Libraries and the Fight for Privacy

12/04/2017 01:06 pm ET

Con Lehane

Rose Main Reading Room in the New York Public Library.
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
Rose Main Reading Room in the New York Public Library.

In my most recent book, Murder in the Manuscript Room, one of the characters, a librarian, says after discovering she’d been under surveillance in the library and elsewhere, “Everybody’s spying on everybody.”

Not so long ago, we in the U.S. looked down on citizens of Communist countries, such as the Soviet Union or Cuba, because, we said, everyone was under surveillance by the state. Since the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, which followed on the heels of attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the worm has turned.

Walk down the street in New York or any major city, at almost any intersection look up at a lamp post, and you’ll see a camera looking back. Congress has passed laws weakening privacy protections and giving government agencies wide-ranging powers to gather phone call information and internet activity of virtually anyone, for any reason or no reason, under the vague rubric of ‘for national security purposes.’ It may well be that freedoms we formerly took for granted need to give way in perilous times. Whatever the case, the erosion of our privacy is real.

This diminution of our freedom by law is in addition to the privacy rights we citizens have given away to Facebook, Google, Amazon and other corporations that run our internet activities. These entities gather information about us, more-or-less with our permission, and sell it to other corporations who want to sell us whatever they happen to be selling.

You’d think no institution in the nation cares much about privacy protections anymore. But you’d be wrong. There’s at least one place in the nation’s cities, towns, and most villages that respects our privacy. Public libraries care passionately about protecting the confidentiality of library users.

The American Library Association (ALA), founded in 1876 to promote and protect libraries and the profession of librarianship, sees its job as also protecting the right of citizens to get information. Article III of the ALA Code of Ethics reads “We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.”

This might be read as a platitude. But it isn’t one. For one example, alarmed by provisions of the Patriot Act that might have a chilling effect on libraries, the ALA passed a resolution that reads in part:

“The American Library Association opposes any use of governmental power to suppress the free and open exchange of knowledge and information or to intimidate individuals exercising free inquiry … ALA considers that sections of the USA PATRIOT ACT are a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users.”

The ALA resolution notes that all of the states, except two, and the District of Columbia have laws that protect the confidentiality of library records In the two exceptions, those rights have been established by precedent. (Interestingly, there is no federal law that specifically protects the privacy of library users.) The Association specifically objects to Section 215 of the Patriot Act which “allows the government to secretly request and obtain library records for large numbers of individuals without any reason to believe they are involved in illegal activity.”

Why the concern? Because, the ALA argues, “the freedom to read and receive ideas anonymously is at the heart of individual liberty in a democracy. … “(W)hen users recognize or fear their privacy or confidentiality is compromised, true freedom of inquiry no longer exists.” (An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/privacy).

The roots of this concern for privacy go back to early days of public libraries when a large part of their mission was to help acculturate waves of immigrants to their new country. Many of the immigrants came from places where government scrutiny was not only common but dangerous to those whose reading and writing was scrutinized. The early librarians wanted to protect the privacy of those users, so their activities in the library would not be or appear to be monitored by the government. Today’s librarians, from all evidence, still believe in protecting their patrons, including in today’s immigrant communities and other places where privacy rights might be threatened.

There’s another facet of the approach to privacy and confidentiality by public libraries that distinguishes them from their information-age counterparts in the private sector (the aforementioned Google, Facebook, Amazon and their fellow-travelers). Libraries do everything in their power to keep the library activities of their patrons confidential. This is, of course, quite different from the practice of the cyber corporations who collect and compile everything they can find about your internet activities. Libraries make sure no one can find out what books you read, what search engines you use, what data bases you go to, what web sites you visit. On the commercial side, anyone who wants to pay can find out what kind of underwear you’re interested in, what kind of food you might like to eat, where you might go on vacation, where you were last night … where you are right now.

In the good old pre-electronic days, library patrons were assigned numbers on their library cards to protect their confidentiality, and library records used the numbers rather than the name of the user to keep track of the books taken out. Once the books were returned, as further protection, the records linking the names to the numbers were destroyed. When electronic records were established to keep track of books patrons checked out, libraries used systems that captured the minimum amount of information needed to keep track of the books and purged that information from the system when the books were returned, trying to maintain the same level of protection as in the the past. In addition, in most libraries the computerized catalog systems don’t require persons using the catalog to identify themselves so that their searches remain private.

Still, a lot of people aren’t concerned about their privacy being invaded. Historically, the concept itself has been slippery. There’s no specific mention of privacy in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, as there is, say, for free speech, religion, or assembly. And there still is significant disagreement over what the right to privacy actually entails, as witnessed by our willingness to compromise our privacy for the convenience we get from the cyber world, as well as the general acceptance of the Patriot Act and the resultant infringement on our privacy.

Nonetheless, I, for one, appreciate that our public libraries cherish their long-established policy and practice of protecting my rights to privacy, confidentiality, and intellectual freedom. I agree with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (see also, “The Right to Privacy,” Harvard Review V. IV, No. 5, December 1890) who argued that the Constitution, “conferred against the government, the right to be let alone – the most comprehensive of rights and the right most favored by civilized men.” (dissent, Olmstead v. United States 1928).

Or, as Hank Williams put it: “If you mind your business, then you won’t be mindin’ mine.”

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Con Lehane’s latest book is Murder in the Manuscript Room.

<a rel="nofollow" href="https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250069993" target="_blank">Murder in the Manuscript Room by Con Le

CON LEHANE is a mystery writer who lives outside Washington, DC. He is the author of the Bartender Brian McNulty Mysteries, including What Goes Around Comes Around, and The 42nd Street Library Mysteries, including Murder at the 42nd Street Library. Over the years, he has worked as a college professor, a union organizer, a labor journalist, and has tended bar at two dozen or so drinking establishments.

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