This past spring, four of us here at GW Libraries had the privilege of attending the 2016 Code4Lib conference, featuring a wide variety of talks and discussions relevant to anyone interested in technology in libraries, archives, and museums.
The closing keynote was given by Gabriel Weinberg, the CEO and Founder of DuckDuckGo. If you're not familiar with DuckDuckGo, it's a search engine committed to not tracking you.
Tracking Your searches: Good and Bad
When you search using Google or other engines that track you, there's the obvious privacy issue around the company recording of all of your searches, but there's another aspect (let's refrain from judging it for the moment) which is that it affects the results of your search. Sometimes you may actually want that, but sometimes you don't. But let's first see when and why this happens.
You and I May Get Different Search Results
I'm going to use Google as an example, but this could apply to Bing, Yahoo, and other popular search engines as well.
Search engines that track you incorporate several factors into determining which results you see. If you're logged in to Google and haven't turned off the personalization settings, to the extent they can be turned off, then Google bases your results, and their rankings, on your previous searches (and possibly other information it knows about you from terms in your email, etc.) to try to present you with results it thinks you're likely to want and to click on. Other factors it takes into account include your location based on your IP address.
When you're hungry and want to quickly find something to eat nearby that you might like, you might want results that are localized and perhaps even take into account what it knows about your preferences. But when you're doing research for a paper, you may simply want the most objetive, consistent search results possible.
Here's an example: A Google search on "Obama" yielded slightly different results when I was not logged in to a Google account, versus when I was logged in to my (personal) Google account. The top news links were different: NBC, BBC, ABC, versus NBC, CBS, BBC; and a New York Times link was ranked considerably higher when not logged in, versus logged in:
One result of personalized results is the phenomenon referred to as the "filter bubble," a concept coined by Eli Pariser in his 2011 book. A filter bubble means that you're presented with results that tend to further reinforce your existing preferences, beliefs, and opinions. There is some controversy around the extent of the effets of this, but it has been a topic more in the forefront lately, particularly when it comes to social media and how platforms such as Facebook and Twitter determine which news items to prioritize in your feed.
Privacy, Tracking, Personalization and Other Search Engine "Features"
Let's check Wikipedia to get a rough sense of which search engines employ tracking, share information with third parties, and which don't:
From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_web_search_engines#Digital_rights as of June 30, 2016:
Is the knowledge that your information might be shared with third parties, and that the search engine might be at least attempting to modify your browser settings ("browser hijacking"), worth the tradeoff of the benefits you derive from using those search engines? That's a personal choice, but it might be worth your while to try out a variety of search engines, paying attention to which track and which don't track.
Can't I just use Incognito Mode?
Incognito Mode seems to be somewhat misunderstood by many people. Incognito Mode is a browser feature that refrains from saving your browsing history and cookies in the browser itself, but if you're logged into Yahoo, Google, etc. within the incognito-mode window, they're still saving your searches on their side, and results may still incorporate your location and/or IP address.
Trackless Search Engines
One solution to concerns about privacy and objectivity is to consider using a search engine which doesn't track you. One of these is DuckDuckGo, which we mentioned earlier.
Libraries and Privacy
GW Libraries follow in the long-held library tradition of respecting and protecting patrons' privacy as well as providing objective search results when you use our research tools:
We won't share your circulation records, and records of electronic materials that you accessed.
We don't track you! When you search through the library web search interfaces, you will get the same results as anyone else in the GW Community, and the GW search engine is not tracking or saving anything about you. We wrote it, and the code that runs it is open source, so you can see it for yourself on github!
And last but not least, you won't get advertisements!
The only factor that can change your search results is whether you're using the GW Libraries search interface from an on- or off-campus IP address. This is because some of the resources, usually resources that GW pays to provide, are available to you as a member of the GW community, but not to the general public.
We do anonymously log search queries that come through the "All" tab (fondly known as the "Bento" search). The queries are anonymous; they are not associated with any user or even an IP address. We use these to better learn about our users are searching for - particularly the most popular searches - and we use what we learn to improve the research tools we provide.
Here's an example of a view that we as GW Libraries staff can see. Note that there's no information about who submitted each search:
More on the GW Libraries "All" search in a future blog post!
The Bottom Line
If you're using a search engine to try to survey and locate web content for research purposes, you probably want the most objective results and rankings possible, un-influenced by your personal search history and possibly even un-influenced by your location. Educate yourself about search engine choices so that you can make a thoughtful choice about which one to use.
Some further reading:
GW Libraries' "How Do I?" page on using Google Scholar: https://library.gwu.edu/howdoi/googlescholar
The Library Freedom Project, working to protect digital privacy and freedom in libraries: https://libraryfreedomproject.org
Google's privacy policies https://www.google.com/intl/en-us/policies/privacy/#infochoices
More about DuckDuckGo: https://duckduckgo.com/about
In this edition, we explore how the GW Libraries contribute to student and faculty scholarship through collaborations to create new software, build databases, perform statistical analyses, create 3-D models, manage and visualize their research data, and more. You can also find out how showcasing faculty scholarship, using the power of crowdsourcing to understand history, and providing a 24/7 "amazing space for students" are all part of the daily work of the GW Libraries.
Gelman and Eckles Libraries will be closed on Sunday, July 3 and Monday, July 4 to celebrate the Independence Day holiday.
Gelman will reopen at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, July 5. Eckles will reopen at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, July 5.
The year was 1847 and slavery was legal in the District of Columbia, although it was the site of significant anti-slavery activism. Two enslaved men, known only as Abram and John, were owned by Capt. Haynes of Virginia and brought to Columbian College to assist him in his work as the college's steward. Columbian College student Henry J. Arnold provided Abram with $14 and a letter for an attorney with the intention that Abram would file a lawsuit to win his freedom. For this act of bravery, Arnold was expelled from the college.
While the Arnold Case was not completely forgotten in the history of GW, it has remained largely obscure or else apocryphal to both scholars and the general public. Thanks to collaboration between DCAAP and the GW Libraries' digital services unit, the University Archives have now made available to scholars a cache of documents that illuminates this situation. The documentation consists of drafts and copies of letters written by Columbian College’s then-president, Joel S. Bacon, to Arnold, his family and others who inquired or appealed to Bacon about the matter. With this critical documentation, the story of enslaved people at Columbian College can now be more fully told.
Wednesday, June 15
5 - 6:30pm
Special Collections Reading Room (704)
Please join us as we celebrate the opening of the Corcoran Archives in its new home at GW Libraries Special Collections Research Center. Selections from the collection will be on display in the reading room and light refreshment will be served. Archivists will be available to answer questions and discuss what is known about the archives now and what may yet to be discovered in them.
The Special Collections Research Center is located in suite 704 of the Gelman Library. Photo ID is necessary to gain entry to the Library.
Nearly a decade has passed since the archives of the Corcoran Gallery and the Corcoran College of Art and Design—now the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design—were accessible to researchers. In June, nearly 2,000 boxes of historical documents and hundreds of thousands of architectural drawings, exhibition posters, photographs and oversized ledgers were donated to the George Washington University from the Corcoran board of trustees.
The Corcoran archives document the life and vitality of one of D.C.’s oldest cultural heritage institutions and provides nearly 150 years of insight into the history of American art museums and art education, from its founding in 1869 through 2014 when the historic agreements between the Corcoran, GW and the National Gallery of Art were finalized. The archives will be available to the public at the Special Collections Research Center in Gelman Library.
Learn more about the archives and how to access them on the Corcoran Archives webpages.