Skip to: Content
Skip to: Section Navigation
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

ALA | Privacy | Confidentiality

Privacy and Confidentiality

“The right to be left alone—the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by a free people.”—Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Olmstead v. U.S., 277 U.S. 438 (1928)

See Privacy and Confidentiality policies, statements, and guidelines of the American Library Association; see also Privacy Tool Kit and Privacy Audit.  See also Guidelines for Developing a Library Privacy Policy.  See also Gotham City Public Library Model Staff Directive 1.5 and Gotham City Public Library Model Policy 1.1.

Why Privacy and Confidentiality Are Important

Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association (see Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights and Questions and Answers on Privacy and Confidentiality; and George Christian Urges Congress to Reconsider Parts of the USA PATRIOT Act).

As Bruce Schneier notes in The Eternal Value of Privacy:

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.

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 (see Guidelines for Developing a Library Privacy Policy).

Confidentiality of library records is a core value of librarianship (see Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records and Suggested Procedures for Implementing Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records). 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 (see Resolution on the Retention of Library Usage Records, RFID in Libraries: Privacy and Confidentiality Guidelines, and State Privacy Laws regarding Library Records).

Just as people who borrow murder mysteries are unlikely to be murderers, so those seeking information about terrorism are unlikely to be terrorists (see Resolution on the USA Patriot Act and Related Measures That Infringe on the Rights of Library Users, Resolution Reaffirming the Principles of Intellectual Freedom in the Aftermath of Terrorist Attacks, and Resolution on the Terrorism Information Awareness Program). 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 (see Freedom to Read Statement).

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 closed-stack call slips, computer sign-up sheets, registration for equipment or facilities, circulation records, Web sites visited, reserve notices, or research notes.

Other Resources on Privacy and Confidentiality

Digital Privacy: A Curmudgeon’s Guide

The Unofficial Cookie FAQ

Privacy Resources for Librarians, Library Patrons, and Families

Privacy Issues (from Especially for Children and Their Parents)

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
“The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is a nonprofit consumer education, research, and advocacy program. Our publications empower you to take action to control your personal information by providing practical tips on privacy protection.”

Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (1974)
“Congress passed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (also known as the Buckley Amendment) to protect the accuracy and confidentiality of student records; it applies to all schools receiving federal funding. The Act prevents educational institutions from disclosing student records or personally identifiable information to third parties without consent, but does not restrict the collection or use of information by schools. The statute also requires educational institutions to give students and their parents access to school records and an opportunity to challenge the content of records they believe to be inaccurate or misleading.”

EPIC Bill Track Tracking Privacy, Speech, and Cyber-Liberties Bills in Congress

Links to non-ALA sites have been provided because these sites may have information of interest. Neither the American Library Association nor the Office for Intellectual Freedom necessarily endorses the views expressed or the facts presented on these sites; and furthermore, ALA and OIF do not endorse any commercial products that may be advertised or available on these sites.

Related Links

American Library Association Privacy Policies and Statements
Adobe Acrobat Reader