The right to privacy – the right to read, consider, and develop ideas and beliefs free from observation or unwanted surveillance by the government or others – is the bedrock foundation for intellectual freedom. It is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association. Bruce Schneier eloquently describes chilling effect on speech, thought, and action that occurs when people believe they are or may be under scrutiny:
“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.”
Bruce Schneier, The Eternal Value of Privacy
Why Privacy and Confidentiality Are Important
Privacy is essential to free inquiry in the library because it enables library users to select, access, and consider information and ideas without fear of embarrassment, judgment, punishment, or ostracism. A lack of privacy in what one reads and views in the library can have a significant chilling effect upon library users’ willingness to exercise their First Amendment right to read, thereby impairing free access to ideas. True liberty of choice in the library requires both a varied selection of materials and the assurance that one's choices are not monitored.
Libraries, librarians, and library workers have an ethical obligation, expressed in the ALA Code of Ethics, to preserve users' right to privacy and prevent any unauthorized use or disclosure of users' personally identifiable information or the data associated with their use of the library's resources. This requires libraries and all those who work in libraries to maintain an environment that is respectful and protective of the library user's privacy. This includes the adoption of policies and practices that treat patron data as confidential.
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 email notifications, closed-stack call slips, computer sign-up sheets, registration for equipment or facilities, circulation records, websites visited, reserve notices, or research notes.
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. 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.
Just as people who borrow murder mysteries are unlikely to be murderers, so those seeking information about terrorism are unlikely to be terrorists. 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.
ALA Statements and Policies on Privacy and Confidentiality
ALA’s extensive First Amendment, liberty and privacy principles guide the association’s work in the federal legislative and policy arenas as well as at the state and local levels in order to protect personal privacy based upon a long standing commitment to patron privacy. Advancing the library community’s principles to protect patron confidentiality requires major grassroots work from the library community to promote library priorities in these environments.
- Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (2014) Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association.
- Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records (1986)
- Policy concerning Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information about Library Users (2004)
- Resolution to Protect Library User Confidentiality in Self-Service Hold Practices (2011)
- Resolution on the Retention of Library Usage Records (2006)
- The USA PATRIOT Act
Q&As, Tool Kits and Guidelines
- Q&A on Privacy and Confidentiality (2014) In the last decade challenges to privacy from a multitude of sources have been on the rise. Consequently questions about privacy and libraries are escalating. The Privacy Subcommittee of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee has prepared this “Q & A” to provide additional guidance for librarians struggling with privacy issues.
- Privacy Tool Kit (2014)
- Library Privacy Guidelines (2016) During 2015-2016, the Intellectual Freedom Committee approved several new privacy guidelines intended to assist librarians, libraries, schools and vendors to develop best practices for online privacy and data management and security.
- Library Privacy Checklists (2017) The Library Privacy Checklists, drafted by the IFC Privacy Subcommittee and the LITA Patron Privacy Interest Group, are intended to provide libraries of all types with practical guidance on implementing the Library Privacy Guidelines.
- Encryption and Patron Privacy (2016)
- Law Enforcement Inquiries
- RFID in Libraries: Privacy and Confidentiality Guidelines (2006)
Law and Policy
- State Laws Regarding Library Records and Confidentiality
- Statement on Privacy in the Library Environment (2015) - International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA)
- Consensus Principles on Users’ Digital Privacy in Library, Publisher, and Software-Provider Systems (2015) - National Information Standards Organization (NISO)
- The Fair Information Privacy Principles - U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
- Sample Library Privacy Policies
- Student and Minors' Privacy – Laws, Policies, Best Practices
Since the American Library Association’s inception in 1876, librarians have defended vigorously the public’s Fourth Amendment privacy rights against government attempts to obtain patrons’ borrowing (and later internet surfing) records without a warrant. Established in in 1945, ALA’s Washington-based Office of Government Relations (OGR) has advocated directly -- and with and through broad coalitions of major public interest groups, bipartisan think tanks, and private sector companies -- to achieve both liberty and security without sacrificing one for the other.
Today, ALA remains fundamentally committed to restoring the Constitutional privacy rights of library users and the civil liberties of all Americans lost to multiple overbroad and inadequately “checked and balanced” statutes, including the: USA PATRIOT Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and Electronic Communications Privacy Act. ALA is dedicated, in particular, to ending ongoing mass surveillance, which continues despite important reforms made by the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015.
