A Library Privacy Primer

Where to begin the discussion

June 24, 2019

A timeline of challenges to library privacy by governments

Privacy is an increasingly fraught topic for librarians—public, academic, or otherwise—to handle. While many great intellectual freedom resources are available, many librarians don’t know where to begin the discussion on privacy, pointed out Nancy Greco, who is instruction and archives librarian at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York.

With her colleague Kathleen Ross, head of technical services at St. John Fisher College’s Lavery Library, Greco presented “Library Confidentiality: Your Privacy is Our Business,” a comprehensive primer on privacy and libraries, at the American Library Association’s 2019 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Washington, D.C.

In the first of many audience engagement moments, Ross and Greco used Padlet, a website that attendees could visit via their phones or laptops to submit their own privacy concerns. After reviewing a sample of those concerns, Ross and Greco noted that there are some differences between privacy and confidentiality. In their words, privacy is the right to open inquiry without the subject of one’s interest subject to scrutiny or disclosure, whereas confidentiality consists of having possession of someone’s personal information and keeping it private.

In their view, the confusion originates because there is no right to privacy under the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. This statement tends to surprise people. As it happens, the right to privacy originates from the Supreme Court’s 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision. In that decision, the majority agreed that privacy originates from the penumbras (or zones) in the Bill of Rights. Together, the First, Third, Fourth, and Ninth Amendments create the right to privacy. Other justices have argued that it originates from the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The right to privacy was reinforced by former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Stanley v. Georgia, in which he wrote: “If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a state has no business telling a man sitting along in his own house which books he may read or what films he may watch.”

Librarians should also be aware of federal laws around privacy, such as the Privacy Act of 1974, which gives citizens “the right to see records about oneself and the right to request amendment of records that are not accurate, complete, relevant, timely or complete,” as well as laws like FERPA, HIPPA, COPPA and others. The authors provided a reference to the Center for Democracy and Technology for clarification.

Finally, there are state laws, such as the New York Personal Privacy Protection law, which protects library records from examination. The ALA itself has a resource on individual states. The code of ethics of the American Library Association declares that librarians should protect all personally identifying information—that is, any information about an individual used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity—that is in their possession.

Greco and Ross presented several scenarios and asked audience members to discuss how they could incorporate privacy into our own libraries and practices. Those scenarios included an angry parent asking about their child, as well as a well-meaning teacher who wanted to pay library fines.


Amy Tureen (left, seated) and Amanda Melilli (right, standing at podium).

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Pauletta Bracy (second from left) gets a standing ovation as she receives the Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement during the Coretta Scott King Book Awards 50th Anniversary Breakfast.

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