Background to the ALA Privacy Interpretation


For many years, the American Library Association has had well-defined and clear privacy policy statements, in the Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records (1971, rev. 1975, 1986), and the Policy Concerning Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information about Library Users (1991). Further, the Suggested Procedures for Implementing Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records (1983, rev. 1988), and the Intellectual Freedom Manual chapter on “Developing a Confidentiality Policy” help explain how best to implement privacy-protecting measures in the policies of local libraries.

The core values of librarianship expressed in the Library Bill of Rights, Freedom to Read Statement, and Code of Ethics are the source of the American Library Association’s commitment to protect against threats to confidentiality and privacy. However, little in these documents address issues specific to the online world.

In 1999 ALA Council resolved that the Library and Information Technology Association be asked to examine the impact of new technologies on patron privacy and the confidentiality of electronic records. The LITA Task Force on Privacy and Confidentiality in the Electronic Environment was formed at the 1999 ALA Midwinter Conference with broad participation from across ALA.

In July 2000, ALA Council approved the Final Report of the LITA Task Force on Privacy and Confidentiality in the Electronic Environment (Council Document #62) and referred it to the Intellectual Freedom Committee for review. The recommendations contained therein were:

  • That ALA revise its policy statements related to Confidentiality of Library Records (rev. 1986), and Concerning Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information About Library Users (1991), in order to specifically and appropriately incorporate Internet privacy.
  • That ALA develop model privacy policies, instructional materials, and privacy “best practices” documents for libraries; and
  • That ALA urge that all libraries adopt a privacy statement on Web pages and post privacy policies in the library which cover the issues of privacy in Internet use as accessed through the library’s services.

In its own end-of-conference report to Council, the IFC responded to this referral by saying: “The Intellectual Freedom Committee gladly accepts Council’s charge to review the recommendations. IFC has been reviewing and will continue to monitor the appropriateness of all ALA policies regarding privacy and confidentiality and will address all three recommendations in our Midwinter Meeting report to Council.”

At the 2001 ALA Midwinter Conference, the IFC established a standing Privacy Subcommittee, which is charged to monitor ongoing privacy developments in technology, politics and legislation and identify needs and resources for librarians and library users (cf. 2000-2001 CD#19.1).

At its 2001 spring meeting, the committee decided that fully dealing with the issues raised by the Council referral called for developing an Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights on privacy. Initial work began on a draft Interpretation at that time and continued through the 2001 Annual Conference and the Committee’s 2001 fall meeting. In its deliberations, the committee thought carefully about the implications of 9/11 on privacy issues. The committee has sought to develop the Interpretation for lasting impact, knowing that this issue was of importance to libraries prior to those events and that it has enduring importance for those who rely on librarians in our libraries. (cf. 2002-2003 CD#19).

The committee believes it is important to emphasize that it has thought carefully about the USA Patriot Act. The committee believe that no conflict exists between the Interpretation on privacy and the USA Patriot Act. The Patriot Act does not impose any duty on libraries to collect or retain confidential information about its patrons for law enforcement purposes. In addition, only FBI agents can use the Patriot Act to request information. An FBI agent who wishes to obtain confidential patron information is still required to present a search warrant or other court order before he or she can legally obtain those records.

During the last year the IFC has worked intensively on the Interpretation, including in its Spring Meeting in March 2001, the 2001 Annual Conference in San Francisco, our 2001 Fall Meeting, the 2002 Midwinter Meeting, and a very intensive electronic consideration that has been conducted in the months since Midwinter.

The first and second drafts were distributed to the ALA Council, Executive Board, Division Presidents and Executive Directors, Committee Chairs and staff liaisons, Round Table Chairs and staff liaisons, and Chapter Presidents and Executive Directors for review and comments in December 2001 and May 2002.

During the six-month drafting process, the committee heard from many divisions, chapters, committees, round tables and members, and has received useful criticism and suggestions that the committee incorporated into the second draft, which Council and others received in May.

The IFC held a hearing at this conference and refined that document based on those additional comments. Small, but useful, changes were made to the third and final draft ( Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights), which the committee presented to Council and Council unanimously adopted on June 19, 2002.

A related document that has helped address many specific questions related to local procedure and implementation is the “Questions and Answers on Privacy and Confidentiality”. The committee continues to develop this document as a tool for use in libraries with their communities. It will appear online as a virtual appendix to the Interpretation. The IFC welcomes comments and suggestions.

    Recommendations of the LITA Task Force on Privacy and Confidentiality in the Electronic Environment

| Top | Bottom |

In July 2000, ALA Council approved the Final Report of the LITA Task Force on Privacy and Confidentiality in the Electronic Environment (Council Document #62) and referred it to the Intellectual Freedom Committee for review. The recommendations contained therein were:

  1. That ALA revise its policy statements related to Confidentiality of Library Records (rev. 1986), and Concerning Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information About Library Users (1991), in order to specifically and appropriately incorporate Internet privacy.
  2. That ALA develop model privacy policies, instructional materials, and privacy “best practices” documents for libraries; and
  3. That ALA urge that all libraries adopt a privacy statement on Web pages and post privacy policies in the library which cover the issues of privacy in Internet use as accessed through the library’s services.

In its own end-of-conference report to Council in 2001, the IFC responded to this referral by saying: “The Intellectual Freedom Committee gladly accepts Council’s charge to review the recommendations. IFC has been reviewing and will continue to monitor the appropriateness of all ALA policies regarding privacy and confidentiality and will address all three recommendations in our Midwinter Meeting report to Council.”

At the 2001 ALA Midwinter Conference, the IFC established a standing Privacy Subcommittee, which is charged to monitor ongoing privacy developments in technology, politics and legislation and identify needs and resources for librarians and library users (cf. 2000–2001 CD#19.1).

At its 2001 spring meeting, the committee returned to Council's original request to consider developing an Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights on Privacy. Initial work began on a draft Interpretation at that time and continued through the 2002 Annual Conference. In its deliberations, the committee thought carefully about the implications of 9/11 on privacy issues. The committee have sought to develop the Interpretation for lasting impact, knowing that this issue was of importance to libraries prior to those events and that it has enduring importance for those who rely on us in our libraries. (cf. 2002–2003 CD#19).