Hot Topic – Library Related Privacy Concerns

The International Federation of Library Associations considers privacy to be a basic human right, based on statements from Article 19 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Office of Intellectual Freedom, 2010, pg 8). The United States Bill of Rights also upholds the right of citizens to privacy, and grants Americans access to publicly funded libraries. The American Library Association states that the right to privacy is “essential” to the right of free speech and free association, and created their Library Bill of Rights in response, saying: “The American Library Association affirms that rights of privacy are necessary for intellectual freedom and are fundamental to the ethics and practice of librarianship” (ALA, 2014). Therefore, privacy is seen as a core value of librarianship. For years, libraries have worked to educate patrons on privacy issues and to keep the information provided by patrons confidential. But rapidly changing technology is challenging libraries’ approach to privacy issues. Recent government policies, such as the Patriot Act, make the job of the library much more difficult when it comes to privacy and confidentiality. Libraries are having to change the conversation about privacy issues and work to reevaluate how to handle these issues within the library to ensure that the ethic of privacy is being appropriately upheld.

The ALA maintains that all library professionals have a responsibility to uphold privacy ethics and to facilitate free access to information. While providing access to information without censorship, libraries have upheld basic standards such as withholding patron information from third parties, not monitoring what materials patrons access, and not retaining any information collected in the course of regular patron use of resources (ALA, 2014). In the past, this has been relatively easy. Libraries have disposed of any personal information collected on patrons, such as check out histories and interlibrary loan requests. But with the advent of new technologies, like cloud sharing, this information is not so easily lost. And recent federal laws have made it even harder to deny government requests for information. Libraries continue to try to maintain control over personal information and actively work to resist government violations of privacy rights, but find themselves having to carefully balance lawful requests for information with more stringent, often unethical rights violations from government authorities (ALA, 2014). Federal agents often make this much more difficult by giving federal orders to librarians that tell them that they cannot share the information that the federal government is looking into personal information on patrons in libraries.

The emergence of the internet, Open Access and other communication technologies changes the traditional methods of libraries in regards to privacy issues and concerns. Resources that libraries have conventionally provided in print are now being offered online, and the field is at a crossroads for collecting and managing collections (Zimmer, 2013, pg 29). Web search engines, like Google, provide instant access to millions of information sources, allowing patrons unprecedented access to unfiltered, unverified data. Libraries are having to integrate this new electronic environment into their traditional services, and to approach these platforms as widely accepted sources for their users. But this brings up new questions for library ethics, especially in regards to privacy issues. In the past, intellectual activities have been protected by standards in the library field. But now, unlike in the past, to harness these new resources, libraries have to “capture and retain personal information” in order to “create user profiles, engage in activities that divulge personal interests and intellectual activities, be subject to tracking and logging of library activities, and risk having various activities and personal details linked to their library patron account” (Zimmer, 2013, pg 31). And unfortunately, due to excitement over new possibilities for access, privacy concerns are often being compromised by libraries enthusiastic over new digital possibilities (Zimmer, 2013, pg 36). The lack of clear guidelines that address developments in the new technological age creates a policy vacuum that libraries must consider going forward to further their goal to uphold patron privacy.

The difficulty comes from patron privacy being seen as a “facet” of intellectual freedom. In his article on privacy concerns and electronic resources in libraries, Alan Rubel says: “While electronic resource use, coupled with policies regarding that use, may diminish patron privacy, thereby diminishing intellectual freedom, the opportunities created by such resources also appear liberty enhancing. Any attempt to adjudicate between privacy loss and enhanced opportunities on intellectual freedom grounds must therefore provide an account of intellectual freedom capable of addressing both privacy and opportunity” (Rubel, 2014, pg 184). Vendors of electronic resources provide customized services for patrons, which in turn allows vendors to collect much more personal information on patrons and their usage of resources than ever before. While patrons receive a better product and service, they give up personal information without the ability to control how that information is used. Vendor privacy policies are not usually on par with that of library privacy policies, and vendor ethics do not line up with the ethics of libraries (Rubel, 2014, pg 185). Libraries have to walk a narrow line between service and ethics that is becoming harder and harder to navigate as time goes by. Licensing contracts often require libraries to monitor usage and provide those statistics to vendors. While this information can be used innocently to keep track of what resources are actually needed, it can also be used to track personal usage without patrons ever being aware that this information is being shared.

