Confidentiality and Coping with Law Enforcement Inquiries:
Guidelines for the Library and its Staff

Increased visits to libraries by law enforcement agents, including FBI agents and officers of state, county, and municipal police departments, are raising considerable concern among the public and the library community. These visits are not only a result of the increased surveillance and investigation prompted by the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, but also as a result of law enforcement officers investigating computer crimes, including e-mail threats and possible violations of the laws addressing online obscenity and child pornography.

These guidelines, developed to assist libraries and library staff in dealing with law enforcement inquiries, rely upon the ALA’s

See also Privacy and Confidentiality; Intellectual Freedom Issues Privacy Tool Kit.  See also Law Enforcement Inquiries: Guidelines for Staff, produced by the Colorado Association of Libraries Intellectual Freedom Committee.

Fundamental Principles

Librarians’ professional ethics require that personally identifiable information about library users be kept confidential. This principle is reflected in Article III of the Code of Ethics, which states that "[librarians] protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received, and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired, or transmitted." Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, notes that "[p]rotecting user privacy and confidentiality has long been an integral part of the mission of libraries."

Currently, 48 states and the District of Columbia have laws protecting the confidentiality of library records, and the Attorneys General of the remaining two states, Hawaii and Kentucky, have ruled that library records are confidential and may not be disclosed under the laws governing open records. Confidential library records should not be released or made available in any format to a federal agent, law enforcement officer, or other person unless a court order in proper form has been entered by a court of competent jurisdiction after a showing of good cause by the law enforcement agency or person seeking the records.

General Guidelines

Confidentiality of library records is a basic principle of librarianship. As a matter of policy or procedure, the library administrator should ensure that:

Library Procedures Affect Confidentiality

Law enforcement visits aside, be aware that library operating procedures have an impact on confidentiality. The following recommendations are suggestions to bring library procedures into compliance with most state confidentiality statutes, ALA policies on confidentiality and its Code of Ethics:

Recommended Procedures for Law Enforcement Visits

Before any visit:

During the visit:

If the judicial process is in the form of a subpoena:

If the court order is in the form of a search warrant:

If the court order is a search warrant issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) (USA PATRIOT Act amendment):

After the visit:

See also:


American Library Association
Office for Intellectual Freedom
April 2005

Links to non-ALA sites have been provided because these sites may have information of interest. Neither the American Library Association nor the Office for Intellectual Freedom necessarily endorses the views expressed or the facts presented on these sites; and furthermore, ALA and OIF do not endorse any commercial products that may be advertised or available on these sites.

Related Files

Sample National Security Letters (PDF File)
Sample FISA (Section 215) Order for Business Records (PDF File)
Sample Federal Search Warrants and Subpoenas (PDF File)
Confidentiality and Coping with Law Enforcement Inquiries (PDF File)
Confidentiality and Coping with Law Enforcement Inquiries (WORD)

Related Links

Gotham City Public Library Model Staff Directive 1.5
Gotham City Public Library Model Policy 1.1
United States Department of Justice: Searching and Seizing Computers and Obtaining Electronic Evidence in Criminal Investigations
ACLU Challenge to National Security Letter Authority
The USA PATRIOT Act by Mary Minow
The USA PATRIOT Act and Patron Privacy on Library Internet Terminals
FBI in Your Library
Guidelines for Librarians on the USA PATRIOT Act: What to Do Before, During, and After a Knock on the Door
The USA Patriot Act in the Library
USA Patriot Act
USA Patriot Act Resolutions of State Library Associations
Resolution on the USA Patriot Act and Related Measures That Infringe on the Rights of Library Users
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