ALA Q&A on the Confidentiality and Privacy of Library Records

September 20, 2001

Based upon existing ALA policies, the following Q&A was prepared to assist libraries as questions are raised about confidentiality and patron privacy as part of the investigations related to the terrorist attacks and related issues.

Key message    
America's libraries support President Bush and Congressional leaders in our nation's efforts to preserve and protect the many hard-fought freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Librarians are encouraged to study and understand state confidentiality laws and to cooperate with the authorities within the guidelines provided by these laws.Librarians have a responsibility to protect the privacy of our patrons while responding to legitimate national security concerns.

What guidance does the American Library Association (ALA) give libraries regarding privacy and confidentiality?    
The American Library Association encourages all librarians, particularly those in public libraries, to work with their local legal counsel to ensure they understand state confidentiality laws so they may respond quickly to any requests from law enforcement.Forty-eight of 50 states have such laws on the books, but the language varies from state to state.

The ALA recommends that each library adopt a policy that specifically recognizes the confidentiality of information sought or received, and materials consulted borrowed or acquired by a library user.These materials may include database search records, circulation records, interlibrary loan records and other personally identifiable uses of library materials, facilities, programs or services, such as reference interviews. Libraries are advised to rely on existing laws to control behavior that involves public safety or criminal behavior.

Libraries should have in place procedures for working with law enforcement officers when a subpoena or other legal order for records is made.Libraries will cooperate expeditiously with law enforcement within the framework of state law.

Don't librarians have a responsibility to turn over all records to police immediately?    
If librarians do not follow state confidentiality laws and legal procedures, they run the risk of actually hurting ongoing police investigations.The American judicial system provides the mechanism for seeking release of confidential records: the issuance of a court order, showing good cause based on specific facts and in proper form.

States created these confidentiality laws to protect the privacy and freedoms Americans hold dear. These laws provide a clear framework for responding to national security concerns while safeguarding against random searches, fishing expeditions or invasions of privacy.

What do confidentiality laws stipulate? Individual language varies from state to state, but these laws provide a legal framework for accessing confidential records, usually providing that records may be released following the issuance of a court order in proper form and showing good cause based on specific facts.

Do all states have confidentiality laws?    
All states have a confidentiality statute of some kind, except Hawaii and Kentucky.Hawaii and Kentucky do not have statutes specifically protecting library records, but they do have Attorney General opinions recognizing the confidentiality of library records.

Do public and academic librarians monitor library users?    
Librarians are aware of the behavior of library users and when faced with disruptions or clear violations of the law, they take appropriate action.If laws are broken – as with theft or other violations – the librarian reports this immediately.

On the other hand, librarians do not police what library users read or access in the library.Libraries ensure the freedom to read, to view, to speak and to participate. They are cornerstones of democracy.

The ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom keeps reference copies of state confidentiality laws on file, which may be requested by calling the office at 800-545-2433 x4223 or emailing