In their article on the paradox of privacy, Campbell and Cowan state that “Privacy, then, exists at the juncture between the user and the information used. Free and untrammeled exploration of the library’s information resources can only take place if users are free from showing others what they are reading and having to explain why and users need not fear that the information they use will enable others to identify them” (Campbell and Cowen, 2016, pg 493). Technology has the ability to create both positive and negative opportunities for privacy, and Campbell and Cowan point out that the exploitation of personal information can exist without patrons knowing that it is happening. In order to ensure that the true library ethic of privacy is attained in this new world, libraries have to continue to acknowledge the right to privacy, no matter what excuse or rationale is given.

Campbell and Cowan examine the experience of LGBTQ library patrons who use the library as safe space to locate information about their gender and sexual identities. While the library should provide a private place to research this type of information, if that privacy is given up for technological advances, these users could be “outed” and harmed unintentionally. The library assists these users to “identify information [which] requires the gradual evolution of an ability to modulate and control one’s own revelations” (Campbell and Cowan, 2016, pg 501). The library has created an image of itself as a safe space for these individuals to come and do research for themselves, but this can easily change if the library is not mindful of the type of personal data that it is giving out to third parties. Staff need to be trained in how to handle these privacy issues and concerns, and libraries need to be mindful of the electronic infrastructure that we are creating and using to ensure that traditional ideas of privacy can be maintained in a very new technological environment.

Social media is another resource that needs to be examined. While budgets are being cut, social media is a very good way for libraries to advertise services and continue to bring patrons through the doors. Social media allows for multiple opportunities for exposure and advertisement. But social media is a tool for Big Data Analytics to turn users into resources for information. By tagging users, or following a page, patrons give up information about themselves that they aren’t even aware that they are sharing (Campbell and Cowan, 2016, pg. 503). As libraries, we have a responsibility to monitor these privacy issues and to police ourselves to make sure our patrons are aware of the risks, as well as the rewards, of using these types of resources.

Because of a constantly changing digital environment, privacy is an ever evolving concern, and libraries need to be constantly mindful of how we are handling this concern. One way to stay on top of privacy assurance in the twenty-first century is to keep doing what we are already doing, only do it a little better: “The ALA’s Core Value of Privacy rests on an assumption that continues to be valid: namely, that by exercising up-to-date collection management and accurate and effective bibliographic control, we empower users to locate information with a minimum of interference” (Campbell and Cowan, 2016, pg 505). In the future it will be necessary to continue to be mindful of the effects of technology on privacy issues and to be willing to be flexible in how we tackle the use of these technologies. There is no one right answer to the question of how to fully maintain an ethical policy in regards to privacy, but libraries must not overlook privacy in their excitement over new and better technological products. Privacy as a core library value has not diminished: in some ways, it has only become more necessary than ever before.



ALA Council. (amended 2014, July 1). An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. Retrieved

July 1, 2016, from

Campbell, D. G., & Cowan, S. R. (2016). The Paradox of Privacy: Revisiting a Core Library

Value in an Age of Big Data and Linked Data. Library Trends, 64(3), 492-511.

Office of Intellectual Freedom. (2010). Privacy and Freedom of Information in 21st-Century

Libraries. Chicago, Ill: American Library Association.

Rubel, A. (2014). Libraries, Electronic Resources, and Privacy: The Case for Positive

Intellectual  Freedom. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 84(2),

183-208. doi:10.1086/675331

Zimmer, M. (2013). Assessing the Treatment of Patron Privacy in Library 2.0 Literature.

Information Technology and Libraries (Online), 32(2), 29-41.