patrons were native to the United States. The goal of self-education was meant to allow patrons to explore controversial and unpopular ideas and ideologies. To engage in this sort of exploration, patrons of the library needed to feel that their choice of reading material would not be subject to the scrutiny of neighbors, friends, or employers, even though concerns about government scrutiny were perhaps less common among the non-immigrant U.S. population. For citizen and non-citizen alike, the interest in privacy extended even to scrutiny by the librarians themselves; it dictated that librarians should not try to guide their patrons’ self-education activities, but instead should merely enable whatever study a patron wished to undertake.

This connection between self-education and privacy is made explicit in the official interpretation of the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights (Box 8.2).7 This interpretation conceptualizes privacy as follows: “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.”

This conception of a privacy interest in one’s intellectual pursuits is arguably different from an interest in maintaining the confidentiality of one’s medical records or in resisting broad law enforcement surveillance tactics for privacy reasons. While one might worry about embarrassment resulting from the disclosure of medical information, or about interference by government or law enforcement in the study of politically or socially unacceptable ideas, the concern for intellectual privacy also rests on a more general fear of the ostracism, ridicule, or loss of social status that could result if the subject matter of inquiry were generally known. The kind of privacy that libraries seek to guarantee also is different from the kind of privacy that might be needed by the patron of an abortion clinic, pawnshop, or drug rehabilitation center. In those other cases, the privacy interest extends to the actual use of the service being provided. In the case of the library, worries about privacy do not center on the fact that a person is a patron of a library, but rather about the content of that patron’s use. Indeed, the interpretation states that “when users recognize or fear that their privacy or confidentiality is compromised, true freedom of inquiry no longer exists.”

Well before the advent of modern information technology, the desire to ensure patron privacy led librarians to develop techniques for tracking books checked out of the library that minimized leakage of information


American Library Association, “Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” adopted June 19, 2002, by the ALA Council, available at

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