By Sarah GriffisImage

Patrons’ rights to confidentiality of their library use data have long been upheld by the American Library Association. However, as digital and online resources continue to entice librarians to build finding tools, more and more libraries are utilizing information generated by patrons to enhance their collections and bring efficiency to the pursuit of knowledge. While the goal to connect and describe information is incredibly valuable, there is a palpable fear in the profession of going beyond the intended goal and instead creating pathways that hint at specific users’ library trails.

Librarians’ concern about how emerging digital reliance affects privacy has been considered for over a decade, and librarians tend to be on the cutting edge of these topics. In 2001, cookies were already on the mind of Kim Guenther, who wrote that there is a need for libraries to develop privacy policies regarding digital media use, both to ensure the safety of patrons’ privacy and to inform patrons of what sort of data is collected and maintained by the library.

Different libraries face varying concerns related to the privacy of their patrons. School libraries are frequently confronted with conflicts pitting privacy rights against minors’ rights. Helen R. Adams discusses the efforts of school administrators, parents and teachers to access students’ borrowing records. She further analyzes the situation of state laws on the matter, as of April 2011. Since the Patriot Act was passed, public libraries have been assailed for patron use data by no less a frightening ghoul than the FBI, but in 2006 the ACLU aided a Connecticut library consortium in its battle to prevent having to turn over all of the browsing data and use records linked to a specific computer.

Librarians care deeply about the sanctity of patrons’ uninhibited access to knowledge and information at the same time as they seek to enhance access points to the enormous pile of available information. Last week, Marc Parry at The Chronicle of Higher Education sat down with librarians at Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab to gain their insight on the compatibility of digital media, libraries and user privacy rights. An experiment with Twitter where checked out book titles were tweeted with links to the library catalog page has recently underscored the importance of privacy to patrons. Even when no express identifying information was disseminated and the titles were tweeted in a randomized order, the concern that there was a possibility of connecting the titles to patrons shelved the project. Parry mentions several other software that incorporate user generated reviews or statistics and are currently in use at many types of libraries across the nation. Growth in applicability and popularity of these products increases the urgency of defining what is and is not confidential patron data.

California has taken an active role in legislating on the behalf of its population what sort of privacy is expected in a digital venue. Ariel Bogle of the independent publisher Mellville House celebrates the Reader Privacy Act passed in California in January of this year. The law attempts to extend rights enjoyed by library patrons to e-books, but it is unclear what big teeth the act may have, especially when pitted against the Patriot Act. 

Photo used without permission from flickr user Paul Lowry via CC license BY 2.0.