Wednesday, April 8, 2009

“Why don’t you tell anyone the title of the book when you call to tell me my reserve is available for pickup?”

Library staff typically leave a message something like, “This is the Downers Grove Public Library. A book (or DVD, or CD) that you reserved is available for pickup. We will hold it for you until Friday, April 10 at the Circulation Desk.” We never leave the title of the item in a voicemail message and we do not tell the title to another person who happens to answer the telephone. The reason is very simple – your use of library materials is confidential.

Not only is confidentiality a basic principle of every public library, but in most states, including Illinois, it is a matter of law! The Illinois Library Records Confidentiality Act says that “The registration and circulation records of a library are confidential information.” The Act goes on to state that this information cannot be made available to the public unless the library is required to do so under a court order or, in an emergency situation, to a sworn law enforcement officer who believes that there is an imminent danger of physical harm to an individual.

Of course patrons should be aware that Federal law trumps State law and the USA Patriot Act does allow the FBI to access your records, without your knowledge. Librarians have been fighting for years to have library records exempted from the Patriot Act.

Why is confidentiality such an important issue to librarians? Because we want you to be comfortable using the library for your information needs. Library staff are happy to help you find the information you are looking for, but we generally do not know, or need to know, why you are looking for specific information.

For example, when a patron asks for materials about a particular disease it could be because he is doing a report on the disease for school, or because he is simply curious after hearing it mentioned on a television program. But it could also be because the patron just found out that she has the disease, or that a relative does. There could be very good reasons that the patron would prefer that we not leave a message on her home answering machine that says “ the DVD about Alzheimer’s that you reserved is ready for pick-up."

One of my daughters is an avid writer. When she began writing as a teenager she regularly borrowed books on baby names from the library, looking for ideas for names for her characters. I suspect that some staff wondered if the Bowen household was expecting a new arrival, but library staff did not talk about it because they have been trained that a patron’s use of the library is private. Library patrons can be confident that we take our responsibility to preserve your privacy very seriously.