Module 6: Privacy and Confidentiality

Respect for patron privacy and a regard for the Ohio Confidentiality Law are part of the reference process

Respecting the Privacy of Patrons

Paragraph III of the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics deals with patrons’ privacy.

“We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.”

This means that you should not talk about patrons’ requests outside of the library environment. For example, you can’t tell your spouse about who dropped into the library to ask how to pick locks. You should not discuss any questions (with anyone!) that would violate a patron’s privacy. In discussing questions with your fellow employees, make sure that other patrons can’t overhear.

The ALA’s statement on these matters is reproduced below.

ALA Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records

The Council of the American Library Association strongly recommends that the responsible officers of each library, cooperative system, and consortium in the United States:

  1. Formally adopt a policy that specifically recognizes its circulation records and other records identifying the names of library users to be confidential. (See also ALA Code of Ethics, Article III, “We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received, and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted” and Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.)
  2. Advise all librarians and library employees that such records shall not be made available to any agency of state, federal, or local government except pursuant to such process, order or subpoena as may be authorized under the authority of, and pursuant to, federal, state, or local law relating to civil, criminal, or administrative discovery procedures or legislative investigative power.
  3. Resist the issuance of enforcement of any such process, order, or subpoena until such time as a proper showing of good cause has been made in a court of competent jurisdiction.

USA PATRIOT Act, Intellectual Freedom, and Library Law

Confidentiality is also governed by federal laws. For changes in library law, and current information regarding confidentiality, privacy, intellectual freedom, and the USA PATRIOT Act, information is available from the ALA site.

  • USA Patriot Act Information about how to respond if law enforcement “knocks at the door;” for changes made by the USA Patriot Act to a number of laws; and the ALA Resolution on Patriot Act regarding electronic surveillance and privacy.
  • Office for Intellectual Freedom site, containing ALA Intellectual Freedom Policies, Help with Challenges, Privacy, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Tags), ALA Resolutions, Children’s Internet Protection Act, Notable First Amendment Court Cases, News, and What You Can Do to Oppose Censorship. “Intellectual Freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored. Intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive and disseminate ideas.” [Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q&A, American Library Association, May 29, 2007. (Accessed Dec. 23, 2019)]
  • Freedom to Read Foundation: Information concerning how expanded surveillance powers are being used in libraries and bookstores.

Internet Filtering, CIPA, Deleting Online Predators Act

Stay aware of state legislation affecting Internet use in public libraries and requirements for CIPA (Children’s Internet Protection Act). Read ALA’s information pages about CIPA (Children’s Internet Protection Act). Look at the issues about the Deleting Online Predators Act, DOPA, (which expands CIPA to include “social networking” websites) on ALA’s information site about the issues of Online Social Networks.

Confidentiality and Privacy in Virtual Reference Services

The ALA has also elaborated a statement regarding confidentiality and privacy guidelines for implementing and maintaining virtual reference services:

  • 6.1  Virtual reference communications between patrons and library staff should be private except as required by law.
  • 6.2  Data gathered and maintained for the purpose of evaluation should protect patrons’ confidentiality.
  • 6.2.1  It is recommended that patrons’ personal identifiers, such as name, e-mail, etc. be stripped from transaction records. Stripped records may be maintained for statistical and evaluative purposes.
  • 6.2.2  Libraries need to develop retention schedules and privacy policies for their virtual reference transactions.
  • 6.2.3  Patrons should be advised whether a record of the transaction will be retained, and what, if any, personal information will be stored with the transaction log.
  • 6.2.4  Privacy policies and transcript retention schedules should be publicly available.
  • 6.4  Data gathered and maintained for training purposes and for publicizing the service should also protect patron confidentiality.

Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services (PDF)

Major Point: Libraries must protect each user’s right to privacy and confidentiality to the greatest extent they can.