Data Privacy Blog




In recent years, concerns about data privacy have escalated as technology infiltrates every aspect of our lives. I often worry about the extent to which companies gather and utilize our data—whether it's Alexa listening in, Facebook's insights about me, or TikTok crafting a startlingly accurate image of my preferences to enhance my user experience.

Our modern landscape is saturated with data-intensive technologies—applications, websites, and programs reliant on copious amounts of personal data. Consequently, we've come to associate data privacy inseparably with technology. And rightfully so. Our devices gather so much data, which can feel daunting in and of itself. Then there’s the seemingly impossible matter of tracking where that data ends up. So, how do we safeguard our data privacy?

The good news? Libraries are increasingly recognizing their role in safeguarding patrons' data privacy. Throughout history, libraries have collected data from patrons, such as names and addresses, in exchange for access to resources. The digital age has brought with it more opportunities for libraries to collect patron data, and a surge in the risk of recommending applications and websites that compromise patrons' data security. Consequently, the library profession has established norms, best practices, and a code of ethics to navigate these challenges and prioritize patrons' data privacy.

But it wasn't always this way.

Henry Melnek and the Evolution of Privacy as a Library Ethic

The concept of privacy and its status as a human right and library ethic have evolved significantly over time, shaped by societal shifts and evolving opinions within the field of library science. In a notable case in June 1906, Henry Melnek was arrested for book theft from the Astor Library, a precursor to the New York Public Library in the East Village. Melnek’s case serves as a compelling example of early librarianship's treatment of privacy.

During that era, most public libraries didn't allow browsing. Patrons made specific requests, and librarians retrieved items from closed stacks. At the Astor Library, librarians were familiar with Melnek's frequent visits and his interest in anarchism and socialism, and when two books went missing, one of which was in German, librarians suspected Melnek. Rather than collaborating with local authorities, the Chief Librarian worked with two Russian agents of the czar stationed in New York who were looking for agents working against the Russian state.5

Melnek’s arrest stands as one of the earliest examples of a data privacy breach in library practices. Notably, the Astor librarians’ cooperation with Russian agents to identify an American citizen for arrest did not cause public furor – rather, the library was critiqued for providing materials about anarchism and socialism.

Although Melnek’s case suggests otherwise, privacy was gradually becoming a professional concern for librarians. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, some librarians began viewing themselves as ethically obligated to provide confidential services akin to doctors and lawyers. This sentiment was reflected in former American Library Association President Arthur Bostwick's 1909 statement at the ALA’s 33rd annual meeting, emphasizing the library's obligation to protect patron privacy, especially concerning their whereabouts or address.

The American Library Association, founded in 1876, officially recognized a patron's right to privacy in its 1939 Library Bill of Rights. This aspirational document marked a significant step towards prioritizing privacy in library services.

Where the ALA led, others followed. In 1961, Pennsylvania passed Privacy of Circulation Records, which states that information identifying library users and their use of materials shall be confidential, unless in the case of a court order or criminal proceeding. If you’ve ever stopped by the Belmont Hills Library and I’ve told you that your reading history is between “you, library staff, and anyone with a warrant,” this is what I was talking about! This statute is still in effect today.

Libraries' Confrontations with the Federal Government on Privacy

In the latter half of the 20th century, libraries faced more concrete challenges regarding patron privacy, this time from government agencies. In 1970, the IRS sought library circulation records in Milwaukee and Atlanta to identify potential domestic terrorists. This prompted the American Library Association to issue the Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records in 1971, reinforcing the confidentiality of patron records and advising resistance against government inquiries without proper authorization.

Similarly, in the 1970s and 80s, the FBI's Library Awareness Program aimed to gather patron data from libraries to identify potential threats. Librarians, relying on established ethics and legislation, resisted government intrusions into patron privacy, viewing them as threats to intellectual freedom and free inquiry.

These encounters set the stage for libraries' response to the Patriot Act of 2001, which also infringed on patron privacy rights. Sections 215 and 205 allowed for the seizure of borrowing records and imposed gag orders on librarians, which prohibited them from telling patrons if their data had been accessed. Despite constraints, librarians mobilized to protect patron privacy through patron education, legal challenges, and organizational support. It was during this era that librarian Jessamyn West’s famous sign hung from circulation desks across the country, reading: “The FBI has not been here. Watch very closely for the removal of this sign.”

Contemporary Approaches to Data Privacy in Libraries

Today, libraries remain committed to safeguarding patron privacy amidst technological advancements. Libraries acknowledge the delicate balance between data collection for essential services and protecting patron privacy. Robust privacy policies outline the data collected, its purpose, and measures to limit tracking and ensure anonymous browsing. Lower Merion Libraries has a very informative privacy policy, which library users can use to see what information we collect and how we protect it.

Libraries also prioritize staff education on data privacy best practices and offer patrons guidance on safeguarding their digital privacy beyond library premises. As technologies increasingly rely on user data, librarians vet websites and applications to ensure they meet privacy standards.

Finally, many libraries also offer education to our users about how to protect their data privacy even when they are not at the library, confirming that our commitment to privacy as a human right extends beyond the walls of our buildings and into the community at large.


While societal attitudes towards privacy evolve, libraries continue to uphold their commitment to patron data privacy. As guardians of information access, libraries strive to protect patrons' privacy both within and beyond their premises. As we navigate an ever-changing landscape of technology and privacy concerns, libraries remain steadfast in our role as advocates for intellectual freedom and data privacy.

Stay tuned for future blog posts on current data privacy issues, the history of privacy as a human right, and how libraries empower patrons to protect their data in the digital age.



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