Video Surveillance in the Library Guidelines

Libraries should develop policies that clearly address all forms of video surveillance that may occur in their spaces, make those policies publicly available, and give notice to both staff and the public when those policies are adopted or amended.

Video surveillance in the library can take many forms. It can include institutional surveillance for security purposes, individuals using their own devices to film the library building or library users, or individuals filming library workers. Libraries should develop policies that clearly address all forms of video surveillance that may occur in their spaces, make those policies publicly available, and give notice to both staff and the public when those policies are adopted or amended. Because there is no one-size-fits-all policy for video surveillance in libraries, libraries should develop policies in consultation with legal counsel that address each library’s unique circumstances.

Video surveillance is only one type of surveillance that may occur in libraries. For guidance on protecting users’ privacy and defending against government and corporate surveillance, see “Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” the “Privacy and Confidentiality Q&A,” library privacy guidelines and checklists, and the ”Visits and Requests from Law Enforcement Concerning Library Records and User Information."

Below are some guidelines for developing policies addressing different forms of video surveillance.

Security Cameras

The decision to conduct surveillance for security purposes, including the use of security cameras, should carefully weigh the safety and security benefits derived from surveillance with the library’s duty to protect users’ rights to privacy and confidentiality as outlined in applicable state laws and in Article VII of the Library Bill of Rights. Achieving a balance between user rights and the need for security is especially important as surveillance technology increases in sophistication and is capable of recording information about users’ library use that has historically been carefully protected from disclosure. If libraries decide that video surveillance is necessary, they should develop policies that clearly define the scope and purpose of surveillance and which include strong protections of library users’ privacy and confidentiality. The “Privacy and Confidentiality Q&A” states:

(Video surveillance) policies should state the cameras are to be used only for the narrow purpose of enhancing the physical security of the library, its property, staff, and users. Policies should include: protocols for posting signs and giving notice about the presence of surveillance equipment, storage of data and/or media in a secure location, and routine destruction of data as soon as permitted by law.1

Policies should inform users whether or not security camera footage is being monitored in real time, and if that footage is retained by the library. The policy should also outline who has access to view live or recorded security camera footage. Access should be limited to the minimum necessary for security purposes. Video recordings should only be shared when necessary to protect the interests of the library and its staff and when permitted by the state library confidentiality statute. If the library’s security cameras are part of a larger surveillance system (as is the case in many school libraries), policies should be developed in conjunction with the larger system to allow maximum autonomy for the library to protect users’ privacy and confidentiality to the fullest extent possible. Policies should also be regularly reviewed as surveillance technology advances and the legal environment shifts, especially with regard to issues like facial recognition.

Users Filming in the Library

The activities of users filming in the library should be addressed by policies concerning behavior or media relations. These policies should carefully balance protection of users’ privacy with users’ First Amendment right to access the library, privacy concerns, safety concerns, disruptions, and potential harassment of users and staff. This balance will look different in each library; for example, some libraries housed in historic buildings may allow users to film the space but not anyone in it, while other libraries may choose not to allow filming in their space at all.

Regardless of the specifics of each situation, policies regarding filming in the library should be directly tied to the library’s mission statement, be as specific as possible, and be consistently enforced. Any restrictions should be content-neutral; however, libraries can enforce time, place, and manner restrictions on filming.

If filming is allowed, behavior and other policies should be carefully crafted to protect users from intimidation and harassment, as well as to ensure that any evidence of individuals’ library use is kept confidential, similar to the confidentiality of circulation records. Library users should not expect to be free from observation, except in those spaces within libraries where users have an expectation of privacy, such as bathrooms, study rooms, or offices, and those spaces should be clearly marked as private spaces.

Users Filming Library Workers

Policies concerning users filming in the library should also address the issue of users filming library workers. In their capacity as employees, library workers do not have the same privacy rights as library users, and courts have upheld the right to record public employees carrying out their duties in public spaces.2 However, filming in the library should not monopolize library workers’ time or interfere with the performance of their duties. Filming that interferes with or harasses workers should be addressed by the library’s behavior policies. Additionally, private spaces reserved for use by the staff should be clearly identified by signage that identifies those places as private, staff-only spaces and that bars entry by the public.

Public libraries may be the targets of “First Amendment audits,” in which individuals claim a right as taxpayers to film in any space accessible to the public, and they test that right by going into public spaces and recording videos with the goal of documenting First Amendment violations that can later be used in legal claims against the target. Best practice for dealing with these “auditors” is to not engage with them and allow them to film as long as they comply with all library policies, including but not limited to those regarding behavior, media, and staff harassment.3

Library Worker Training

Library workers should be trained on all policies and procedures related to video surveillance in the library. They should feel confident in their knowledge and comfortable enforcing the policies to ensure that policies are enforced consistently. Library workers should also be trained on professional ethics and issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion to appropriately guide the development and enforcement of policies.

Public Records

Any documents or information, including video surveillance footage, created or filed by a government agency or entity may be considered a public record. By law, all public records should be made available upon request; however, under some state laws, records concerning an individual’s use of the library are confidential and exempt from public records law. Libraries have a responsibility to protect user privacy and should, therefore, develop policies with legal counsel that adhere to state and local law to ensure that individual privacy rights are upheld when recording and retaining library video surveillance footage. Because some state library confidentiality laws prohibit libraries from disclosing any information that identifies a person as having used a library or a library service, libraries should be cautious about releasing tapes of video surveillance without a court order or subpoena. Since video surveillance footage may identify library users and their usage of library resources and services, video recordings should be routinely purged or destroyed as soon as permitted by law.

Law Enforcement

Libraries should not share a library user’s records and information with law enforcement except with the permission of the user, in response to a subpoena or court order, or in accordance with state library confidentiality law. Records of video surveillance in the library are protected under the same considerations of privacy and confidentiality as all other library records, and the same rules and guidelines for access apply. Libraries should consult with legal counsel about applicable laws governing the retention and release of video surveillance records. For more information, see “Visits and Requests from Law Enforcement Concerning Library Records and User Information.”4

1 Privacy and Confidentiality Q&A,” Intellectual Freedom Committee’s Privacy Subcommittee, last revised July 29, 2019.

2Recording Police Officers and Public Officials,” Digital Media Law Project.

3 Deborah Caldwell-Stone, “Auditing the First Amendment at Your Public Library,” Intellectual Freedom Blog, October 2, 2019.

4 “Issue at a Glance: Visits and Requests from Law Enforcement Concerning Library Records and User Information,” in Intellectual Freedom Manual, 9th ed. (Chicago: ALA Editions, 2015).

Approved by the Intellectual Freedom Committee on June 8, 2020.