Text of my @cilipinwales talk on privacy in libraries

Privacy in libraries (keynote talk given by Paul Pedley at CILIP in Wales

Llandudno conference on 12th May 2017



  • Privacy as a core value of librarians
  • Some quotations about librarians, libraries and privacy
  • Ways in which privacy impacts upon the work of librarians
  • Role of libraries and librarians regarding privacy

Privacy as a core value of librarians

Privacy is one of the most commonly featured values in the codes of ethics of library associations around the world. Indeed (Lamdan 2015) says that librarianship is one of the only professions that explicitly expresses privacy rights in its codes of ethics. (Shachaf 2005) undertook a study involving a comparative content analysis of the English versions of codes of ethics from the professional associations in 28 countries. The study yielded an empirically grounded typology of principles arranged in twenty categories. The most frequently identified principles were professional development, integrity, confidentiality or privacy, and free and equal access to information.


In 2000 Michael Gorman published a book “Our enduring values” (Gorman 2000), in which he lists the values that characterise and shape the work of librarians:

Gorman’s eight core values

  1. Stewardship
  2. Service
  3. Intellectual freedom
  4. Rationalism
  5. Literacy & Learning
  6. Equity of access
  7. Privacy
    1. ensuring the confidentiality of records of library use
    2. overcoming technological invasions of library use
  8. Democracy

Thinking of the point “overcoming technological invasions of library use”, that seems to get harder and harder with every day that passes. As Gorman says “Even in many democratic countries, the twin threats of an empowered surveillance state and a big technology assault on privacy make the defense of intellectual freedom harder than it was in previous generations” (Gorman 2015)


“We keep talking about how libraries are heralds of privacy, but we are terrible at it” TJ Lamana @TheNewLibrarian, Tweeted 26 June 2016 https://twitter.com/thenewlibrarian/status/747116391505879040

Librarians have done a good job of protecting privacy in the print world, but in the online world they are somewhat lacking (not an exact quote, but my transcription from a webinar) (Caldwell-Stone, Robinson et al. 2016)

Hugh Rundle says “librarians talk good talk about user privacy but continue to use (and build) software that provides no protection from snooping librarians, contractors or police” and the reason he gives is that “librarians have tended to prioritise functions that make our lives easier rather than those that make library users’ lives easier” (Rundle 2016)

“teaching patrons how to use the internet, but not how to use it safely is like showing someone how to drive a car, but not where the seatbelt is” (Beckstrom 2015)

“Librarians have a professional responsibility to protect the right to access information free from surveillance”  (Fortier, Burkell 2015)

“Library manners demands respecting the privacy of others” (Covington 2013)

“Privacy is a cornerstone of our professional ethics. …We have an obligation to protect the privacy of our users as a matter of principle.” (Woodward 2007)(p. xii)

(Garoogian 1991) “Librarians are in a very powerful position since they have direct access to the private reading and subject interests of their users. They have been entrusted with this power. It is therefore their moral obligation to keep this information confidential”.

Ways in which privacy impacts upon the work of libraries

Self-service holds

Libraries offer “click and collect” services whereby users can browse through the library catalogue from the comfort of their own homes, select the item(s) that they would like to read watch or listen to, specify which library they would like to specify as the pickup location, and then visit that library at a convenient time to collect the item(s) once they have been notified that it is ready for collection.

As part of this “click and collect” facility, many public and academic libraries place the items awaiting collection in a public area of the library so that the library user can pick up the item without needing any library staff intervention. But the procedures vary from one library to another. Just as library practices vary, so too does the extent to which their actions encroach upon the privacy of library users:

LIBRARY 1:  Items that have been placed on hold are available on a set of open shelves housed on a standalone shelving display unit. All of the books that have been requested are individually wrapped in a sheet of A4 paper upon which are written the first three letters of the user’s surname, plus the last four digits of their library membership card.

LIBRARY 2: Items that have been placed on hold are available in a room on open shelves awaiting collection. In order to enter the room, users have to swipe their library card in order to gain access to the area designated for items placed on hold. Once inside, they browse the shelves looking for the first four letters of their surname. All items are individually wrapped in a sheet of A4 paper which is fixed in place with an elastic band.

LIBRARY 3: Items on hold are placed on the end of a set of library shelves in alphabetical order of requestor’s surname. All of the titles are easily browseable, because there is no paper wrapped around the items. Users full surnames are hand-written onto a slip of paper.


