Related pages to Privacy & Confidentiality
When and how should records be released?
What can librarians and the library do to protect privacy and confidentiality rights?

magnifyingglass.jpgPrivacy is defined by the American Library Association (ALA) as “the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others” (ALA, 2007, "Questions and Answers," para. 7). Confidentiality arises when a library has Personally Identifiable Information (PII) about their users and keeps that information private. PII is personal information that the library obtains in their daily operations. It is information given by a user when obtaining library card privileges, information about a user's borrowing tastes and habits, interlibrary loan records, database search records, and information shared during a reference interview (ALA, 2006, "Privacy").

PII is desired to develop a profile on individuals regarding tastes and preferences. This information is used for advertising, to assess character, to determine whether the individual is a security risk or even to embarrass the individual (American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom [ALA OIF], 2006).

Intellectual Freedom is our right of free access to information. Our right to free speech and assembly is guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This amendment of the Bill of Rights states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” ("First Amendment," n.d., para. 2).

lock.jpgIf a library user feels that his/her privacy or confidentiality is violated then that person looses their right of free access to information. The user isn’t likely to use the library’s resources or engage in reference interviews in fear that their library use is being monitored. When a user’s confidentiality is compromised their privacy is also violated. This limits the user’s freedom of inquiry. By doing so, the user is also denied their intellectual freedom. This is both unconstitutional and unethical of the library or librarian. The ALA’s Code of Ethics, Article III 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” (ALA, 2006, "Code of Ethics," para. 4).

Article V of the ALA's Library Bill of Rights states: “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background or views” (ALA, 2006, "Library Bill of Rights," para. 2). Because librarians have access to confidential information they should not violate a user’s privacy and confidentiality by acquiring that information and using it to deny access or services or in any way limit the user’s right to intellectual freedom of information. Librarians must act impartially regardless of whatever PII they have access to.

The Library Bill of Rights, Article IV states: “Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgement of free expression and free access to ideas” (ALA, 2006, "Library Bill of Rights," para. 2). Library users do have the right to learn what PII is kept and used by the library and for what purposes (ALA, 2006, "Privacy"). They also have the right to learn what policies and procedures protect their PII, what they can do to maintain their privacy, and the right to acess their own PII (ALA OIF, 2006). All library users have the same right to privacy and confidentiality.

Discussion points:

  • How would a user's reading habits change if they suspected or knew that their privacy and confidentiality were violated?
  • How would the user feel about their personal information being open to scrutiny?
  • How would it change the way they use the library?
  • How would this affect the library?
  • How would this affect the relationship between librarian and user?

Ethical skits

The ALA Committee on Professional Ethics creates and performs skits each year at the ALA Annual Conference:

I Know Who You Are - user privacy on electronic reference chats
When They Come A Knockin- awareness of USA Patriot Act
The Joy of Jihad: Patriots in the Library
Yoo-Hoo! Who Are You?: Confidentiality Limits on the Internet?

Related pages to Privacy & Confidentiality
When and how should records be released?
What can librarians and the library do to protect privacy and confidentiality rights?


American Library Association (2006). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from

American Library Association (2006). Library Bill of Rights. Retrieved from

American Library Association (2006). Privacy. Retrieved from

American Library Association (2007). Questions and Answers on Privacy and Confidentiality.

American Library Association, Office for Intellectual Freedom. (2006). Intellectual Freedom
  • Manual (7th ed.). Chicago: American Library Association.

First Amendment to the United States Constitution.(n.d.). In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.