Choose Privacy Week is the American Library Association’s annual, week-long event that promotes the importance of individual privacy rights and celebrates libraries and librarians’ unique role in protecting privacy in the library and in society as a whole. The initiative encourages libraries to be champions of privacy rights in the digital age and highlights ways libraries can protect the privacy of their patrons and educate users to think critically and make informed choices about their privacy. The Choose Privacy Week website hosts a blog providing news and thought leadership about privacy and surveillance issues and serves as a clearinghouse for resources for librarians who are working to improve privacy practices and programs in their libraries.
Choose Privacy buttons, posters, bookmarks and resources in the ALA Store.
Practical Privacy Practices. Chicago, IL: Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).
Featured Speakers: Michael Robinson, Alison Macrina and Marshall Breeding
Recorded: April 13, 2017
Raising Privacy Awareness in Your Library and in Your Community. Chicago, IL: Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).
Featured Speakers: Erin Berman, Michael Zimmer and Jamie LaRue
Recorded: March 25, 2016
Adams, Helen R. Protecting Intellectual Freedom and Privacy in Your School Library. Libraries Unlimited, 2013.
Beckstrom, Matthew. 2015. Protecting Patron Privacy : Safe Practices for Public Computers. Santa Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited, An Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC.
Breeding, Marshall. Privacy and Security for Library Systems, Library Technology Reports, May/June 2016
Chmara, Theresa. Privacy and Confidentiality Issues: A Guide for Libraries and their Lawyer.. American Library Association, 2009.
Magi, Trina and Garnar, Martin. eds., Intellectual Freedom Manual, Ninth Edition, "Privacy and Confidentiality," and "Visits and Requests from Law Enforcement," ALA Editions, 2015, 171-214.
McCord, Gretchen. 2013. What You Need to Know About Privacy Law : A Guide for Librarians and Educators. Santa Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited, An Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC.
Newman, Bobbi, and Tijerina, Bonnie. Protecting Patron Privacy: A LITA Guide. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
Office for Intellectual Freedom, Houghton, Sarah, Eli. Neiburger, and Jason. Griffey. Privacy and Freedom of Information in 21st-Century Libraries: A Library Technology Report. American Library Association, 2010.
Richards, Neil. 2015. Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Assistance and Consultation
Protecting user privacy and confidentiality has long been an integral part of the mission of libraries. Since 1939, the American Library Association (ALA) has affirmed that a right to privacy is crucial to freedom of inquiry and the exercise of First Amendment freedoms.
ALA's extensive First Amendment, liberty and privacy princples guide the association's efforts to promote and protect individual privacy rights in the library. This includes initiatives to educate librarians and the public about the nature and importance of reader privacy as well as ALA's ongoing work to protect work to protect personal privacy in the federal legislative and policy arenas and at state and local levels of government. There are several units of ALA that work on these important issues and staff is available to answer questions or provide assistance to librarians, trustees, educators and the public.
Office for Intellectual Freedom
In conjunction with the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC), ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) conducts the association's work on intellectual freedom and privacy issues at the state and local levels, often working with state library association chapters. The Intellectual Freedom Committee's Privacy Subcommittee monitors ongoing privacy developments in technology, politics and legislation, as well as social and cultural trends that impact individual privacy and confidentiality, both in libraries and the wider world. The IFC Privacy Subcommittee welcomes comments and suggestions for improvement. Correspondence can be sent to Deborah Caldwell Stone, staff liaison for the Privacy Subcommittee and OIF.
Office of Government Relations
At the federal level, ALA’s Committee on Legislation (COL) works with the Office of Government Relations (OGR) involved in all relevant federal legislative and policy decision-making processes of importance to the library field and in the public interest. Adam Eisgrau is the managing director for the Office of Government Relations.
LITA Patron Privacy Technologies Interest Group
The Library and Information Technology Association's (LITA) Patron Privacy Technologies Interest Group promotes the design and implementation of library software and hardware that protects the privacy of library users and maximizes user ability to make informed decisions about the use of personally identifiable information by the library and its vendors.
The Intellectual Freedom Committee, IFC Privacy Subcommittee, Committee on Legislation, and the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) work collaboratively to identify privacy needs and resources for librarians and library users; proposes action on resolutions, policies, and guidelines; develops educational, informational, and promotional projects addressing privacy, confidentiality, and data security issues; and collaborates with other member groups and organizations within and outside ALA.