Of the three library procedures outlined above, the one adopted by library 3 is the least respectful of user privacy. First of all, because there is no paper wrapped around the items that have been requested, it is possible for anyone to quickly look through the titles. Then, secondly, if they spot titles that seem quite racy, provocative, controversial or embarrassing, they can look for the requestor’s surname to see if they recognize who has asked for that particular item. Some people have unusual or distinctive surnames thereby making it likely that in some cases the surname will be sufficient to identify a specific individual


Receipts from self-service machines

Years ago retailers realized that they were putting too much information onto till receipts, notably the full credit or debit card number. Given the threat of identify fraud, they stopped displaying complete card numbers, and instead only showed some of the numbers while using asterisks to mask some of the digits.

With the prevalence of self-issue machines, libraries need to think carefully about the information that is printed out on transaction receipts. In the case of receipts for items borrowed, consider the following two examples:



At the top of the receipt it says:

Item(s) checked out to SURNAME, FIRSTNAME.

Then it shows:






At the top of the receipt it says:

Borrower’s full barcode number

Borrowed items DATE TIME

Item title

(Barcode of the book is shown)

(Followed by the title of the book)

Why is it necessary for LIBRARY A to show the user’s first name and surname on the printed slip? Wouldn’t it be better to show the last few digits of their library membership card?

Isn’t it likely that users will utilize the printed slip as a bookmark, to show how far they are up to with the book. And, further, isn’t there a fair chance that some users will forget to remove the printed slip before returning the book to the library. Depending on how many books they borrowed in a single transaction, and depending on the nature of the material being borrowed, the information on the slip could be quite revealing about someone’s reading habits.


Online databases and personalization

Many online databases try to help users by providing a number of personalization features. However, this involves a trade-off with user privacy. In order to personalize the service, to tailor it to their needs, it inevitably needs to know the user’s identity. Otherwise, they would get the generic, standard service. A lot of people are happy to give up some of their privacy in exchange for a more tailored service. And that is absolutely fine, provided that the user is making an informed choice.

Think of the online databases that your institution subscribes to. Do you or your users:

  • Create saved searches that you can run as required
  • Create alerts so that users are automatically informed of new material matching their interests
  • Make use of personalization features such as a list of companies whose share price you monitor, or the industry sectors and sub sectors that you monitor regularly
  • Bookmark articles of interest
  • Annotate items

Are library staff confident that the database vendor will keep this information secure? If so, what makes you so sure. Did you cover that in the contract negotiations. And do you monitor that vendor on an ongoing basis, to see that they are living up to what they promised in the contract.

Imagine you are a corporate librarian. What if that sort of information gets into the wrong hands, such as a competitor. It could tell a lot about you and your organisation – the companies you are looking as part of considering potential acquisitions; the product development work you are currently undertaking for a highly secret project on a new product idea and so on and so forth.

(Lynch 2017) looks at the ecosystem that has evolved for scholarly journals involving a whole range of players including platform providers, various publishers’ websites, authors, readers, traditional publishers, libraries, third parties, and analytics providers.

“Whenever a third party has access to personally identifiable information, the agreements need to address appropriate restrictions on the use, aggregation, dissemination and sale of that information, particularly information about minors” (Jones 2014)

Agreements between libraries and vendors should specify that libraries retain ownership of all data; that the vendor agrees to observe the library’s privacy, data retention, and security policies; and that the vendor agrees to bind any third parties it uses in delivering services to these policies as well.


Telephone notification

A library service notifies users that the book(s) that they have requested on hold has now arrived and is ready for them to collect

This is done by email, but sometimes by phone. In one instance, a member of library staff called the user to inform them. The library user wasn’t home at the time, and so a voicemail was left. The message included details of the book title that was now ready for collection.

What if that book had been about domestic violence. What if the message was picked up by the partner of the library user?


Librarian bloggers venting publicly on their blogs about their interactions with patrons
One area librarians need to take particular care is over the genre known as “RefGrunt”. This refers to the genre of blogging/writing where librarians vent publicly about their interactions with patrons. It is named after a blog that a librarian kept for about a year in the early 2000’s.

As well as blogs, another aspect of “Refgrunt” includes books written by librarians which describe their interactions with library users.

Sally Stern-Hamilton, writing under the pseudonym Ann Miketa (Miketa 2012) wrote a book about the crazy patrons she encountered at her library assistant job all day. From the introduction to the book (which is called “The Library Diaries”): “After working at a public library in a small, rural Midwestern town for fifteen years (which she calls denialville), I have encountered strains and variations of crazy I didn’t know existed in such significant portions of our population.”

The publisher’s description said: “Open this book and you’ll meet the naked patron, the greedy, unenlightened patrons, destination hell, horny old men, Mr. Three Hats, and a menagerie of other characters you never dreamt were housed at your public library.”

