To meet their primary mission, libraries have had to ensure that the atmosphere they provided did not discourage patrons from investigating any subject that they found of interest. In a statement that is strikingly relevant today, the American Library Association stated in 1953 that:

… reading is among our greatest freedoms. The freedom to read and write is almost the only means for making generally available ideas or manners of expression that can initially command only a small audience. The written word is the natural medium for the new idea and the untried voice from which come the original contributions to social growth. It is essential to the extended discussion that serious thought requires, and to the accumulation of knowledge and ideas into organized collections….4

In order to provide this right, librarians have affirmed as a part of their contract with their patrons that they will “protect each individual’s privacy and confidentiality in the use of library resources and services.”5

The connection between privacy and the goal of enabling individual learning reflected several different considerations. Many patrons of the early public libraries were members of the waves of immigrants that came to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The public libraries were seen as a way of helping those immigrants assimilate into a new country and culture. Many of the newcomers came from countries whose governments took great care to monitor the interests of their citizens, often to the citizens’ detriment. The library community felt that it was necessary to protect the privacy of these patrons so that they would feel free to use the libraries, and so that their self-education would not be, or appear to be, subject to government scrutiny. This consideration is still a major concern for librarians in areas with large immigrant populations.6

For librarians, similar considerations applied even when library


American Library Association, “The Freedom to Read Statement,” adopted June 25, 1953, by the ALA Council and the AAP Freedom to Read Committee, available at http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/statementspols/ftrstatement/freedomreadstatement.htm.


American Library Association, “Libraries: An American Value,” adopted February 3, 1999, available at http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/statementspols/americanvalue/librariesa-merican.htm.


For example, the committee took testimony in April 2003 from the director of the Queensborough Public Library in New York City, which serves a population that is predominantly immigrant. He indicated that as the result of such concerns, the library took several steps to protect the privacy of patron information, including the separation of the library’s information retention policies into “paper” and “electronic,” the delinking of electronic book/patron information when the book is returned, and the daily destruction of Internet usage sign-up sheets.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement