Libraries Protect Privacy

Libraries Protect Privacy

Your freedom of privacy can be viewed in many different ways. Protecting your identity, personal information, right to free speech and free association are all aspects contained within the scope of privacy rights. Protecting user privacy and confidentiality has long been an integral part of the mission of libraries. In a library (physical or virtual), privacy is the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interests examined or scrutinized by others. Confidentiality exists when a library is in possession of personally identifiable information about users and keeps that information private on their behalf.

The right to privacy is an intrinsic American value. Although the Constitution does not explicitly reference the word "privacy," the Supreme Court has nonetheless inferred a right to privacy from various portions of the Bill of Rights and the common law. The most obvious protection of privacy in the Bill of Rights is the Fourth Amendment, which protects individuals "in their persons, homes, papers, and effects from unreasonable searches and seizures" by the government. The First Amendment, which protects freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly, also implicitly safeguards the right to privacy in the form of freedom of thought and intellect. In recent years, several federal courts have found that the First Amendment protects the right to receive information in a publicly funded library.

The American Library Association (ALA) also adheres to a core set of values concerning privacy, which takes shape in the form of the Library Bill of Rights and the ALA Code of Ethics. Guided by these values, librarians fight to protect patron privacy and preserve our democratic society by promoting a diversity of viewpoints and ideas to support an informed, literate, and educated public.

Preserving Your Privacy

For libraries to flourish as centers for uninhibited access to information, librarians know they must stand behind their patrons’ right to privacy and freedom of inquiry. This requires both a varied selection of reference materials and the assurance that your choice to utilize them is not monitored. Just as people who borrow murder mysteries are unlikely to be murderers, so those seeking information about terrorism are unlikely to be terrorists. Libraries and librarians encourage patrons to be informed about their rights and diligent in protecting their privacy.

What Libraries Do to Protect Patron Privacy 

  • Limit the degree to which personally identifiable information is monitored, collected, disclosed, and distributed.
  • Avoid creating unnecessary records. Only record a user's personally identifiable information when necessary for the efficient operation of the library.
  • Avoid retaining records that are not needed for efficient operation of the library. Assure that all kinds and types of records are covered by the policy, including data-related logs, digital records, vendor-collected data, and system backups.
  • Avoid library practices and procedures that place information on public view (e.g., using postcards for overdue notices or requested materials; using patron names to identify self-pickup holds; placing staff terminals so the screens can be read by the public; using sign-in sheets to use computers or other devices; and providing titles of reserve requests or interlibrary loans over the telephone to users' family members or answering machines).


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