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Patron privacy

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Many librarians feel that the safeguarding of personally-identifying information of library users is a fundamental tenet of librarianship. The profession of librarianship (headed by the ALA) has a very firm policy on intellectual freedom, which can be tied to the issue of patron privacy. Librarians believe that it is unconstitutional to either limit or moniter what patrons are reading and viewing. "It is only when [intellectual freedom] exists - that [people] can examine, explore, conduct research, draw conclusions and make judgements - that new knowledge is created" (Martorella 2006, 110). There are many, including those in the government, who would oppose citizens' intellectual freedom and violate the privacy and confidentiality that exists between patrons and librarians. Because of the Internet and the many online resources that are now prolific in libraries, it has become much more difficult to safeguard patrons’ personal information. The recent advent of the USA PATRIOT Act has also put patrons’ privacy at risk. It is the librarian’s job to protect users’ privacy and educate them about this issue.

USA PATRIOT Act and Privacy[edit]

The PATRIOT Act, implemented in 2001, has since had much opposition from librarians and those in the Library and Information field. In the intent of uncovering potential acts and threats of terrorism, the FBI has thus taken to accessing patrons’ library accounts and records, with or without a warrant. This has outraged many librarians who believe that that FBI is stifling intellectual freedom. The PATRIOT Act has also helped to withhold government information from the public, creating secrecy and a double standard. THE FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act), expanded in the Clinton administration, allows individuals to access and update any government information regarding themselves. The Bush administration, in an attempt to hide information from terrorists, also hid pertinent information from civilians. Following 9/11, many government Internet sites were either shut down or removed certain information. In this lies the double standard; the government preserves the right to withhold information from its citizens, but takes away patrons’ privacy rights in the name of anti-terrorism (Martorella 2006). Despite this threat, many librarians are successfully fighting the violation of patron privacy. For example, the ALA awarded a Washington state library with the Robert E. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award for resisting the government's attempts to access accounts of all people who checked out books about Osama Bin Laden (Brey-Casiano, 2005).

Technology and Privacy[edit]

The access of online patron records also provides an additional opportunity for the violation of privacy. Many patrons can log into their library accounts from remote sites using their e-mail addresses. If an unscrupulous person discovers another's e-mail address and password, they can view their victim's library transactions, such as fines and items checked out. However, this risk does not discourage many patrons from accessing their accounts online; online access is too convenient, and "the tension between convenience and privacy will only grow" (Burns 2006). Another hindrance is that oftentimes, librarians do not fully understand the technology they implement, and thus unintentionally give away personal information about patrons through the use of that technology. Before the advent of online research and OPACS, patron privacy was almost a given simply because of the difficulty of gathering personal information manually. In today’s technology-driven society, “it is possible to trace every single move of a patron in cyberspace without them knowing it” (Fifarek 2002).

What Librarians Can Do[edit]

There are many actions librarians can take to ensure and protect patrons’ privacy. The most important involves educating patrons about protecting their personal information. If patrons safeguard their own information and are cautious about giving it out online. Another action that is the librarian’s sole responsibility is to disassociate a patron’s name with their items borrowed, as soon as the items are checked in. Not leaving a permanent record of items checked out helps to make it difficult for the government to trace accounts. If possible, printouts and receipts given to patrons should include limited personal information. Patrons who lose their library cards should be able to receive a new barcode number. If librarians are concerned about traces on Internet usage, they can use a tool such as Norton Ghost to wipe out library computers’ hard drives regularly. Requiring a PIN number to log into library accounts also minimalizes breaches of privacy. Librarians who are faced with a government search can contact their attorneys immediately. More information about how to deal with this matter is located on the ALA site.


  • Adams, Helen R. 2002. Privacy & confidentiality. American Libraries:44-7.
  • Balas, Janet L. 2005. Should there be an expectation of privacy in the library? Computers in Libraries:33-5.
  • Brey-Casiano, Carol. 2005. Preserving patron privacy. American Libraries:5.
  • Burns, Elizabeth. 2006. An ELF in the library? Library Journal:2-6.
  • Drake, Miriam A. 2003. Safeguarding patrons' privacy. Information Today:35-7.
  • Fifarek, Aimee. 2002. Technology and privacy in the academic library. Online Information Review:366-74.
  • Martorella, Georgina. 2006. Libraries in the aftermath of 9/11. Reference Librarian:109-37.
  • Minow, Mary. 2002. The USA PATRIOT act. Library Journal:52-5.

External Links[edit]

  • Article on privacy policies at LISNews
  • Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights by the ALA
  • Privacy Tool Kit by the ALA