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ALA | Privacy | Confidentiality

Privacy and Confidentiality

“The right to be left alone—the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by a free people.”—Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Olmstead v. U.S., 277 U.S. 438 (1928)

See Privacy and Confidentiality policies, statements, and guidelines of the American Library Association; see also Privacy Tool Kit and Privacy Audit.  See also Guidelines for Developing a Library Privacy Policy.  See also Gotham City Public Library Model Staff Directive 1.5 and Gotham City Public Library Model Policy 1.1.

Why Privacy and Confidentiality Are Important

Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association (see Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights and Questions and Answers on Privacy and Confidentiality; and George Christian Urges Congress to Reconsider Parts of the USA PATRIOT Act).

As Bruce Schneier notes in The Eternal Value of Privacy:

For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that—either now or in the uncertain future—patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.

Lack of privacy and confidentiality chills users' choices, thereby suppressing access to ideas. The possibility of surveillance, whether direct or through access to records of speech, research and exploration, undermines a democratic society (see Guidelines for Developing a Library Privacy Policy).

Confidentiality of library records is a core value of librarianship (see Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records and Suggested Procedures for Implementing Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records). One cannot exercise the right to read if the possible consequences include damage to one's reputation, ostracism from the community or workplace, or criminal penalties. Choice requires both a varied selection and the assurance that one's choice is not monitored.

For libraries to flourish as centers for uninhibited access to information, librarians must stand behind their users' right to privacy and freedom of inquiry (see Resolution on the Retention of Library Usage Records, RFID in Libraries: Privacy and Confidentiality Guidelines, and State Privacy Laws regarding Library Records).

Just as people who borrow murder mysteries are unlikely to be murderers, so those seeking information about terrorism are unlikely to be terrorists (see Resolution on the USA Patriot Act and Related Measures That Infringe on the Rights of Library Users, Resolution Reaffirming the Principles of Intellectual Freedom in the Aftermath of Terrorist Attacks, and Resolution on the Terrorism Information Awareness Program). Assuming a sinister motive based on library users' reading choices makes no sense and leads to fishing expeditions that both waste precious law enforcement resources and have the potential to chill Americans' inquiry into current events and public affairs (see Freedom to Read Statement).

The right to privacy is the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one's interest examined or scrutinized by others. Confidentiality relates to the possession of personally identifiable information, including such library-created records as closed-stack call slips, computer sign-up sheets, registration for equipment or facilities, circulation records, Web sites visited, reserve notices, or research notes.

Other Resources on Privacy and Confidentiality

Digital Privacy: A Curmudgeon’s Guide

The Unofficial Cookie FAQ

Privacy Resources for Librarians, Library Patrons, and Families

Privacy Issues (from Especially for Children and Their Parents)

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
“The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is a nonprofit consumer education, research, and advocacy program. Our publications empower you to take action to control your personal information by providing practical tips on privacy protection.”

Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (1974)
“Congress passed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (also known as the Buckley Amendment) to protect the accuracy and confidentiality of student records; it applies to all schools receiving federal funding. The Act prevents educational institutions from disclosing student records or personally identifiable information to third parties without consent, but does not restrict the collection or use of information by schools. The statute also requires educational institutions to give students and their parents access to school records and an opportunity to challenge the content of records they believe to be inaccurate or misleading.”

EPIC Bill Track Tracking Privacy, Speech, and Cyber-Liberties Bills in Congress

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 Links

American Library Association Privacy Policies and Statements
Adobe Acrobat Reader


Intellectual Freedom Issues
Links to intellectual freedom issues, from censorship to filtering to hate speech to USA PATRIOT Act.

Academic Freedom
"Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition."--1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, American Association of University Professors


Book Burning
A link to the Book Burning page at

Censorship and Challenges
Well in advance of the appearance of the censor, a materials selection program, a procedure for handling complaints, and a public relations program will, of course, have been established. After the censor comes, censorship of library materials can be resisted by informing a number of key support sources: (1) community leaders and community organizations who would support the position of the library, (2) local news media whose editorial support would be valuable, (3) other librarians in the community and state whose support could then be available if needed, (4) the publisher of the challenged work who may have on file all its reviews and also may be interested in the legal questions raised by such practices as labeling and restricted access, (5) all library staff members and the governing board, (6) library's legal counsel, (7) the state library association's intellectual freedom committee, and (8) ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

Censorship in the Schools
"Censorship is harmful because it results in the opposite of true education and learning. In the process of acquiring knowledge and searching for truth, students can learn to discriminate--to make decisions rationally and logically in light of the evidence. By suppressing all materials containing ideas or themes with which they do not agree, censors produce a sterile conformity and a lack of intellectual and emotional growth in students."--Censorship in the Schools: What Is It? How Do You Cope?

