Library Privacy Talking Points: Key Messages and Tough Questions

Privacy Tool Kit 6 of 9

Home | Introduction | Privacy and Confidentiality: Library Core Values | Developing or Revising a Privacy Policy | Implementation of Privacy Policies and Procedures | Library Privacy Talking Points: Key Messages and Tough Questions | What is ALA Doing | Advocacy at the Local, State & National Levels | Appendix

In an age of “sound bites” in which media may only provide to ten to fifteen seconds for a response, the ability to provide succinct yet coherent responses to tough question is crucial.  This section provides language suitable for use in public settings to provide those concise answers.  

Key Messages

  • Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought and free association (See Privacy: An Interpretation to the Library Bill of Rights)
  • Libraries are a cornerstone of democracy and help ensure Americans are able to read, research, and think freely.
  • Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have statutes declaring library records as confidential documents. The two remaining states, Hawaii and Kentucky, have opinions issued by their attorneys general finding library records to be confidential documents.
  • “The library community recognizes that children and youth have the same rights to privacy as adults.” AASL “Position Statement on the Confidentiality of Library Records.”
  • Librarians have always cooperated with law enforcement within the framework of state and federal laws and regulations.
  • Librarians have a responsibility to protect the privacy and confidentiality of our patrons while responding to legitimate national security concerns

Tough Questions about Library Privacy (with answers)

Why do libraries protect the confidentiality of library reading records?

  • Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have statutes declaring library records as confidential documents. The two remaining states, Hawaii and Kentucky, have opinions issued by their attorneys general finding library records to be confidential documents.
  • 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.
  • Laws protecting the confidentiality of library records help to assure that no person comes under suspicion simply because he or she reads a disapproved book, or does research into a disapproved topic. Reading about chemistry does not make a person a terrorist bomber, nor should reading about childbirth and parenting place you under suspicion for abandoning an infant.
  • With or without specific legislation, school librarians [and youth librarians] are urged to respect the rights of children and youth by adhering to the tenets expressed in the ALA Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records, Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, ALA Code of Ethics.” and the AASL Position Statement on the Confidentiality of Library Records. Lack of privacy can be harmful to minors if reading interests are exposed when help is sought from domestic crisis or abusive authority figures. Additionally, reading privacy is important for affirming identity, understanding self-development and overall health. Article Sixteen of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 
  • Librarians maintain records to ensure the efficient operation of the library, not to review or document individuals' reading habits. Libraries do not keep or maintain print or electronic records as a means of law enforcement.
  • It is standard practice that libraries do not create nor maintain unnecessary records. In fact, this is such a common practice that integrated library systems (ILSs), the software that helps libraries manage their collections and maintain borrowing records, are designed to support records retention for only as long as required for efficient operation of the library. Borrower information is erased from database in a timely manner.
  • As vendors of ILSs continue to move toward cloud-based installations libraries should make every effort to work with these vendors to retain all patron information on local servers to insure the privacy and confidentially of their patrons.  

What is ALA's position on the confidentiality of library records when sought by law enforcement officers?

  • The ALA encourages libraries to put 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 the law.
  • 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 probable cause based on specific facts and in proper form.
  • The USA Patriot Act expanded the FBI’s power to obtain material from businesses and libraries related to counterterrorism and anti-espionage investigations. The intersection of federal and state privacy laws is a complicated matter and needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Why does the American Library Association oppose certain provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act?

  • Librarians, like all Americans, are concerned about terrorism and the safety of our families and friends; however, the threat of terrorism must not be used as an excuse to intrude on our basic constitutional rights. We can fight terrorism, but we can do it at the same time as we protect our civil liberties. 
  • The American Library Association is concerned about the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that allow the FBI to seek information on Americans' reading habits, as if it were possible to determine what someone might do based on what he or she has read. USA Patriot Act: Advocacy Legislation & Issues
  • Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act greatly expanded the FBI's ability to get records from all businesses, including libraries and booksellers, without meeting the traditional standard needed to get a search warrant in the United States.
  • The PATRIOT Sunset Extension Act of 2011, signed into law on May 26, 2011 included four (4) extensions of three key provisions of the USA Patriot Act: roving wiretaps, searches of business records (the "library records provision"), and conducting surveillance of "lone wolves" - individuals suspected of terrorist-related activities not linked to terrorist groups.
  • The ALA supports amendments to the USA PATRIOT Act that would strengthen the protection of the right to read and pursue information without fear of government surveillance as well as active oversight of the implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act.
  • The American Library Association encourages all librarians, library administrators, and library advocates to educate their communities about the process for compliance with the USA PATRIOT Act and other related measures and about the dangers to individual privacy and the confidentiality of library records resulting from those measures.

How should libraries respond to requests for records under the US PATRIOT Act?

  • Individual libraries may not be at liberty to discuss the specifics of any legal search because a gag order accompanies a search warrant or subpoena issued under the USA PATRIOT Act.
  • The ALA recommends that libraries seek legal counsel to ensure proper handling of National Security Letters (NSL). They are documents signed by officials of the FBI and other agencies, without prior judicial approval, which compel disclosure information. NSLs are usually accompanied with a gag order, prohibiting disclosure of the fact or nature of the request.  An amendment included in the USA Patriot Act Additional Reauthorizing Amendment of  2006, signed in to law in February of 2006 allows for sharing the information with the library’s lawyer.
Revised by the IFC Privacy Subcommittee and approved by the Intellectual Freedom Committee January 2014