Is it fair for library users by entering the library to put themselves at risk of becoming a key character in a novel that is really a thinly disguised account of real life, where the novel describes their mannerisms in such detail that they are easily identifiable by members of the local community.

Risk of being dooced

What people post on social networking sites raises privacy concerns. Indeed these can have severe consequences, such as someone being “Dooced” (that is, dismissed from their employment because of what they have written on a website or blog).

When (Farkas 2007) wrote about librarian bloggers in 2007 they said that they only knew of only one library worker who was fired for negative comments about patrons that he had written in a blog community. But two years prior to that, a New Zealand librarian known as bizgirl was sacked for what she had posted on her blog. People didn’t like what was being said about them, and even though it was anonymised, they could still tell it was them.


  • Co-location can result in a range of services being offered from a single location:

library, housing, tourism and customer service facilities etc.

  • Does the setup mean that potentially sensitive matters, such as conversations about housing benefits, council tax and even personal details can easily be overheard?
  • Police enquiry desk inside library where the public are able to speak to a uniformed member of police staff about:
  • Crime reporting
  • General policing enquiries
  • Road traffic collision reporting
  • Applications for firearms licences
  • Crime prevention advice
  • Lost and found property

How long do you retain loan history data?

  • Is it forever
  • Is it for the default period used by your library management software provider
  • Is it never (ie. as soon as an item is returned, the record is erased

Ultimately, ask yourself whether the information is held for longer than is strictly necessary

Do your users get a choice as to whether, and for how long, their reading history is retained?


Dealing sensitively with patrons who have a body odor problem

  • A library employee told a man that someone had complained about his body odor
  • The man suffers from hidradenitis suppurativa, a chronic skin condition in which pimple-like bumps grow wherever skin rubs together, like the groin and underarm areas. When the bumps rupture, they leak bloodstained pus that often has a foul odor.
  • Treat people with dignity and respect, be compassionate and helpful.
  • “In a room full of people, in a loud voice, you don’t just say that”
  • Have the conversation privately and discreetly
  • It isn’t always a hygiene issue

Source: (Masters 2017)

Letting commercial interests into libraries

Who provides digital literacy training? Is it a commercial company?

Private sector partnerships are one way forward when public funding is in short supply. Libraries have worked with Barclays and the Halifax (digital volunteers) and BT (wi-fi). Google has set up Digital Garages aimed at businesses in larger libraries. Though ostensibly “free”, such initiatives are, at least in part, commercially driven. Libraries need to be aware, if not wary, of that. (Source: Ayub Khan page 45 of CILIP Update, December 2016).

Where commercial companies have been brought in, have the libraries involved sought any assurances regarding privacy of library users?



(Randall, Newell 2014) examined why four large libraries three in the US and one in the UK had installed video surveillance. They found that CCTV cameras had initially been installed either as a response to specific incidents of crime or as part of the design of new buildings. (Randall, Newell 2014) say that “Libraries have long maintained strong protections for patron privacy and intellectual freedom. However, the increasing prevalence of sophisticated surveillance systems in public libraries potentially threatens these core library commitments”.

(Collier 2017) The Iowa City public library has security cameras in the library bathrooms. Susan Craig, the Public Library Director said that “The reason the cameras are there are to protect people and to protect library property as well”.

Iowa lawmakers have said yes to a bill that bans cameras in restrooms and locker rooms at government buildings. It applies to schools, libraries, and other government buildings but has an exception for public hospitals

The legislation got through the Iowa Senate approved without a single no vote. Since I originally wrote about this, the cameras have now been removed from the city’s public library bathrooms.


School libraries throughout the UK have implemented technology enabling pupils to take out books by scanning their thumb prints instead of using a card. Such systems are intended to replace library cards and save time and money in managing the libraries. However, the use of electronic fingerprinting systems in this way to manage loans of library books has raised a number of privacy concerns.

In 2006 The Department for Education and Skills and the Information Commissioner said that parents could not prevent schools from taking their children’s fingerprints (The Register, 2006). However, the pressure group Privacy International expressed the view that the practice breached both the DPA and the human rights of the individual children concerned.

The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 has changed things, because it envisages parental consent before processing of children’s biometric information can be permitted. Even if the parent has consented, a school must not process or continue to process the data if the child objects. Where a child does object, they must be provided with a reasonable alternative to the biometric system.

Use of “enrichment”/book covers on the library catalogue

Content embedded in websites is a huge source of privacy leakage in library services. Cover images can be particularly problematic. Without meaning to, many libraries send data to Amazon about the books a user is searching for; cover images are almost always the culprit.