Confidentiality and Coping with Law Enforcement Inquiries
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.

Control and Censorship of the Internet

Cybercrime Treaty
Also known as Convention on Cybercrime or Cybercrime Convention.

Deep Linking
Deep Linking Lunacy (SearchDay, July 9, 2002 - Number 307, By Chris Sherman, Associate Editor, Search Engine Watch, "But why stop with the web? How about those sneaky academics, citing the work of fellow scholars with footnotes to specific articles using exact page numbers in the journals that published them? And just think of the worst offenders of all — librarians, who not only help patrons find books, magazines and other materials but often even show them where to find specific information within the works?"

Destruction of Libraries
The American Library Association deplores the destruction of libraries, library collections and property, and the disruption of the educational process by that act, whether it be done by individuals or groups of individuals and whether it be in the name of honest dissent, the desire to control or limit thought or ideas, or for any other purpose.

Executive Order 13233
An executive order issued by President George W. Bush restricts access to the records of former presidents. The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association (ALA) and The Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) urge librarians to alert their patrons and the public about this effort to close the public record.

FBI in Your Library
"Information is the most valuable resource on the planet. It allows people to make informed decisions, learn and better themselves. No one should be afraid to seek out information and read what they want."--Fight FBI authority to monitor reading habits, Wausau Daily Herald, May 20, 2003

Filters and Filtering
“Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one’s children is to teach them to swim.” — National Research Council, Youth, Pornography, and the Internet

Flag Amendment
“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” — Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., Texas v. Johnson

Freedom of Information Act
Links to information related to the Freedom of Information Act.

Graphic Novels
We hope these guidelines help librarians make the best decisions in serving their local communities.

Hate Speech

Media Concentration
Fostering Media Diversity in Libraries: Strategies and Actions (PDF) was prepared in June 2007 by the now-dissolved American Library Association, Intellectual Freedom Committee Subcommittee on the Impact of Media Concentration on Libraries.

National Identification Card


Network Neutrality

Online Social Networks
"If anything, schools and libraries should be encouraging kids to use blogging and social networking services. They have enormous educational potential for such things as writing, interviewing, collaborative research, media literacy, and photography, but even if not used as part of a formal supervised education program, they encourage kids to communicate and reach out to others."—Larry Magid

Privacy and Confidentiality
Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association. The courts have established a First Amendment right to receive information in a publicly funded library. Further, the courts have upheld the right to privacy based on the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Many states provide guarantees of privacy in their constitutions and statute law. Numerous decisions in case law have defined and extended rights to privacy.

Public Forum

RFID: Radio Frequency Identification Technology. Libraries implementing RFID should use and configure the technology to maintain the privacy of library users.

Schools and the Children's Internet Protection Act

Surveillance in America
"BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston's own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the Police Patrol, snooping into people's windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered." — George Orwell, 1984

Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS)

Terrorism Information Awareness
Formerly, Total Information Awareness.

RESOLVED, That ALA condemns the use or threat of use of torture by the US government as a barbarous violation of human rights, intellectual freedom and the rule of law. The ALA decries—along with the practice of torture anywhere—the suggestion by the US government that under a `state of emergency' in this country, or in territories it occupies, torture is in any case an acceptable tool in pursuit of its goals.

USA PATRIOT Act: Doe v. Gonzales
Links related to the 2nd Circuit Decision in Doe v. Gonzales (5/23/2006)

USA PATRIOT Act and Intellectual Freedom
USA PATRIOT Act information for libraries was prepared by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom and reviewed by legal counsel.

USA Patriot Act Analyses
USA PATRIOT Act analyses from various sources including the Office for Intellectual Freedom.

The USA Patriot Act in the Library
USA PATRIOT Act, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 ("USA Patriot Act") became law on October 26, 2001. This explains how the Act affects libraries.

Current news on USA Patriot Act.

USA Patriot Act Search Warrant
USA PATRIOT Act: If you or your library are served with a warrant issued under this law, and wish the advice of legal counsel but do not have an attorney, you can still obtain assistance from the Freedom to Read Foundation’s legal counsel. Simply call the Office for Intellectual Freedom (1-800-545-2433, ext. 4223) and inform the staff that you need legal advice. You need not—and, indeed, should not—disclose the reason you need legal assistance. OIF staff will assure that an attorney returns your call. You should not inform OIF staff of the existence of the warrant.

Violence in the Media
“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” — Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., Texas v. Johnson