There have been many times over the years when individuals or organizations, such as the media, have attempted to gain access to a library's records. Occasionally, requests for a patron's records have come from individuals or organizations wishing to embarrass an individual or harm their reputation by making this information public. There also may be requests from individuals wanting to know who has an item checked out, so that they can gain access to it before it is likely to be returned to the library.
Often these requests for library records have come from law enforcement agencies seeking help in criminal investigations. In fact, their interest in library records has increased in recent years because of computer crimes, such as e-mail threats and child pornography, and additional needs for surveillance and investigation since September 11, 2001.
Regardless of the reason for seeking access to library records, most states have laws that protect the confidentiality of this information. These laws generally exempt library records from disclosure as public records. This means they can only be obtained legally by court order.
Idaho's law on library records is found in the Idaho Code, Title 9-340E:
The following records are exempt from disclosure:
....(3) The records of a library which, when examined alone, or when examined with other public records, would reveal the identity of the library patron checking out, requesting, or using an item from a library.
Every library should have a policy on confidentiality along with procedures for the staff to follow when faced with requests for library records.
The American Library Association has prepared a document, Confidentiality and Coping with Law Enforcement Inquiries: Guidelines for the Library and Its Staff, that identifies the types of official requests libraries might receive and how they should be handled by library staff; it also lists items to include in preparing or revising a library policy on confidentiality. (This document can be found through a subject search from the ALA web site. It is one of many documents under "Intellectual Freedom Issues".)
Every library should establish and follow a retention policy for keeping personally identifiable information. Collect the minimum amount needed and discard what you can as soon as possible. Make sure your policy is in compliance with state and local laws. Take steps to change common library practices that place personal information on public view; e.g., postcards sent for overdue or requested materials, staff computers with screens that can be observed by the public; sign-in sheets for equipment and services, even telephone messages that are left on patrons' answering machines about information or materials requested.
Be sure your policy requires that a court order must be shown for law enforcement requests for library records or information. All staff, board members, and volunteers should know who on the staff is designated to handle requests from law enforcement. This is usually the library director or school principal. Make sure all staff and volunteers are trained in the procedures to follow for handling a law enforcement request.
Law enforcement officers making requests for library records should be asked for identification, then referred to the designated person responsible for handling such requests. This person should be prepared to handle a variety of information requests from law enforcement. For more information, refer to the ALA document, Confidentiality and Coping with Law Enforcement Inquiries: Guidelines for the Library and Its Staff. You should also consult with your library's attorney for guidelines.
You may not be the designated person responsible for receiving requests for confidential information. Nevertheless, you need to know the rights and responsibilities of the library and the correct procedures to follow. If your library does not have policies and procedures for addressing requests for library records, encourage your administration and/or governing board to create policies and procedures for handling such requests.
You should be aware that the USA PATRIOT Act has changed some of the rules under which law enforcement officials can obtain information. This section has dealt with general requests for library records. The next section highlights how USA PATRIOT Act requests for records are different and explains how your library can be prepared for them.
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