Eric Hellman points out two indications that a third-party cover image is a privacy problem. They are:

  • the provider sets tracking cookies on the hostname serving the content.
  • the provider collects personal information, for example as part of commerce.

Marshall Breeding has also looked at the privacy issues involving boook covers and social sharing. He says that vendors are increasingly aware of this issue and that some of them proxy or cache images to avoid privacy problems.

Eric Hellman’s blog post “How to check if your library is leaking catalogue searches to Amazon” gives details of how you can tell if your library is sending Amazon your library search data (Hellman 2016).

“I’ve come to realize that part of the problem is that the issues are sometimes really complex and technical; people just don’t believe that the web works the way it does, violating user privacy at every opportunity. (Hellman 2016)


Use of web analytics tools on library sites

Marshall Breeding undertook a survey of academic and research libraries. Using the Ghostery plug-in for Chrome, he looked for all the tracking mechanisms that could be detected on the library website, online catalog, or discovery interface were noted. (Breeding, 2016)

  • Google Analytics
    Ajax search API
    • Google AdSense
    • Google Translate
    • Google Tag Manager
    • DoubleClick (owned by Google)
    • Yahoo Analytics
    • Adobe Omniture Analytics
    • Adobe Tag Manager
    • Adobe TypeKit
    • Facebook Connect
    • Facebook Social Plugin
    • Twitter Button
    • AdThis
    • Piwik Analytics
    • Crazy Egg
    • WebTrends
    • New Relic

Many libraries use Google Analytics, but Piwick analytics is more respectful of privacy than Google Analytics.

Role of libraries and librarians regarding privacy

I believe that the information profession needs to have a debate about the role of the librarian in protecting user privacy. Such a debate needs to go back to first principles to ask whether librarians have a role in protecting user privacy, and if so, what form that role should take. (Cooper 2016) did a survey in which participants were asked their views on the following statement:

“Libraries should play a role in educating the general public about issues of personal privacy and data protection”.

The overwhelming majority (78.6%) of survey respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, but 15.5% neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement, while 6% of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with it:

Strongly agree 40.5%
Agree 38.1%
Neither agree nor disagree 15.5%
Disagree 2.4%
Strongly disagree 3.6%

Even amongst those who do believe that librarians have a role to play in protecting user privacy, there is still the question of quite what that role should be. It could range from a more passive approach, simply protecting the personally identifiable information held about users – through to a more active approach in the form of lobbying and advocacy work; organising cryptoparties etc.

There are a number of potential roles that librarians can and do play. These are not mutually exclusive:

To protect (Brantley 2015) believes that “Public libraries are among the last protectors of privacy in contemporary society”

(Fortier, Burkell 2015) “Librarians have a professional responsibility to protect the right to access information free from surveillance”

To defend (Mattlage 2015) “Having special obligations to protect information rights means that information professionals must first of all take information rights seriously by defending them against countervailing pressures for more expedient public policies. It is the unique role of information professionals to be last to abandon the defense of these rights”.

Activism Speaking of the privacy role of librarians in terms of activism is bound to be controversial. But it is interesting to observe the way in which librarians in America reacted to the repeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s rules requiring ISPs to adopt fair information privacy practices in regards to their customers’ data (Caldwell-Stone, Robinson 2017). These responses have included promoting the use of encryption, of VPNs, and of using the Tor browser to enable anonymous web searching.

To be radical It is worth noting that people who identify themselves as being “radical librarians” seem to place a particularly high priority on ethical issues. “If we cannot (or do not) protect the intellectual privacy of our users, then we are failing as professionals” (Clark 2016)

To lobby / advocate In the United Kingdom, librarians across the whole range of sectors have for many years worked together through the Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance (LACA) to lobby for fairer copyright laws from a user perspective. I do believe that there is a real need for a similar organisation to lobby government for laws that are more respectful of user privacy, to raise awareness of privacy as an important issue, and to share best practice.

To negotiate An important role for librarians involves negotiating with vendors, to ensure that contracts provide adequate protection for user privacy.

“If libraries only chose vendors who had good privacy policies, the industry would have to change its standards in order to obtain library business” (Dixon 2008)

(Magi 2010) Librarians have a long history of protecting user privacy, but they have done seemingly little to understand or influence the privacy policies of library resource vendors that increasingly collect user information through Web 2.0-style personalization features.

(Caro, Markman 2016) list a series of questions librarians should be asking of their vendors, covering data breach policy, data encryption, data retention, the ease of use of the vendor’s terms of service, patron privacy, secure connections and advertising networks.

