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Libraries and Online Privacy

An Educational Service of the American Library Association 
Office for Information Technology Policy

Prepared by Leslie Harris & Associates
American libraries are cornerstones of our communities, and the free access to books, information, and resources that they provide is essential to the exercise of societal values such as free speech, free thought, free expression, and free association. The right to privacy in a library setting - the right to open inquiry on any subject without outside examination or scrutiny - is at the heart of these values.

Over the past fifteen years, libraries have increased their online services to patrons.  Today, approximately ninety-five percent of public libraries provide public access to the Internet.  Indeed, libraries are the number one point of online access for people without Internet connections at home, school, or work.  Additionally, many libraries provide patrons with the ability to reserve materials and renew books online.  Some academic libraries are exploring ways to provide students with online access to reserve materials and there are several successful virtual reference offerings through both public and academic libraries.  Even if your library is not providing cutting-edge services, there are still new issues to consider regarding patron privacy. 

Considering both the traditional role of libraries and the new digital services they offer, we can group privacy concerns into three general areas: 1) protecting libraries records; 2) making patrons aware of records that others can create based on their interactions while on library computers or networks; and 3) requiring vendor partners to adhere to an appropriate level of privacy protection.  

With increased record keeping capabilities and more frequent online transactions involving personal information, the potential for privacy abuse has grown, and new challenges to privacy are increasing.  Understanding the history of the right to privacy, the nature of privacy violations in a library setting, and their legal and ethical obligations will help librarians to effectively safeguard patron privacy.  
Further information:

ALA's Privacy Resources Page: 

Examples of Available Online Library Services:

Brooklyn Public Library's Online Book Club:

University of Texas Library Online Services:
Copyright 2002, American Library Association, Office for 
Information Technology Policy

This Online Privacy Tutorial is a service of the American Library Association. The content of this tutorial is primarily the work of Leslie Harris & Associates in Washington, DC. The views expressed in these messages are not necessarily the views of ALA or Leslie Harris & Associates. This tutorial is for information only and will not necessarily provide answers to concerns that arise in any particular situation. This service is not legal advice and does not include many of the technical details arising under certain laws. If you are seeking legal advice to address specific privacy issues, you should consult an attorney licensed to practice in your state.