Monday, 29 June 2015

Blog Every Day in June day 29: Radical Librarian-Technologists by John Schriner

Today's post comes from the recently created Journal of Radical Librarianship, an open access journal for Librarians focused on critical library and information theory and practice.

The journal is managed by the Radical Librarians Collective.

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Radical Librarian-Technologists

The role of the academic librarian continues to change. It seems that there has been no better convergence of academic departments around technology than at this moment: the librarian speaks with journalism students about secure communications and privacy tools; to computer science faculty and students about setting up anonymity network relays to give censored users a voice; to student groups to help rein in unconstitutional surveillance. This article looks into three of many projects and why I believe librarians should take these on. First, the Tor anonymity network and how librarians can strengthen it. Next, encryption and journalism in a post-Snowden world. Last, the maker/hacker movement and where librarians fit in.
The idea of librarian as technologist is not new. Throughout the literature 1 2 3 the librarian is tasked and expected to learn computer skills and pass them on to students. The idea has even become in a sense “meta” as some librarians seek to Hack Library School and make it more useful. 4 Much has changed from early computer literacy days both in content and context, and there are still enormous challenges for librarians who provide one-shot information literacy and technology classes to students of varying computer skills. There is a need to teach Internet security and privacy in every level of education; for undergraduates it may be best to introduce basics such as avoiding being phished, the necessity of using HTTPS, using password managers. Some topics may be better understood by third and fourth year students, graduate students, faculty, and other librarians. Just as data librarians teach the use of Stata, or science librarians help chemistry students to use modeling software, specialized tools can be taught to specialized or niche audiences. 5 New specializations into other fields are no different in essence; the need for a librarian technologist to adapt and re-focus depending on the audience is certainly a good thing.
Academic librarians are often tasked with liaison to a department. The librarian conducts in-class instruction and one-on-one consultations because of their expertise in the tools in that field. As a liaison to the computer science department, this could mean assessing how we should both aid and encourage students to do research in socially beneficial areas of cryptography and, by that method, also propel the department's prestige a as a crucial part of a research institution.

Teaching Tor

The Tor anonymity network is used by millions of people to advance their privacy on the web. 6 Briefly, the Tor Browser Bundle bounces one's encrypted connection over three relays around the world before it reaches its destination. Relays may only see where the request is from and where it is going, so no single relay can see the full request. b By keeping one's IP address hidden, and by using a secure, hardened browser, the user may use the Internet anonymously in any country in the world. The Tor network allows users to tweet when Twitter is blocked, check Facebook when it is firewalled, and conduct research without worrying about who is watching their queries. Its more potentially inimical or controversial uses such as hidden services 7 8 fall outside the scope of this paper but it is essential to stay current with this as well.
Tor development is research-driven. Tor Project supports researchers and academics by providing data sets, community-developed tools, and a large selection of the academic literature regarding the Tor network. New research is presented at practically every large technology or hacker conference worldwide. Lead developers also keep the community updated with their annual State of the Onion address. 9
Setting up a Tor relay on campus is trivial but has many benefits. 10 The machine on campus simply serves as a middleman, passing encrypted traffic on a high-bandwidth network. Setting up a relay shows support for work in cryptography as well as showing support for human rights and liberation technologies. It is a proof-of-concept that faculty from different departments and librarians can work together on projects with far-reaching benefits. The benefits of supporting projects like these don’t stop at the computer science department: the work of sociologists like Gabriella Coleman and Zeynep Tufekci begins to uncover trends and truths as social movements form that have unfettered access to social media and diverse strategies to meeting their goals. Ruminating on social movements leads to thinking about how journalism is changing: we look to technology, social media, and our immediate connection with events across the world and in our cities.

Librarian in the Newsroom

The world has been shaken by the revelations of government overreach whistleblowing in the past decade. The leaks by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden reveal U.S. government agencies that threaten privacy, and through weakening cryptographic systems 11 and creating backdoors, have made the Internet—and by extension the physical world—less secure. Librarians must work to help fix this error, starting with learning about encryption to help users stay safe on the Internet, and how to support whistleblowers.
Encrypted traffic ostensibly keeps agencies and individuals from snooping on Internet traffic. By learning more about how encryption, IP addressing, and secure communications work, librarians can provide this information in classrooms. In short, as Micah Lee of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote, ‘encryption works’. 12 It works to keep our personal correspondences private. Good encryption schemes rely not on trusting entities or developers but instead trusting the math, trusting the proper implementation of good cryptography. We use encryption every day: when we visit our email provider, or our bank, or an online retailer. c Naturally, strong encryption is essential to secure communication for journalists.
SecureDrop 13 (a forked project of the late Aaron Swartz now developed by the Freedom of Press Foundation) relies on the Tor network to keep sources' locations and identities obscured. The setup of SecureDrop is complex: it involves four computers and they need to be set up properly. The Freedom of Press Foundation offers technical assistance and training for journalists but librarians should also be guests in journalism classes to explain the architecture of SecureDrop and Globaleaks (another platform) and how/why we use them to protect sources. Encrypted email and chat best-practices should be familiar to journalists. Just one slip-up, one login from a personal machine or IP, can help to identify the journalist and the source. Further, librarians can offer the context and the concept of threat modeling that are necessary as foundations to secure communications.
Librarianship and journalism share a spot at the bedrock of democracy. The two fields are intrinsically connected by free speech and transparency. 14 15 In New York City, public librarians at Brooklyn Public Library are leading the way in offering workshops called “Crypto for Journalists”.16 Cryptoparties 17 have been around since late 2012 alongside increased hacktivism 18 19 20and the Arab Spring, but are just starting to make it onto workshop lists alongside “Photoshop for beginners.” Cryptoparties teach the very basics of secure email, secure chats, and encrypted cellphone calls. Cryptoparties are not limited to this though—they give the community a space in which to adapt or specialize workshops and help each other to keep current with privacy issues and new technologies. This is a great step and it is just as important to learn how to stay safe on the Internet as it is to learn software skills.