(McMenemy 2016) says that “We need to be careful of how many of our values we surrender (cede) to software vendors to manage for us”

To educate/train (Fifarek 2002) Libraries need to take an active role in educating users about protecting their privacy. Users should be educated as to what their privacy rights are and what privacy protections exist. Additionally, users need to understand that protecting their personal privacy requires them to make choices about what information they are willing to disclose in order to receive services.

Libraries are ideally placed to offer training on how users can protect their privacy.

To provide a sanctuary, a safe space or safe haven for private reflection (Johnston 2000) says that “Public libraries further fulfill an essential social role by providing public space which serves ”as safe havens for private reflection and as meeting places for community functions””

(Sturges, Iliffe et al. 2001) recognise that “The library, whether public, academic or institutional, is both a communal and a private space: a paradox that has always contained a certain potential for tensions.”

(Campbell, Cowan 2016) also acknowledge that privacy can have a paradoxical relation to the public sphere. They cite (Keizer 2012) who suggests that individuals frequently move into the public sphere, not to sacrifice their privacy, but to retain it. Indeed, in an analysis of a court decision that grappled with the question of privacy in public places, Keizer writes of “the number of people whose very act of stepping out the front door represents a “subjective expectation of privacy”—because the public sphere is the only place where they can have a reasonable hope of finding it”.

In Quad/Graphics, Inc. v. S. Adirondack Library System, 174 Misc.2d 291, 664 N.Y.S.2d 225 (N.Y.Sup., 1997) the court noted that a library was “a unique sanctuary of the widest possible spectrum of ideas [and] must protect the confidentiality of its records in order to insure its readers’ right to read anything they wish, free from the fear that someone might see what they read and use this in a way to intimidate them”.

To participate If librarians are to protect the privacy of their users, it is essential that they take part in the formulation of privacy policies. A failure to do so would be an abrogation of their ethical responsibilities.

(Jones 2014) p159 All over the world people are concerned about government surveillance and corporate collection of their personal data. Now is the time for libraries to seize the opportunity to play a major role in this policy arena! Librarians and library associations from all cultures must collaborate in this work, since the concept and application of privacy principles varies from culture to culture

To debate (McMenemy 2016) says that “If we cannot debate important issues such as privacy and freedom of expression within our profession, we will lose our moral authority on them”.

To be a privacy watchdog or auditor (Johnston 2000) “By accepting the existence of new privacy threats within the institution, it becomes possible to see an important new role for librarians. By building on such traditional responsibilities as evaluation of sources, monitoring of information systems, and keeping abreast of new tools or changes in old ones and addressing internal and external information flows, the librarian could become something akin to a privacy watchdog or auditor”

To take on a leadership role (Fernandez 2010) recommends that librarians take a leadership role in the public debate on privacy: “After determining that libraries should have a presence within a social networking site, they can take a leadership role in promoting awareness and engagement on the issues surrounding information literacy and privacy.”

(Lamdan 2015) believes, more specifically, that librarians should lead a campaign to urge Internet social media companies to include Privacy by Design principles in their user agreements.

Privacy by design originates from a report on “Privacy enhancing technologies” from the Information & Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada, the Dutch DPA Authority and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research in 1995. The foundational principles are:

  • Proactive not reactive; Preventative not remedial
  • Privacy as the default setting
  • Privacy embedded into design
  • Full functionality – positive-sum, not zero-sum
  • End-to-end security – full lifecycle protection
  • Visibility and transparency – keep it open
  • Respect for user privacy – keep it user-centric

(Magi 2013) says “libraries hold a unique and critically important place in the information landscape. I can think of few other information providers that do what libraries do: provide a broad range of information, make it accessible to everyone regardless of means, while embracing the ethical principle that our users’ personal information is not a commodity to be traded or sold. Our commitment to user confidentiality is rare and special, and it’s a characteristic that research tells us is important to people”.

“Libraries have, with the best of intentions in the world, taken a strong position on privacy, and they have lost. They got the whole privacy thing all wrong. Rather than participate in the policies of their institutions and the many organizations that interact with them, they have abdicated their role and are now watching as their institutions are being colonized by commercial interests, which are no longer answerable to libraries” (Esposito 2016)

To conclude:

  • It is important that librarians participate in the development of privacy policies within their institutions
  • They should speak up to get management support, to get the training they need in this area, and where necessary, the resources necessary to protect user privacy (cybersecurity, adapting software, if required)
  • They should provide training for their users on the ways in which they can protect their privacy through the use of privacy tools in the form of browser addons, and use of the Tor browser for anonymous searching
  • As a profession we need an equivalent of LACA to lobby and advocate on privacy issues, and to share knowledge and best practice
  • We need to work with people from other disciplines in order to properly protect library user privacy. I am thinking here of areas such as information security or legal experts.


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