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| pri·va·cy 1 a : the quality or state of being apart from company or observation : SECLUSION b : freedom from unauthorized intrusion 2 archaic : a place of seclusion 3 a : SECRECY b : a private matter : SECRET Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary


“For libraries to flourish as centers for uninhibited access to information, librarians must stand behind their users' right to privacy and freedom of inquiry.” (American Library Association [ALA] , 2005)


An individual’s right to privacy in thought, expression and association is considered essential to establishing a truly democratic society. While the U.S. Constitution does not implicitly include the word “privacy”, the Supreme Court has historically interpreted such protections in the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments (Bielefield, 1995). Yet, there has been an ongoing struggle to balance the privacy required to protect an individual’s intellectual freedom with the perceived social good. Libraries advocate on behalf of individual's rights in this debate.


Professional Standards of Privacy in Librarianship

Although the librarian-user relationship does not have the same legal protections as certain other professions such as lawyer-client, doctor-patient or priest-confessor, American Library Association (ALA) has developed professional standards and goals to guide librarians.


ALA first articulated the importance of library user privacy in its Code of Ethics: "We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted." (ALA, 1939, revised 1995)


In 1948, the ALA confirmed its stance in its library bill of rights: "The right to privacy in a library is implicit in ALA's Library Bill of Rights, which guarantees free access to library resources for all users and opposes any limitations on the right to an individual's exercise of free expression."(ALA, 1948, amended 1961, 1980, reaffirmed 1996)


The ALA’s Core Values of Librarianship further elaborates the importance of privacy: “Protecting user privacy and confidentiality is necessary for intellectual freedom and fundamental to the ethics and practice of librarianship.”(ALA, 2004)


Despite the ALA’s aspirations, governmental and other agencies have periodically used grand jury subpoenas to access library circulation records deemed relevant to criminal investigations. The government frequently points to two highly publicized cases to justify their conduct. Library circulation records were used in the searches for both the “Unabomber and the “Zodiac Killer,” although the information obtained did not break the case in either instance.


In 2001, the U.S. Congress passed the Patriot Act. Designed to give governmental agencies more power to uncover terrorist threats, the Act’s passage concerns many civil liberties advocates including the ALA. In particular, the “Access to Records” provision potentially further endangers the confidentially of borrower’s records by relaxing the legal procedures required for requests. A subsequent revision of the Act did not alleviate this concern. The ALA has taken an active role both in advising libraries how to create policies designed to protect their users and in educating the public about the privacy implications.


Listen to librarians speak about privacy issues on National Public Radio:


Privacy in Reference Transactions

In addition to safeguarding user information, libraries strive to create an atmosphere conducive to private research, reading or inquiries. In his seminal textbook on reference work, James Wyer notes, “The obvious comment is that if any provision is needed for reference work, it should furnish privacy and that such work requires minimal supervision.” (Wyer, 1930) Since many library reference inquiries take place in public spaces, preserving user privacy can be difficult. In some cases, it may simply depend on an observant reference librarian to make the inquirer comfortable. Commonsense advice may address the concern, “A patron is less likely to speak freely, especially when the need is personal or sensitive, when other library users can overhear the conversation. The librarian should think of ways to provide more privacy. Rearranging the furniture may to help solve the problem. To walk the patron to the catalog or stack area while discussing the need may help to provide privacy.” (Nichols, 1994)


Privacy in Digital Reference

Emerging technologies have enabled libraries to provide new types of user services, including virtual reference. This increasingly popular service offers convenience and other attractive features to both librarians and information seekers. However, it also raises substantial concerns related to privacy. A user may be less shy in asking for information about a sensitive topic when there is a perception that the librarian does not know who they are because transactions are not taking place face to face. In fact, this may be a false sense of security since these digital transactions often create a detailed picture of the user, through IP and e-mail addresses, request transcripts and other identifying aspects.


No uniform regulation currently exists regarding the type of information gathered or the length of time it is stored. Indeed, the type of software used to enable virtual reference and individual library policy can dramatically effect the actual, opposed to the perceived, level of privacy. As technology grows, libraries need to take a proactive role in upholding privacy rights both by educating users about technology’s implications on privacy and establishing and upholding strong internal policies to protect their users.




Abramson, L. (2003, January 21). All Things Considered: Librarians and Privacy. [Radio broadcast]. National Public Radio.


American Library Association. (2006). Privacy Toolkit. Retrieved November 10, 2006 from the World Wide Web:

  • A collection of resources for library professionals including topics such as “Guidelines for Developing a Library Privacy Policy,” “Privacy Procedures,” “Messages/Talking Points” and “Tips for Ensuring Privacy.”


Bieleield, A., & Cheeseman, L. (1995). Library Patrons and the Law. New York, London: Neil-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

  • Examines the constitutional basis of privacy and library applications.


Elliot, D. (2006, February 11). All Things Considered: Librarians Wary of Patriot Act’s Implications. [Radio broadcast]. National Public Radio.


Minow, M., & Lipinski, T. A.(2003). The Library’s Legal Answer Book. Chicago: American Library Association.

  • Discusses library user record confidentiality and other legal concerns.


Neuhaus, P. (2003). [|Privacy and Confidentiality in Digital Reference]. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 43,1 26-36.

  • Frames overall library privacy issues, specific concerns related to digital reference and software, ethical and legal matters and key recommendations for library policy.


Nasri, W. Z. (Ed.). (1987). Legal Issues for Library and Information Managers. New York, London: The Hawthorne Press.

  • Pre-Patriot Act article concerning the privacy of library records.


Neary, L. (2003, July 2). Talk of the Nation: Libraries. [Radio broadcast]. National Public Radio.


Nichols, M. I. (1994). Handbook of Reference Sources and Services for Small and Medium-Sized Libraries. Diane Publishing.


Reference and Users Services Association. (2006, September 5). Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Service. Retrieved November 10, 2006 from the World Wide Web:

  • Practical recommendations for libraries concerning virtual references service including privacy guidelines.


ALA on US PATRIOTact.pdf


Carolyn A. Schmitt

Fall 2006