Recently I got a new library card at a local library. I was kind of floored when the worker asked that I come back once I’ve changed my PIN and disclose to them the new number (they use a standard default PIN upon setting up the account).

I recall thinking to myself at the time, Um, like hell I will.

The mindset at this library seemed in stark contrast to the library where I work, which almost appears overzealous in its attempts to eradicate any trace of patronage history. It doesn’t keep any past checkout history (unless it’s related to fines), nor does it keep browsing history on any of the computers. Many times customers express dismay when I can’t pull up a history of their checkout items. However, it’s for their protection. What if someone is an alcoholic or has a drug problem and has checked out materials related to the topic. Do they want that information about them stored somewhere?

I recently attended a privacy basics workshop at my work. The librarian that held the discussion is very up on privacy rights; she even won an award for putting together the library’s privacy tool kit

Something she said really stuck with me: “if we don’t collect anything about our patrons there is no danger of us leaking any of their information.” She stressed the importance of not having sign up sheets lying around (better yet, don’t even have them in the first place) that contain customers’ private information, like emails or home addresses.

She also provided plenty of “what-if” scenarios involving customer privacy issues, for instance, a patron coming in and asking to see another family member’s account information. What if a spouse is living with domestic abuse and checked out books related that subject? Should their spouse view their account? The obvious answer: NO.

I asked the speaker about an instance of a spouse coming in and demanding to see their partner’s account due to some type of chronic medical condition, and having the authority to check out items on his behalf. The librarian suggested that going forward the patron use her own card.

Online privacy is another murky area. Although 86% of people who go online exercise caution, many Internet users claim they don’t know enough and would like to learn more about guarding their online privacy (Rainie, 2016).

Many times patrons are unaware that third parties such as Overdrive, or other eBook or eAudiobook vendors collect their information. Every once in awhile I come across a customer who seems paranoid at the idea, and declines to sign up for Hoopla or another electronic resource. I get it though. Although for myself, I chose to give up some of my privacy for the convenience. As Rainie (2016) observes, “for most Americans who are making decisions about sharing their information in return for a product, service or other benefit, the context and conditions of the transactions matter… Risk-benefit calculations that enter people’s minds during the decision process include the terms of the deal.”

Some takeaways I’ve gleaned from the workshop, my readings, and in my experiences working at a library (I realize some may seem like common sense):

  • Libraries should AND could do better in helping educate patrons about online privacy.
  • If you work in a library, avoid keeping any customer information, browsing history on computers, nor retain checkout history, sign-up sheets,etc. 
  • Shred patron documents scrupulously (better yet, avoid recording any information at all).
  • Don’t discuss patrons’ information or private lives (not related to any specific account/library issue) in the back office at work!
  • Keep privacy screens on hand for computer use and encourage customers to use them.
  • Remind customers in computer labs (especially those who are computer illiterate) to be mindful when sharing their information
  • Hold privacy workshops (and often)
  • Make sure customers are aware that they are sharing their information to 3rd party apps like Overdrive and Hoopla. Share online privacy resources with them.


Image credit 

Pixabay. Retrieved from

Rainie, L. (2016, September 21). The state of privacy in post-Snowden America. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

3 comments on “My own adventure: privacy and libraries”

  1. @lisamolson you raise some really interesting concerns regarding libraries and privacy. I have become so used to checking yes to privacy and security questions when downloading a new app, that I forget that big companies and many third-party vendors are tracking my every move and click! I was so delighted by Overdrive and Hoopla that I quickly forgot they are collecting information on me – at the very least my borrowing history, which is disturbing.

    I strongly agree with your takeaway items, especially libraries continually providing security and privacy workshops, and maybe even consider forums and even guest speakers to discuss and reiterate protection and new trends. These are concerns that always need to be addressed and can be viewed as part of digital literacy.
    Thank you for your post! @steve

  2. Your bulleted list is spot on IMHO. I think the education piece – for all ages — is so important, especially in the current unsettling times. And amen to keeping no identifying data on anything that people do in the library!

  3. Hi Lisa,
    I chose a different topic, so it is refreshing to read someone else’s adventure. I like your recommendations at the end of your blog. These often seem like they should be common sense for libraries, but I have seen that support staff are not always aware of the extent of these privacy issues. Holding privacy workshops in house and for the public would be of great benefit to any library. Thanks for the education!

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