All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use.1 When users recognize or fear that their privacy or confidentiality is compromised, true freedom of inquiry no longer exists.
Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association. Federal and state courts have established a First Amendment right to receive information in a publicly funded library.2 Further, the courts have upheld the right to privacy based on the U.S. Constitution. Many states provide guarantees of privacy in their constitutions and statute law.3 Numerous decisions in U.S. case law have defined and extended rights to privacy to all.4
The right to privacy includes the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others, in person or online. Confidentiality exists when a library is in possession of personally identifiable information about its users and keeps that information private on their behalf.5 Article III of the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association states that confidentiality extends to “information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted,” including, but not limited to, reference questions and interviews, circulation records, digital transactions and queries, as well as records regarding the use of library resources, services, programs, or facilities.
Protecting user privacy and confidentiality has long been an integral part of the mission of libraries. The American Library Association has affirmed a right to privacy since 1939.6 Existing ALA policies affirm that confidentiality is crucial to freedom of inquiry. Rights to privacy and confidentiality are explicit in Article VII of the Library Bill of Rights and implicit in its guarantee of free access to library resources for all users.
Rights of Library Users
Lack of privacy and confidentiality has a chilling effect on users' selection, access to, and use of library resources. All users have a right to be free from any unreasonable intrusion into or surveillance of their lawful library use. ALA and its members recognize that children and youth have the same rights to privacy as adults. Library users expect, and in many places have, a legal right to have their personally identifiable information and library-use data protected and kept private and confidential by anyone with access to that information. Libraries should never enact policies or practices that abridge users’ right to privacy regardless of their age, ability, housing status, immigration status, involvement with the criminal justice system, religious affiliation, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other forms of identity or status unless explicitly required by law. Even then, libraries should consult with legal counsel before abridging any user’s right to privacy.
Libraries have a responsibility to inform users about policies and practices governing the collection, security, and retention of personally identifiable information and library use data. Additionally, users should have the choice to opt-in to any data collection that is not essential to library operations and the opportunity to opt-out again at any future time. All nonessential data collection should be turned off by default. In all areas of librarianship, best practice leaves users in control of as many choices as possible regarding their privacy. This includes decisions about the selection of, access to, and use of information. Information about options available to users should be prominently displayed, accessible, and understandable for a general audience.
Responsibilities in Libraries
The National Information Standards Organization (NISO) Consensus Principles on Users’ Digital Privacy in Library, Publisher, and Software-Provider Systems recognizes that
[t]he effective management and delivery of library services may require the library user to opt into the provision of personal data in order to access a library resource or receive library services. Users’ personal data should only be used for purposes disclosed to them and to which they consent.7
Libraries should not monitor, track, or profile an individual’s library use beyond operational needs. Data collected for analytical use should be limited to anonymous or aggregated data and not tied to individuals’ personal data. Emerging biometric technologies, such as facial recognition, are inconsistent with the mission of facilitating access to library resources free from any unreasonable intrusion or surveillance.
Regardless of the technology used, everyone who collects or accesses personally identifiable information in any format has a legal and ethical obligation to protect confidentiality. Library security practices to safeguard personal information should be up to date and in compliance with state and national standards. Adherence to NISO Consensus Principles on Users’ Digital Privacy in Library, Publisher, and Software-Provider Systems requires that these practices include:
encryption of personal data while they are at-rest and in-motion; prompt updates of systems and software to address vulnerabilities; systems, procedures, and policies for access control of sensitive data; a procedure for security training for those with access to data; and documented procedures for breach reporting, incident response, and system, software, and network security configuration and auditing.8
Libraries should follow purpose-limitation, storage-limitation, and data-minimization principles9 when making decisions about collecting and retaining library-use data. In particular, libraries should collect and store only personally identifiable data required for specific purposes that are disclosed to the users.
Libraries should periodically review their data-collection and retention policies to identify situations in which the reason for collecting user data may no longer apply. Libraries may need to comply with state, institutional, or other governmental record-retention policy in addition to developing their own data-management policies. In addition, libraries should regularly review and update procedures for collecting and maintaining user data to ensure compliance with current industry privacy and security standards.
Law enforcement agencies and officers may request library records and data that they believe contain information that would be helpful to the investigation of criminal activity. Libraries should have a procedure in place for handling law-enforcement requests. Libraries should make such records available only in response to properly executed court orders or legal process. These court orders are issued following a showing of good cause based on specific facts by a court of competent jurisdiction.
The American Library Association affirms that rights of privacy are necessary for intellectual freedom and are fundamental to the ethical practice of librarianship. The rapid pace of information collection and changes in technology means that users’ personally identifiable information and library-use data are at increased risk of exposure. The use of new technologies in libraries that rely on the collection, use, sharing, monitoring and/or tracking of user data
may come into direct conflict with the Library Bill of Rights and librarians’ ethical responsibilities. Libraries should consider privacy in the design and delivery of all programs and services, paying careful attention to their own policies and procedures and that of any vendors with whom they work. Privacy is the foundation upon which our libraries were built and the reason libraries are such a trusted part of every community.
1 Article VII, Library Bill of Rights
2 Court opinions establishing a right to receive information in a public library include Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982); Kreimer v. Bureau of Police for the Town of Morristown, 958 F.2d 1242 (3d Cir. 1992); and Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 117 S.Ct. 2329, 138 L.Ed.2d 874 (1997).
3 Ten state constitutions guarantee a right of privacy or bar unreasonable intrusions into citizens’ privacy. Forty-eight states protect the confidentiality of library users’ records by law, and the attorneys general in the remaining two states have issued opinions recognizing the privacy of users’ library records. See: State Privacy Laws Regarding Library Records.
4 Cases recognizing a right to privacy include: NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1958); Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965); Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301 (1965); Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967); and Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969).
5 The phrase “personally identifiable information” was adopted by the ALA in 1991. See: “ALA Policy Concerning Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information about Library Users.”
6 Article XI of the Code of Ethics for Librarians (1939) asserted that “it is the librarian’s obligation to treat as confidential any private information obtained through contact with library patrons.” Article III of the current Code of Ethics of the American Library Association (2008) states: “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.”
7 National Information Standards Organization, "NISO Consensus Principles on User’s Digital Privacy in Library, Publisher, and Software-Provider Systems (NISO Privacy Principles), Principle 4, Data Collection and Use" (Baltimore: National Information Standards Organization, December 10, 2015).
9 These principles, drawn from the European Union "General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)" (2016) and reflected in other fair privacy practice principles such as the "NISO Privacy Principles" (Baltimore: National Information Standards Organization, 2015) and "Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data" (Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013), provide sound guidelines for libraries to follow in their data-privacy practices. Libraries in the United States are generally not subject to the GDPR but should consult with legal counsel to determine whether GDPR applies.
Adopted June 19, 2002, by the ALA Council; amended July 1, 2014; and June 24, 2019.