Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Should There Be an Expectation of Privacy in the Library?

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Should There Be an Expectation of Privacy in the Library?

Article excerpt

Whether by happy circumstance or as proof of the timeliness and importance of this issue's theme, discussions of the issue of privacy (or, more accurately, breaches of privacy), were prominent in the news as I was working on this column. I am sure that everyone has heard that Paris Hilton's electronic address book was hacked and that the CEO of the Boeing Co. was forced to resign when private e-mail about an affair became very public.


Despite the media attention given to these two events (not to mention the constant warnings to Internet users about phishing scams and other schemes designed to steal their personal information), patrons who use the public computers in libraries seem totally unconcerned about protecting their personal information. I have seen patrons walk away from computer screens that displayed their banking records or credit card information. Printouts of e-mail of a very personal nature are routinely found in the public printers at closing time.

Perhaps part of the reason that patrons seem so unconcerned about protecting their privacy is that we have become used to having information collected about us and our habits. My Giant Eagle Advantage card allows me to save money on my groceries and gasoline, but it also records my purchases so advertising on products that appear to fit my preferences can be directed to me. This seems innocuous enough, albeit annoying, but then again I'm not sure I really want someone to know just how much sugar I use. Despite this nagging concern, I'm still using my Advantage card and trusting that this information won't be disseminated to my disadvantage.

We librarians have long felt it was our responsibility to protect the privacy of our patrons; we have revealed information about patrons' borrowing histories only when compelled to do so by law. After the events of 9/11 and the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, however, many laws regarding privacy have changed. Librarians have had to learn how these changes affect their responsibilities to protect patron privacy while still obeying the law.

Some may feel that the librarian's traditional concern about patrons' privacy is unwarranted. If the patrons do not seem concerned about protecting their privacy, why should we worry about it, especially in these times that seem so dangerous? This concern may even seem patronizing, as if librarians are telling their visitors that they don't know how to take care of themselves, and so the librarians, who know best, will watch out for them. Yet for others, who also care deeply about protecting our freedom, the concern about privacy cannot be discarded easily. The debate is ongoing. With the PATRIOT Act due to expire and with the emergence of new technologies that offer increased abilities to track borrowed materials, it is important for us to understand the issues and the effects that the outcomes of the debate may have on our profession.

Privacy Laws Affect Us

There is no shortage of online information on this subject. A search of Google Directory found an entire category of resources on the PATRIOT Act and libraries. This listing of 54 resources comprises examinations of the legislation, annotated bibliographies, advice on library signage, and editorial pieces.

Because the privacy issue is so important to librarianship, our professional organizations have developed resources that we can consult. The Web site for ALA's Washington Office has a section called Civil Liberties, Intellectual Freedom, and Privacy. It includes information on the PATRIOT Act and libraries as well as information on and legislation related to privacy. The privacy section features a discussion of the Data-Mining Reporting Act of 2004 and links to additional resources. Privacy-related legislation is on a separate page with links to more information, including ALA's official position on the REAL ID Act of 2005, the Freedom to Read Protection Act, the Faster FOIA Act, the Restore FOIA Act, and the OPEN Government Act. …

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