Privacy and Your Library Rights

The American Public Library is based upon the central belief that a society cannot be free, and a democracy cannot flourish, unless its people have free and open access to information and ideas.  In order for a mind to be free, access to the realm of thought (both informational and creative) must be available without barriers of censorship, bias or cost, and without fear of repercussion.1

Our passionate commitment to providing an outstanding patron experience thrives within these overarching principles at the core of the American Public Library.  Therefore, the explorations of any one mind are held in the strictest of confidence at the Cambridge Public Library regardless of origin, age, background, or views.2

Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association.3  The courts have established a First Amendment right to receive information in a publicly funded library.4  Further, the courts have upheld the right to privacy based on the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.5  Many states provide guarantees of privacy in their constitutions and statute law, including Massachusetts.6  Numerous decisions in case law have defined and extended rights to privacy.7

In a library (physical or virtual), the right to privacy is the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others.  Confidentiality exists when a library is in possession of personally identifiable information about users and keeps that information private on their behalf.8  Confidentiality extends to “information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted” (ALA Code of Ethics), including, but not limited to: database search records, reference questions and interviews, circulation records, interlibrary loan records, information about materials downloaded or placed on “hold” or “reserve,” and other personally identifiable information about uses of library materials, programs, facilities, or services.9

Protecting user privacy and confidentiality has long been an integral part of the mission of libraries.  The ALA has affirmed a right to privacy since 1939.10  Existing ALA policies affirm that confidentiality is crucial to freedom of inquiry.11  Rights to privacy and confidentiality also are implicit in the Library Bill of Rights’ guarantee of free access to library resources for all users.12

Law enforcement agencies and officers may occasionally seek library records contain information that would be helpful to an investigation. The American judicial system provides a mechanism for seeking release of such confidential records:  a court order issued following a showing of good cause based on specific facts by a court of competent jurisdiction. Libraries should make such records available only in response to properly executed orders.13

Cambridge Public Library. Privacy and Borrower Services Procedures for Safeguarding Confidential Library Records. December 2013.

Cambridge Public Library. Privacy and Borrower Services Procedures for Safeguarding Confidential Library Records. December 2013.

Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.

Court opinions establishing a right to receive information in a public library include Board of Education. v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982); Kreimer v. Bureau of Police for the Town of Morristown, 958 F.2d 1242 (3d Cir. 1992); and Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 117 S.Ct. 2329, 138 L.Ed.2d 874 (1997).

See in particular the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against self-incrimination, and the Ninth Amendment’s guarantee that “[t]he enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” This right is explicit in Article Twelve of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” See: This right has further been explicitly codified as Article Seventeen of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a legally binding international human rights agreement ratified by the United States on June 8, 1992.

Ten state constitutions guarantee a right of privacy or bar unreasonable intrusions into citizens’ privacy. Forty-eight states (including MA) protect the confidentiality of library users’ records by law, and the attorneys general in the remaining two states have issued opinions recognizing the privacy of users’ library records.

Cases recognizing a right to privacy include: NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1958)Griswold v. Connecticut 381 U.S. 479 (1965)Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967); and Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969). Congress recognized the right to privacy in the Privacy Act of 1974 and Amendments (5 USC Sec. 552a), which addresses the potential for government’s violation of privacy through its collection of personal information. The Privacy Act’s “Congressional Findings and Statement of Purpose” states in part: “the right to privacy is a personal and fundamental right protected by the Constitution of the United States.”

The phrase “personally identifiable information” was established in ALA policy in 1991. See: “Policy Concerning Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information about Library Users.” Personally identifiable information can include many types of library records, including: information that the library requires an individual to provide in order to be eligible to use library services or borrow materials, information that identifies an individual as having requested or obtained specific materials or materials on a particular subject, and information that is provided by an individual to assist a library staff member to answer a specific question or provide information on a particular subject. Personally identifiable information does not include information that does not identify any individual and that is retained only for the purpose of studying or evaluating the use of a library and its materials and services. Personally identifiable information does include any data that can link choices of taste, interest, or research with a specific individual.

Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.

10 Article Eleven of the Code of Ethics for Librarians (1939) asserted that “It is the librarian’s obligation to treat as confidential any private information obtained through contact with library patrons.” See: Code of Ethics for Librarians (1939). Article Three of the 1995 Code 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.”

11 See these ALA Policies: “Access for Children and Young Adults to Nonprint Materials”; “Access to Library Resources and Services for Minors”; “Freedom to Read”; “Libraries: An American Value”; the newly revised “Library Principles for a Networked World”; “Policy Concerning Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information about Library Users”; “Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records”; “Suggested Procedures for Implementing Policy on the Confidentiality of Library Records.”

12 Adopted June 18, 1948; amended February 2, 1961, and January 23, 1980; inclusion of “age” reaffirmed January 23, 1996, by the ALA Council. 

13 Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.

Adopted by the Cambridge Public Library Board of Trustees March 24, 2016