Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Privacy in the Library

Do library users have an expectation of privacy?
"We can protect privacy, even in light of all the collection, dissemination, and use of our information. And it is something we must do if we want to protect our freedom and intellectual activity in the future." Daniel J. Solove

After the Patriot Act was signed into law on October 26, 2001 many libraries were concerned about the confidentially library records. The act gave the law enforcement agencies the right to demand a library turn over records in an investigation. Libraries simply stopped keeping circulation records after the items were returned. American Library Association created a privacy policy. [1] Even a parent couldn't ask what books their child borrowed.

What about other areas of privacy? Is the library allowed to discuss what is revealed in a reference query? If a patron revels something during a reference interview is there an expectation of privacy?

The library is a public place even in a private school. In a public place conversations may be overheard by people nearby. Two people talking in the library have no expectation of privacy. Common courtesy dictates that conversations should be quiet enough to not disturb anyone, however, courtesy and privacy are not the same issue. There is no mention of privacy in the faculty handbook.

Using computers is also not private; anyone can see what is on the screen. Library users are not always careful to close the screen after reading sensitive e-mails or web sites displaying their private financial records. Printouts of a personal or sensitive nature are routinely left at public printers.

Copyright laws are an example of how we limit the use of information, but limits have nothing to do with privacy. Health information given to care providers is strictly regulated by law for privacy reasons.

Reference Interviews

For an effective reference interview I need only information relevant to the search. Today a lady, old enough to be the grandmother of most traditional post high school students, came to the desk. She told me her age, her grades on all her sociology quizzes in the first semester, her difficulties learning algebra, how much she paid for two books at a book store, and much more about her life that I didn't know. I felt that I was her therapist because she did need help. While I commend her on the desire to learn and earn a degree, as a librarian I had no ability to give her the help she needed. She needed help to navigate the rules and regulations for math placement tests and graduation requirements. I sent her to student support services because I the library can't advise on those topics. The session took more than 20 minutes. I shared a story of an uncle, who went to community college for 35 years and because he never took algebra, he didn't graduate. She thanked me for listening and went on her way.

There are no records of reference interviews, but does this mean someone couldn't ask me about this person? In my opinion if a patron does not request privacy or confidentiality, there is no expectation of privacy. While I can't think of any reason why anyone would care about the information this lady told me, I feel no requirement to keep it confidential. However, putting a person's name after a face-to-face contact, who is not a public figure name and has not given me permission, is a breach of privacy. If the remark has already appeared in print or another public media, there is no expectation of privacy. While we always have to act with professionalism, friendliness, and courtesy, when someone reveals more than we want to know while at the library, there is no expectation of privacy.


Balas, Janet L. "Should There Be an Expectation of Privacy in the library?" Computers in Libraries v. 25:6 June 2005.

Solove, Daniel J. "The future of privacy - With privacy under attack from all quarters, many wonder whether it's an outdated expectation" American Libraries vol. 39:8, September 2008.


1. ALA Q&A on the Confidentiality and Privacy of Library Records

The Patriot Act (Public Law 109-177) is set to expire on February 28, 2011, however, legislation (Public Law 109-177; 50 U.S.C. 1805 note, 50 U.S.C. 1861 note, and 50 U.S.C. 1862 note) has been introduced to extend it one more year.

1 comment:

Daniel Stuhlman said...

Comment received via e-mail and placed here with permission. It has been edited.

Does anyone expect privacy? The Supreme Court is presently reviewing an appeal case ("Federal Communication Commission v. AT&T" [1]) to determine whether corporations have "personal privacy rights" (since they are "persons") that would keep them from having to turn documents over to the government.

Knowing the tendencies of the conservative majority on the court and their bent to rule astray, I would expect them to rule that the very concept of legal "personal privacy" is unconstitutional (or maybe that is why AT&T was talked into presenting the case in the first place). Justice Scalia stated as much recently, so where else than they go?

PS: Justice Kagan recused herself again, leaving one fewer vote on her side.

Almost exactly 1 year -- to the day -- since Citizens United and we continue to make wonderful progress toward an authoritarian corporatocracy [see Wikipedia].


John G. Marr Cataloger
1. Issue of the case: Does exemption 7(C) of the Freedom of Information Act exempt from mandatory disclosure records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes when such disclosure concerns the “privacy” of corporate entities.