This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, August 13, 1992

August 13, 1992 - Patron confidentiality

The year was 1981. A man named John W. Hinckley, Jr. tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.

Within days, an enterprising writer for Newsweek called the Jefferson County Public Library to find out what kind of books Hinckley, a one-time resident of Evergreen, might have checked out. Anything on guns? Anything linking him to violent, left-wing organizations?

At that time, Colorado didn't have what librarians in other states call a "patron confidentiality law." In brief, there was nothing to stop libraries from telling anyone who asked what anyone else was reading.

So by the end of 1981, several librarians got together with a lawyer to draft House Bill No. 1114. It was signed into effect by Governor Richard Lamm on March 22, 1983.

This law, "Concerning Privacy of Library User Records," is the sort of thing most library users don't think about. At first, it all sounds kind of pointless and stupidly inconvenient.

For instance, when library staff calls a woman to tell her that the book she reserved has come in, her husband might take the call. He might ask, "What's the book? I'll tell her it's in." Or maybe the man is standing at the circulation desk and asks, "Is anything in for my wife?"

Seems harmless enough, right? Helpful, even.

But according to the law, we can't say. Why? Well, there are several reasons. For one thing, it's a class 2 petty offense, punishable by a fine of up to $300 per occurrence.

For another, it's really none of the husband's business. The book might be, "How to Throw a Surprise Birthday Party." Or it might be, "How to Divorce Your Abusive Spouse Without Him Knowing About It."

There's an interesting twist to the Colorado law. Most laws in other states just protect privacy about specific books. For instance, the public library can't tell you who had checked out a copy of a book by Jerry Brown -- or Jerry Falwell. (This stops people on either side of an ideological fence from engaging in "fishing expeditions" or witch-hunts.)

The Colorado law specifies that "a publicly-supported library or library system shall not disclose ANY record or other information" (emphasis mine) "which identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific materials or service or as otherwise having used the library."

So with very few exceptions, ("the reasonable operation of the library," "upon written consent of the user," or "Pursuant to subpoena, upon court order, or where otherwise required by law") public libraries aren't supposed to divulge even that you've got, or have ever had, a library card.

To reflect this overriding respect for privacy, our computer system is specifically designed to forget what people check out -- as long as they return the items they have taken. (Our computer system is very, very good at remembering who didn't bring something back at all.)

And if you return a book that's damaged, the computer can, for a brief time, remember who to bill for it.

But if you bring back a book when you're supposed to, and it's in good shape, the only thing our computer system remembers about any particular title is how many times it got used, and what DATE the book was last checked out. This information is useful to us as we decide which books to keep, and which need to be cleared out to make way for new growth. Books that don't get used, ultimately don't get saved.

As a librarian in the age of automation, I am very much aware of the kinds of abuses computers might be turned to. Electronic snooping -- whether it be into your purchasing patterns, the background of your casual associates, or the books you read -- is precisely as ethical as a neighborhood peeper in the bushes, and as welcome.

At the Douglas Public Library District, we deal with the issue first by requiring only the patron information we need (your address, and an identifying number NOT your social security I.D.); second, by being very careful to erase any other information regarding your library use; and third, by reminding our staff that they are not to discuss what you're reading with anyone but you.

Protecting your intellectual privacy is not just the law. It's the right thing to do.

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