Librarians in the Maker and Hackerspace Movement

Makerspaces 21 and Hackerspaces 22 abound all over the world now. These physical spaces allow for cryptoparties, social gatherings, robotics, 3D printing, crafting, soldering, etc. The Raspberry Pi (RPi) is a popular device at these spaces. The RPi is a low-cost Linux machine that boots from an SD card and can run on a battery. The library world has been abuzz about RPis as we think about different applications for these innovative little machines. Columbia University Libraries recently held an event to showcase ways to use RPis in the digital humanities, or as kiosks, or as mesh network nodes, or as site-specific libraryboxes. 23 It is no wonder that librarians feel at home in the maker movement: gadgets and new technologies like RPis are there to tinker with. There is potential for using RPis to further radical and humanitarian projects; from decentralized mesh networks that aid in censorship circumvention across cities, to providing Internet access and emergency response systems to rural areas. Using RPis and getting comfortable in the Linux environment is an important step to moving away from Windows/Apple closed-source operating systems. Besides the obvious benefit that Free and Open Source (FOSS) software is free (as in cost), it is also free (as in freedom to see or audit the source code, fork the project, or share the software). Healthy community-maintained projects offer support and often offer quick patches to vulnerabilities in the code. This transparency is antithetical to software such as Microsoft’s Skype that loses the trust of the user when they offer backdoors to government programs. 24 The hope is that librarians advocate for open source software like they do for open access or open education resources. The ethos of this advocacy is the same: the model for closed-source applications (like closed, paywalled scholarly material) is essentially broken and we need to advocate for viable alternatives that are free and open.
The Maker and Hackerspace movement encourages, most of all, curiosity. This curiosity leads us back into the world of libraries when we find that the investigative tools d provided by the fields of digital forensics and penetration-testing gave us the information that Adobe Digital Editions was transmitting user information unencrypted to its servers from the client. 25 It is only through careful and thorough investigative work into library partners that we will keep these providers in check for user rights.


These three systems projects are linked with the foundational tenets of librarianship. Librarians have a passion for safeguarding privacy and free inquiry. Librarians are, by and large, curious and collaborative. Alongside instruction and the day-to-day interaction with users learning about Internet privacy, librarians need to stay current with new technologies and privacy issues. It is important that librarians network with other radical librarians at cryptoparties. At the time of writing, there are radical librarians working with the Library Freedom Project; 26 they are planning events for Radical Reference; 27 and they are planning cryptoparties at public libraries. Librarians need to be represented at technology, hacker, and maker conferences. As far as specific research needs: Tor research is the best way to improve the anonymity tool and understand how nation states attempt to block access. 28 29 30 For years now it has been a cat-and-mouse game but Tor stays ahead 31 because of its devoted developers, its prominence at conferences, and its obvious need worldwide. It is easy for librarians to get involved. 32
Librarians are taking on the role of technologists for departments across campuses. As new methods for secure communication are developed, librarians will be there to provide teaching its usage. As new technologies help to further privacy, user rights, and unfettered access to the Internet, librarians will be there to support research, advocate, educate, and agitate. These are new roles for a librarianship that moves forward into uncharted waters. These are busy and exciting times for radical librarians.


a See the work of Stanford University's Applied Cryptography Group for their work in flash proxies ( or Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society for their work in law and social justice (
b Timing attacks can occur when the nation state or research team owns both the entry node and the exit node. Research into attacks on the network or the protocol is an important audit and welcomed by the Tor Project—of course as well as defenses to such attacks.
c Some sites still don’t use HTTPS by default. With a browser plugin like HTTPS Everywhere, our browser forces HTTPS and encrypts all the traffic so that computers “sniffing” the traffic can’t see the data. Librarians ought to work with their IT department and make certain that plugins like this are installed on public workstations.
d Namely Wireshark, which is also useful for showing users the importance of HTTPS as opposed to easily-captured clear text.

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