Privacy Tool Kit

Library Privacy Key Messages and Tough Questions

Key Messages

  • Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought and free association.
  • 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
  • Librarians have always cooperated with law enforcement within the framework of state confidentiality laws and statements on the books in every state.
  • Librarians have a responsibility to protect the privacy of our patrons while responding to legitimate national security concerns.

Tough Questions About Library Privacy

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.
  • 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 standard circulation software used by libraries automatically erases a circulation record after the materials are returned to the library.

What is ALA's position on the confidentiality of library records?

  • 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.
  • The ALA recommends that libraries seek legal counsel to ensure proper handling of search requests. The intersection of federal and state privacy laws is a complicated matter and needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
  • 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.

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

  • 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.
  • Librarians, like all Americans, are concerned about terrorism and the safety of our families and friends. But, 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 the civil liberties that have made our country great.
  • 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.
  • Individual libraries may not be at liberty to discuss the specifics of any legal search, since a gag order accompanies a search warrant or subpoena issued under 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.
  • The ALA supports amendments to the USA PATRIOT Act and active oversight of the implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act.

What are ALA's concerns about the Attorney General's FBI guidelines revised in 2002?

  • Under the revised Attorney General's Guidelines on General Crimes, Racketeering and Terrorism, which are separate from the USA PATRIOT Act, the FBI enjoys expanded powers to investigate terrorism and clandestine espionage by being able to do sweeping surveillance of groups of library patrons, not just related to investigations focused on one subject.
  • By conducting sweeping investigations, law enforcement has access to everyone and anyone's records. Even when seeking information about a particular suspect, circulation records and databases may be obtained by law enforcement about an entire group of library users.
  • While as Americans we also are concerned about our nation's security, librarians will continue to fight for their patrons' First Amendment right to read and receive information without government interference.

What was the FBI Library Awareness Program and how did the library community respond?

  • Many librarians and library users are still around who recall the FBI Library Awareness Program of the 1970s and 80s, when the FBI inappropriately attempted to monitor patrons' reading habits and obtain personal information about library users. The library community is anxious that this not be repeated.
  • Through this program, which went on for decades, the FBI sought information on the reading habits of people from "hostile foreign countries," as well as U.S. citizens who held unpopular political views.