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.

Tuesday, November 23, 1993

November 23, 1993

I have written in the past about something librarians call "patron confidentiality."

There are a few exceptions, but most of the time, we are constrained by statute and general professional principles to hold information about your reading habits as strictly confidential: it's a private matter, between you and us.

I've held workshops at each of our branches to discuss this issue, and the branch managers and staff have tried to maintain the highest standards of confidentiality.

But about the time we really got everybody on the same wavelength about this, we began to run into problems. Some of our patrons got mad at us.

There are two circumstances.

The first is the thoughtful spouse who wants to pick up a book for his wife. He stops at the desk and asks if anything new has come in for her. The problem is, even if there is, we're not supposed to tell him.

We recognize that almost all of the time, the book is probably nothing more controversial or private than the latest mystery. It could be that neither party would object to us sharing this information, and might even appreciate it.

On the other hand, as I've written before, the book could be, "How to Give a Surprise Birthday Party for your Husband." Or it could be, "How to Divorce Your Abusive Husband." Either way, we'd hate to spoil the surprise.

But we do offer some options. If you want us to check out something, or answer questions about what someone in your family has checked out, just make sure you have the right library card. We will cheerfully hand over books reserved by your spouse if you've got your spouse's card. We take that as tacit approval.

Another option is to have us post a note in our computer that you don't mind if your husband or wife picks up your books. Then all we have to do is to dip in to the computer to verify your agreement -- a matter of a few moments.

The second circumstance, and a trickier one, is letting parents have access to information about what their kids are reading.

In public schools, parents have the right to examine any records regarding their children's performance. That includes library use. But that law is very specific: it includes only public schools, not public libraries.

Library law, on the other hand, doesn't indicate that children are in any respect different from adults when it comes to intellectual privacy.

At our library, usually the only reason parents ask about their children's reading is because they're trying to get everything back on time. We appreciate that. And again, usually the books we're talking about aren't anything unusual. They're books on subjects being covered in school, or popular juvenile fiction. Standard fare.

But suppose the child is reading about something that she isn't ready to talk with her parents about yet? Maybe she's reading about the effects of drugs because one of her friends is doing them. Or maybe she's reading about menstruation, because she's too embarrassed to talk about that with her folks. Or maybe she's reading about a young girl whose parents are divorcing, just like hers.

On the other hand, if a child loses a book, parents have to pay for it. That's something parents agree to right up front, when they sign for their child's card. So isn't it reasonable to say that if parents are paying for it, they have a right to know what the book is BEFORE they discover it's lost?

Please understand: there isn't a soul who works at the library who wants for an instant to come between parents and their children. If anything, we would hope that parents and their children regularly discuss the things they read together.

But this question is a real one: do children have no right to intellectual privacy at all? If they do, don't libraries have to respect it?

So parents, please understand that when we hesitate to just "reveal all," we aren't being obstructionist, bureaucratic, or pointlessly stubborn. We're trying to balance our need to obey the law and respect our patron's intellectual privacy, with our sincere desire to offer you hassle-free service.

Sometimes, as you can see, that's harder than it looks.