UX Librarian: Privacy at the Library

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Privacy at the Library

Did you know that libraries and librarians take patron privacy very seriously? We really do. In fact, many might consider libraries and librarians as one of the last lines of defense of civil liberties and privacy laws.

Last week I attended a most interesting webinar given by West Virginia Library Commission President J.P. Myrick on the subject of privacy and the law in libraries.

In some ways, this webinar was given in response to a case last month whereby the Elkins Library had some hard drives seized by law enforcement as part of a child pornography case that was being investigated. It turns out that a patron may have downloaded or shared child pornography in the library. Public library computers are equipped with filters that raise red flags when illegal activities occur on those machines and that activity is reported to the proper legal authorities.

It is my understanding that a library patron was arrested based on a computer sign-up sheet that many libraries maintain for statistics. (Incidentally, the Pioneer Memorial Public Library doesn't use a computer sign-in sheet as even this we regard as private information.)

So in regards to patron privacy we are not allowed to share what books a patron has checked out, not even with a spouse or another family member. Only the person who has checked out the books may have access to their own circulation records unless we receive written permission from that patron to share the information. Otherwise, the only way to get this information is with a subpoena.

During the webinar some librarians seemed incredulous that not even a spouse could know the books checked out by their partner. So, what if that book was, "How To Get a Divorce?" Now you may see why privacy is so very important.

Even if a librarian is sending out an overdue postcard the title of the checked out materials may not be printed on the postcard as these are not private correspondences. As Mr. Myrick said, "What if they have checked out "The Joy of Sex?" Probably, this is not a title that the patron wants on a postcard for all the world to see.

Even further, library volunteers or board members should not have access to library patron records. While this may seem extreme, in a small, rural library like Pioneer Memorial Library, we can see the need for privacy and confidentiality at all levels.

We want library patrons to feel safe that they may explore the world of knowledge without having to worry about Big Brother looking over their shoulder. Knowledge is, after all, power. Stop by the Pioneer Memorial Public Library in Harman, West Virginia and check out some books, and know that what you check out is your business but nobody else's.


  1. i just read everything from top to bottom...and enjoyed every word...how fortunate we are to have Mary here in little ole Harman.