Library users’ trust in librarians to protect their privacy

Trust has to be earnt. It can’t be taken for granted. And earning that trust is a continuous process.

Librarianship is one of the few professions which covers privacy in their codes of ethics.

When thinking about privacy, it is almost as though the relationship between a librarian and his or her user is considered in the same way that people think of the relationship between a doctor and his or her patient or a priest and a penitent.

It is worth thinking about what, if anything, we do to earn the trust of library users. Do we demonstrate professionalism in the way we operate. When someone joins the library do we tell users that we are governed by a code of ethics. When we are collecting their personal data as part of the process of them getting a library card (such as date of birth), do we point them towards, or give them a copy, of the library’s privacy policy. If we were asked what protections we have in place to keep their PII secure, would we have an answer (such as being able to say that we undertaken network penetration testing).

From the literature, here are a selection of quotations which cover aspects of trust:

“with a significant number of government and commercial services moving online, patrons are increasingly coming to libraries to get assistance with applying for passports, accessing digital banking services and making online payments. It was commented that while this demonstrates the high level of trust the public place on library staff, the migration of services online is exposing vulnerable sections of society to greater risk as they are increasingly disposed to disclose personal information to strangers” (International Federation of Library Associations, 2016)

“If you knew you could trust someone just by looking at them, you wouldn’t need to trust them. Ridiculous as it sounds, you can trust people only because you can mistrust them” (Cohen, 2013)

“In practical terms, much of the relationship between a library and its patrons is based on trust, and, in a free society, a library user should be secure in trusting us not to reveal and not to cause to be revealed which resources are being used and by whom” (Gorman, 2015)

(Dettlaff, 2007) poses the question of why librarians should protect user privacy when they seem as though they couldn’t care less about their privacy. She answers her own question by saying it is a matter of professional ethics, and also because it establishes a level of trust between the user and the library staff.

(Sturges, Davies et al. 2003) surveyed library users and found a low level of concern regarding trust in the library as a respecter of privacy. When users did have privacy concerns they were about commercial intrusion (61%) rather than from official bodies (33%). Users were certainly not concerned about threats to privacy whilst using the library, 89% expressing no, or little, concern

(Sutlieff and Chelin, 2010) studied library patron’s perceptions of trust in the library and its ability to keep personal information private. This was helped by having a clear policy on the confidentiality of library records and the privacy of information.

Libraries represent a trusted resource, and they should avoid lending their credibility to institutions that fail to uphold similar ethical values (Fernandez, 2009)

Surprisingly, the library literature reveals no in-depth examination of the privacy policies of vendors of library online resources. …If librarians continue to assure users that their library searches and research interests are confidential but know nothing about the privacy policies of the vendors who provide the databases offered by the library, librarians risk betraying their users’ trust (Magi, 2010)

(Adams, 2000) in her research on the use of privacy in regard to multimedia technologies, makes a point that is extensible to all information access about how “the relationship between organisational control and trust affects users’ privacy. Trust is undermined if users are not allowed to judge trade-offs for themselves or feel part of the proposed solution. Ultimately privacy, as with trust, is reliant on our perception of it”


Adams, A. (2000) ‘Multimedia information changes the whole privacy ballgame’, ACM, pp. 25.

Cohen, J. (2013) The private life : why we remain in the dark. Granta Publications.

Dettlaff, C. (2007) ‘Protecting user privacy in the library’, Community & Junior College Libraries, 13 (4), pp.7-8.

Fernandez, P. (2009) ‘Online social networking sites and privacy: revisiting ethical considerations for a new generation of technology’, Library Philosophy and Practice, .

Gorman, M. (2015) Our enduring values revisited: librarianship in an ever-changing world. Chicago: ALA Editions, an imprint of the American Library Association.

Gorman, M. (2000) Our enduring values: librarianship in the 21st century. Chicago; London: American Library Association.

International Federation of Library Associations (2016) ‘IFLA trends update’, .

Magi, T.J. (2010) ‘A content analysis of library vendor privacy policies: Do they meet our standards?’, College & Research Libraries, 71 (3), pp.254-272.

Sutlieff, L. and Chelin, J. (2010) ‘`An absolute prerequisite’: The importance of user privacy and trust in maintaining academic freedom at the library’, Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 42 (3), pp.163-177.