Library Privacy Guidelines for E-book Lending and Digital Content Vendors


Protecting user privacy and confidentiality has long been an integral part of the intellectual freedom mission of libraries. The right to free inquiry as assured by the First Amendment depends upon the ability to read and access information free from scrutiny by the government or other third parties. In their provision of services to library users, librarians have an ethical obligation, expressed in the ALA Code of Ethics, to preserve users' right to privacy and to prevent any unauthorized use of patron data[1]. Librarians and libraries may also have a legal obligation to protect library users' data from unauthorized disclosure.

Libraries enter into licenses or agreements with commercial vendors in order to provide library users access to digital information, including e-books, journals, and databases.  Access to these resources is most often provided via networks and the internet. In the course of providing these services, most e-book and digital content vendors collect and use library patron data for a variety of reasons, including digital rights management, consumer analytics, and  user personalization. Libraries and vendors must work together to ensure that the contracts and licenses governing the provision and use of digital information reflect library ethics, policies, and legal obligations concerning user privacy and confidentiality.

These guidelines are issued to provide vendors with information about appropriate data management and security practices in respect to library patrons' personally identifiable information and data about their use of digital content.

Agreements, Ownership of User Data, and Legal Requirements

Agreements between libraries and vendors should address appropriate restrictions on the use, aggregation, retention, and dissemination of patron data, particularly information about minors. Agreements between libraries and vendors should also specify that libraries retain ownership of all data and that the vendor agrees to observe the library's privacy policies and data retention and security policies.

Vendors are strongly encouraged to implement the principles of privacy by design, i.e. products and services should have privacy concerns “built in, not bolted on.”  In addition, agreements between libraries and vendors should reflect and incorporate restrictions on the potential dissemination and use of library patrons' records and data imposed by local, state, and federal law.

Clear Privacy Policies

Library users should be notified about vendor privacy policies when accessing a product or service. The privacy policies should be made easily available and understandable to users. Safeguarding user privacy requires that individuals know what information is gathered about them, how long it is stored, who has access to it and under what conditions, and how it is used. There should be a way to actively notify ongoing users of any changes to the vendor's privacy policies.

User Consent

The vendor should give users options as to how much personal information is collected from them and how it may be used. Users should have choices about whether or not to opt-in to features and services that require the collection  of personal information. Users should also have the ability to opt-out and have their personal information erased if they later change their minds.

Access to Personal Data

Users should have the right to access their own personal information and contest its accuracy. Verifying accuracy helps ensure that vendor services that rely on personal user information can function properly.   Guidance on how the user can access their personal data should be clear and easy to find. Patrons should also have the ability to download their personal data into an open file format such as CSV for their own use.

Access to personal information should be restricted to the user and conform to the applicable state laws addressing the confidentiality of library records as well as other applicable local, state, and federal law.

Data Integrity and Security

Whenever patron data is collected, the vendor must take reasonable steps to ensure integrity and security, including compliance with applicable statutory requirements.

Security: Security involves both managerial and technical measures to protect against loss and the unauthorized access, destruction, use, or disclosure of data. Security measures should be integrated into the design, implementation, and day-to-day practices of the vendor's entire operating environment as part of its continuing commitment to risk management. The vendor should seek compliance with published cybersecurity standards from organizations such as National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Encryption: The use of data encryption helps enhance privacy protection. All online transactions between client applications (web browsers, mobile apps, etc.) and server applications should be encrypted. In addition, any user data housed by the vendor off site (cloud-based infrastructure, tape backups, etc.) should use encrypted storage.

Anonymization: Data used for customer analytics and other types of analysis should be anonymized by removing or encrypting personally identifiable information. While data anonymization is a good practice, it is not foolproof (re-identification analysis has been used to identify individuals from anonymized data sets); therefore access should still be restricted.

Retention: User data should not be retained in perpetuity.  The vendor should establish policies for how long to retain different types of data and methods for securely destroying data that is no longer needed. For example, accounts that are expired or inactive for a certain amount of time should be purged. Retention policies should also cover archival copies and backups.

Data Sharing: User data should not be shared with third-party vendors and other business associates without user consent. Most state statutes on the confidentiality of library records do not permit release of library patrons' personally identifiable information or data about their use of library resources and services without user consent or a court order. In addition, ALA policy forbids sharing of library patron information with third parties absent a court order.

Government Requests: The vendor should develop and implement procedures for dealing with government and law enforcement requests for library patrons' personally identifiable information and use data. The vendor should consider a government or law enforcement request only if it is issued by a court of competent jurisdiction that shows good cause and is in proper form. The vendor should inform and consult with the library when it believes is obligated to release library patrons' information unless prevented from doing so by the operation of law. The vendor should also inform users through its privacy policies about the legal conditions under which it might be required to release personally identifiable information.

Company Sale, Merger, or Bankruptcy: In the event that the vendor is sold to another company, merges with another company, or is dissolved through bankruptcy, all personally identifiable information should be securely destroyed, or libraries and their end users must be notified and given the opportunity to request that their data be securely destroyed.

User Devices

Privacy protections for library patrons' personally identifiable information and use data should extend to the user's device, including the web browser or any applications provided by the vendor. All communications between the user's device and the vendor's services should be encrypted. If the vendor wishes to employ personalization technology such as persistent cookies on its website or allows third-party web tracking, it should inform the user and give them the chance to opt-in before initiating these features for the user.   If a vendor-provided application stores personally identifiable information or use data on the user's device, it should be encrypted. The user should be able to remove a vendor-provided application and delete any data stored on the device.

Audit and Notification

Vendors should establish and maintain effective mechanisms to enforce their privacy policies. They should conduct regular privacy audits to ensure that all operations and services comply with these policies. The results of these audits should be made available upon request to libraries that are customers or potential customers. A vendor that suffers a breach in its privacy policies through inadvertent dissemination or data theft must notify the effected libraries and users about this urgent matter as soon as the vendor is aware of the data breach.

Approved June 29, 2015 by the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the American Library Association

[1] Patron data" or "user data" is any data or record that identifies the library patron or the patron's use of library information systems and resources.