The language of these laws varies from state to state. The American Library Association recommends that librarians understand state confidentiality laws and that libraries have in place procedures for cooperating expeditiously with law enforcement officers when a subpoena or other legal order for records is made within the framework of state law.8


Modern information technology has become central to all parts of a modern library. Libraries were early adopters of computerized systems and have used these systems to organize their holdings, to keep track of which patrons have checked out which items, and to expand the range of materials that they are able to offer to patrons. In all of these applications, the privacy of patrons has been a major concern. The library community also has taken a proactive approach to evaluating the potential and the privacy implications of new technologies, and has recognized that raising questions about privacy is much more difficult after a technology has been adopted.

One of the first uses of information technology in libraries was for tracking the books checked out by patrons. Many systems adopted by libraries needed to be altered so that records associating patrons with the books they had checked out would be purged from the system as soon as possible. Even though that information might be useful for tracking the popularity of some titles or the interests of the library’s patrons, enabling secondary use of circulation information was considered improper because this capability might enable use of the information for other purposes in ways that could compromise patron privacy. Rather than risk compromising privacy, the library community generally has required that information systems purchased for library use be tailored to capture only the minimum amount of data necessary to track who has checked out a book, and to ensure that the information is purged as soon as possible after the book has been returned. In this way, the computer-based systems adopted by librarians would provide the same privacy guarantees as the non-computerized systems previously in use.

Indeed, librarians are constantly looking for ways to use technology to enhance the privacy protections they offer to their patrons. Michael Gorman has talked about an example of a technology that might help preserve patron privacy and intellectual freedom in libraries. He describes how self-service book checkout systems might make a “signal contribu-


American Library Association, “State Privacy Laws Regarding Library Records,” available at, accessed June 12, 2006.

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