech and the exploration of ideas.
“I really appreciate the fact that librarians have a code of ethics. Protecting people’s access to information and protecting free speech feels really good,” she says. “Who else wants to provide as much information as possible to as many people as possible, all while protecting their privacy? We do something very special and unique in a democracy.”
Privacy Rights and the USA PATRIOT Act
Magi is no stranger to privacy rights. In 2004, she received national media coverage about her role in the Vermont Library Association’s opposition to Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act.
When the USA PATRIOT Act passed in 2001, it included language in Section 215 to make it easier for federal agents to look into the business records of places like libraries and bookstores. Agents no longer needed to show probable cause before getting a judge’s approval to gather private records. Also troubling was the fact that the law makes it illegal for the keeper of those records to tell anyone else, including the customer or patron involved, about the investigation.
Much to Magi’s disappointment, Section 215 still exists today.
“We were successful in raising awareness, but legislatively we were not successful,” says Magi, who served as president of the Vermont Library Association in the early 2000s. “It was a huge effort. It was also very affirming as a librarian, and I realized how much people respect librarians. When we speak, people assume it is well reasoned and well researched, as it should be. I learned how much Vermonters care about these issues. Freedom of speech and intellectual freedom are not partisan issues.”
All these years later, Magi continues to advocate and educate about information and the nature of inquiry. She was the editor of the 2015 edition of the Intellectual Freedom Manual, and she still shares her concerns over privacy and net neutrality.
“Many people are under the false assumption that things were better under the Obama administration, but that administration resisted making changes to the USA PATRIOT Act,” she says. “This normalized the law, and you can no longer say these policies are the result of one administration. This is now the norm. Bush signed it and Obama resisted efforts for reform.”
Going Beyond Google
Magi explains that privacy policies have become more complex and commercially driven, with online entities cooperating with the government to provide personal information about users.
“I tell students that’s why they need to go beyond Google in research and to come see a librarian to help them get out of their bubble,” she says. “I have a huge problem with relying only on the free web because it makes our world smaller and more narrow. Google is filtering your results, and people don’t know this is going on.”
Magi recognizes that students are often unsure what reference librarians can do for them.
“Increasingly, students come into college without knowing that reference librarians even exist. We are so eager to help and we have so much to offer. We become reference librarians because we love answering questions,” she says. “Before learning how reference librarians can help them, students tend to think everything is free on the internet, but it’s not true. It’s not true by a long shot.”
Magi, who worked in marketing and public relations before deciding to pursue a career as a librarian, made the job change because she loves sharing information.
“I love questions. My job is to receive all kinds of questions on all kind of topics, from all kinds of people, and try to find answers,” she says. “The hunt is very exciting to me. I get thanked on a daily basis, and I never know what I’m going to learn, and I really like that.”
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