Last year, Jack Cushman expressed a desire for a personal service similar to the one I perform here at LIL – not exactly the DevOps of my job title, but more generally the provision and maintenance of network and computing infrastructure. Jack's take on this idea is very much a personal one, I think: go to a person known to and trusted by you, not the proverbial faceless corporation, for whom you may be as much product as customer.
(I should say here that what follows is my riff on our discussions; errors in transmission are mine.)
As we began to discuss it, it struck me that the idea sounded a lot like some of the work I used to do as a reference librarian at the Public Library of Brookline. This included some formal training for new computer users, but was more often one-on-one, impromptu assistance with things like signing up for a first email account.
Jack's idea goes beyond tech support as traditionally practiced in libraries, but it shares with it the combination of technical knowledge, professional ethics – especially the librarian's rigorous adherence to patron confidentiality – and the personal relationship between patron and librarian.
At LIL, we like naming things whether or not there's actually a project, or, as in this case, before there's even a definition. In order not to keep talking about this vague "idea," I'll bring out the provisional name we came up with for the role we're beginning to imagine: the network librarian.
The network librarian expands on traditional tech support by consulting on computer and network security issues specifically; by advising on self-defense against surveillance where possible and activism where it isn't; and in some cases going beyond the usual help with finding and accessing resources, to providing resources directly. Finally, the practice should expand what's possible – in developing the kinds of self-reliance a network librarian will have to have, the library itself will become more self-reliant and less dependent on vendors.
One of the specific services a network librarian might provide is a virtual private network, or VPN. This article explains why a VPN is important and why it's difficult or impossible to evaluate the trustworthiness of commercial VPN providers. It goes on to explain how to set up a VPN yourself, but it's not trivial. What the network librarian has to offer here is not only technical expertise, but a headstart on infrastructure, like an account at a cloud hosting provider. As important, if not more so, is that you know and trust your librarian.
I've made a first cut at one end of this particular problem in setting up a WireGuard server with Streisand, a neat tool that automates the creation of a server running any of several VPNs and similar services. Almost all of my home and phone network traffic has gone through the WireGuard VPN since August, and I've distributed VPN credentials to several friends and family. Obviously, that isn't a real test of this idea, nor does it get at the potentially enormous issues of agreement, support, and liability you'd have to engage with, but it's an experiment in setting up a small-scale and fairly robust service for small effort and little money.
Even before providing infrastructure, the network librarian would suggest tools and approaches. I'd do the work I used to do differently now – for example, I'd strongly encourage a scheme of multiple backups. I'd be more explicit about how to mitigate the risks of using public computers and wireless networks. I'd encourage the use of encryption, for example via Signal or keybase.io. I would sound my barbaric yawp for the use of a password manager and multi-factor authentication.
Are you a network librarian? Do you know one? Do you have ideas about scope, or tools? Can you think of a better name, or does one already exist? Let me know – I look forward to hearing from you. I'm firstname.lastname@example.org.