No Minor Concern

Privacy experts clarify the rights of minors in the library

June 25, 2019

Former school librarian Helen Adams recalled the rise in surveillance technology in schools after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School.
Former school librarian Helen Adams recalled the rise in surveillance technology in schools after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School.

As one of the core values of the profession, privacy is a perennial topic of discourse at ALA conferences. A June 23 session at this year’s annual conference focused specifically on the rights of students and minors using libraries, highlighting the constitutional rights of all users and the specific challenges that emerge when minors enter the equation.

“Ensuring library users’ confidentiality frees them from fear of retaliation or intimidation as a result of reading a book, visiting a website, or consulting other library resources,” said Candice Mack, senior YA services librarian with the Los Angeles Public Library system. “This is regardless of age.”

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, interim director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and Freedom to Read Foundation and a former attorney, urged librarians who work with minors to research their local library confidentiality statutes, which vary by state. She also reviewed existing laws that come into play:

  • California’s Student Online Personal Information Protection Act (SOPIPA) was the first student privacy law enacted in the US, Caldwell-Stone said, and now all 50 states have some version of it on the books.
  • The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which applies to K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities, was designed to protect the privacy of student education records and give parents certain rights to their children’s records until the student turns 18.
  • The Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) imposes certain requirements on operators of commercial websites that direct services toward or collect personal information from children under 13 years of age. Libraries and other public or nonprofit agencies were not subject to COPPA, as written, but a 2012 amendment expands its scope. “As an ethical matter, we recommend libraries strive to comply with the provisions of COPPA, that you seek to notify the user what data you’re collecting from them,” Caldwell-Stone said.

Helen Adams, a former school librarian in Wisconsin and an online lecturer with Antioch University in Seattle, described students’ traditional expectation of freedom to read and research without scrutiny, that topics remain private, and that school librarians would protect confidentiality of records.

“It’s becoming harder and harder for us to meet these expectations, and it’s not because we as school as librarians have changed, but the amount of technology being employed in schools changes the whole picture,” Adams said. She pointed to the rise in school shootings in recent decades and the related shift toward surveillance cameras; the threat they pose to student privacy grows as facial recognition technology and machine learning grow more sophisticated.

Adams shared examples of the ways school policies and systems alternately protect and compromise students’ confidentiality, often unintentionally. Often, the issue is a lack of training around privacy laws among library workers and volunteers. She recommended two remedies that helped the Kent (Washington) School District protect students’ privacy: “They realized they needed privacy training for library assistants, and also they needed a document that would go district-wide to set up privacy guidelines and expectations for students using the library,” which was eventually written into the student/parent handbook.

For more information, explore the Office for Intellectual Freedom’s guidelines and checklists for student privacy.


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