“I didn’t do anything! All I did was plugged in the USB stick to see if there was a name in any documents so I can return it to its owner.”

“I kept getting pop-ups on my workstation, and I keep clicking the cancel button on all of them. Why won’t they stop popping up?”

“Six people have called in the last half hour, saying they couldn’t access The Expensive Electronic Resource. I’ve called the vendor, and they said there’s been strange activity on our IP address and their system’s not allowing us to access their site…”

Have you heard any of the above, or have others to add? If so, you’re not alone. When you’re one of the techies in an academic library, you are on the front line when things go wrong. You help people get through printing, emails, and various library systems troubleshooting, and you’re good at it. How good are you, though, in regards of dealing with library IT security?

Why bother with security? What’s at stake and what to do about it
Parody error message for an OPAC
Source: Credaro,A.B.(2002). Computer Error Messages for Library OPACs. Warrior Librarian Weekly [online]

I mean, who is that desperate to break library IT security? All we have is bibliographic records, and, really, who in the heck wants them?

The reality is that academic libraries have much to offer for those who want to break in and wreak havoc, including student and faculty data, restricted resources, and access to the campus network. And yes, there are bots out there that screen scrape MARC records from OPACs that slow systems down to a crawl when a bot is scraping away (I’ve been through my share, and they’re a pain to deal with). Though academic libraries usually have the benefit of campus IT to take care of antivirus and firewall setup and maintenance, it is up to the library staff themselves to ensure that their system is secure.

The most important thing you can do is to be proactive. Assessing loopholes in your library technology setup before an attack will not only decrease the ways that your system can be compromised but also decrease the damage done to your system if your system is compromised.

Your campus IT has password requirements built into various campus systems including hardware; library systems usually do not see the same treatment. You also have systems not forcing password changes after a certain time. And, since these systems typically not to talk to each other, you have staff using the same password for multiple accounts. Do any of the systems or applications you use in your library have any built-in password requirements? Can the system be set to automatically require a password change after a certain amount of time? If the systems in question cannot do either of the above, you can still create password policies that will need to be manually enforced.

System logs and usage reports
System and report monitoring can help pinpoint suspicious activity as well as determine if a system has been compromised. Many of you may remember Aaron Swartz systematically downloading materials from JSTOR on the MIT network in 2011 1. Sometimes unauthorized access to a library resource happens with one person systematically downloading a huge number of materials; other times, like University of Saskatchewan found out when they looked at their reports, unauthorized access may be dispersed geographically 2. In similar situations regular monitoring of usage reports would tip off library staff of the unusual behavior and contact the vendor to relay the information before the vendor’s systems cuts off access to all users.

Servers also need monitoring for suspicious activity. If your library is responsible for its own servers, there are many server monitoring applications to choose from, like Nagios 3. In addition to monitoring server resources through these applications, depending on the server setup you will have access to a variety of system logs for your perusal. I occasionally see a bot unsuccessfully to hack into one of our servers while scanning through our system logs; however, that’s the only way I would have known about those attempts. Logs and reports might be your first sign that your system has been compromised, so it’s best to check them regularly.

Human staff

A van with "free candy" painted on its side
Any email from “Campus IT” asking for your password = the above picture. Source:

The biggest security loophole in any IT environment is your average human. Humans plug in USB sticks left behind in the computer lab into their workstation, they download files from emails or websites, and they keep clicking on those flashing pop-ups. Humans are also too trustworthy – you’ve probably seen the email where “Campus IT” is asking for your password so they can increase your storage quota. Many people still email their passwords and other sensitive information because they truly believe that the email is from IT, their bank, that businessman overseas, and so on. The best way to close the human loophole is through training. Training library staff in security issues can take on many forms. For example, at our monthly library staff meeting at Grinnell College we dedicate 10-15 minutes for “Tech Topics” where we regularly cover security topics, including what to do when you think your computer is infected, passwords, and data security. Staff have access to resources covered at these meetings in our shared drive for future reference.

Unfortunately, you cannot completely close the human loophole. While you can control the staff side, you cannot prevent a student giving out their password to their friends, or a faculty member giving their password to a colleague at a different institution. Not all is lost – tightening other loopholes does help with dealing with the user loophole.

Where to start

There’s a lot to keep track of when you are tackling IT security at your library; you might feel overwhelmed, not knowing where to start. Here are a few places and resources to help you start:

Campus IT: Most likely your campus IT department already has campus-wide policies on various topics, including password changes, what standards 3rd party vendors must meet when storing institutional data on off campus servers, and what to do when you suspect a networked computer is infected with a virus. Read the policies and talk to your campus IT staff to see how you can adapt their policies in your library’s specific needs.

SEC4LIB: Blake Carver, of LISNews fame, has created an online resource dedicated to library IT security. The website has a number of resources as well as a wiki with some outlines covering general IT security issues. If you find yourself with a library IT security question, there is a listserv where like-minded library staff can point you in the right direction.

Here!: Does your library have a security policy or action plan? Do you have a security horror story that you want others to learn from your mistake? Share them in the comments below.

  1. Schwartz, John. “Open-Access Advocate is Arrested for Huge Download.” New York Times, Jul 20, 2011.
  2. White, Heather Tones. “Electronic Resources Security: A look at Unauthorized Users.” Code4Lib Journal 12 (December 2010):
  3. Silver, T. Michael. “Monitoring Network and Service Availability with Open-Source Software.” Information Technology & Libraries 29, no. 1 (March 2010): 8-22.

One thought on “Security!”

  1. Still not sure what exactly caused this, but yesterday when I tried to get onto the net to connect to our library site, I got this message: “Your organization has blocked this site because of content (religion).” We are a seminary; all we do is research religion! Next computer gave me this message: “Your organization has blocked this tie because of content (web search).” A library that can’t connect to its own catalog is the ultimate in uselessness. Another office got a message about not being able to connect to “the cloud.” No matter what the IT person says, it seems to me someone is messin’ with us…

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