A parent comes to the library circulation desk and requests their child’s borrowing history. They say they want to make sure the child, who is “confused” about their gender, is not borrowing any “dirty” books. What do you do?
This is one of the scenarios library workers were asked to ponder during “Upholding Trans Patron Privacy and Information Access,” presented January 21 at the American Library Association’s 2024 LibLearnX conference in Baltimore.
Privacy is “not just a service aspect,” said Glen J. Benedict, access services librarian at the University of the District of Colombia in Washington, D.C. “It’s about upholding the right to seek information freely and confidentially, which is a key pillar of intellectual freedom.”
With an increase in anti-transgender legislation, and book challenges and bans that disproportionately affect LGBTQIA+ authors and stories in recent years, certain library data could be harmful to trans people if it ends up in the wrong hands, said Mel Baldwin, adult services librarian at Granville County (N.C.) Library System.
Baldwin addressed several privacy needs for trans and gender-diverse community members and how libraries can support them. Baldwin recommended updating policies so that patrons don’t have to disclose their dead name—the birth name of a trans person who has since changed their name—when registering for a library card. If those names must be recorded per library policy, institutions could allow them to be logged secondary to, and separate from, preferred names.
“It’s really scary for a trans person to have to give a document to someone that obviously outs them as trans,” Baldwin said. “Their dead name can lead to harassment, from teasing to physical harm from other patrons or even staff.”
Baldwin also suggested that library workers don’t ask for sex assigned at birth for library cards or, if the library requires it, add a nonbinary or “prefer not to disclose” option.
To protect checkout history, Baldwin recommends setting up the library’s management systems to erase staff-side borrowing records for items after they’ve been returned, only making them visible to patrons. For those questioning their gender identity, outside access to this information might out them sooner than they planned, which could jeopardize their safety if they’re not in a supportive environment.
“Most people probably don’t want their checkout history public,” Baldwin said. “Maybe you like sappy romances or very bloody mysteries, but you might just not want the whole world to know about it. But it’s a lot different if you’re a trans person who isn’t out to anyone, especially family, and you’re reading books like How to Tell if I’m Trans or Exploring Gender 101. Anyone having access to your checkout history could be harmful or even life-threatening.”
More generally, Benedict also invited attendees to consider three areas when thinking about patron privacy:
- Data collection: What is being collected and why?
- Data distribution: Who has access?
- Services: Do patrons have private spaces to read? Are there only gendered bathrooms?
“Consider these principles and challenges,” Benedict said. “They are crucial when developing strategies to safeguard the privacy of all of our patrons, especially those from vulnerable communities.”