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.

Wednesday, April 15, 1998

April 15, 1998 - Monica Lewinsky and Patron Confidentiality

The adventures of Monica Lewinsky have chewed up a lot of newsprint lately. Among the latest is the March 26, 1998 edition of the New York Times, which had a news item headed “Lewinsky's bookstore purchases are now subject of a subpoena.”

What interests me about all this is not so much what she did, if she did anything, with President Clinton. What interests me is the way in which behavior ordinarily considered private can become part of the rumor-mongering machinery that passes for political discourse in this country. Here I don’t even mean sex. I don’t mean the conversations taped without her consent by her alleged friend, Linda Tripp. I just mean the books she bought from a bookstore.

To prevent precisely this kind of fishing around for information about people’s reading habits, it happens that there is a Colorado state statute (24-90-119) entitled Privacy of User Records. It’s pretty brief: “Except as set forth in subsection (2) of this section, a publicly-supported library or library system shall not disclose any record or other information which identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific materials or obtained specific materials or service or as otherwise having used the library.”

The circumstances under which records may be disclosed are also brief: “reasonable operation of the library,” upon the written consent of the user, or if we get presented with a subpoena.

Note that the law does not exclude children. They are presumed to have the same rights as adults.

What’s the intent of this statute? To protect patron’s privacy. The premise is that it isn’t anybody’s business but your own what you’re reading (assuming you bring it back when you’re supposed to).

We use three examples when we train our staff on this law: a woman might be checking out a book called How to Throw Your Husband A Surprise Birthday Party. Or it might be How to Divorce Your Abusive Spouse. Or perhaps a 12 year old girl is reading a non-fiction book about incest or alcohol abuse. In any of these cases, our patrons should have the expectation that their transaction with the library is confidential, not subject to peremptory review even by spouses or parents.

Thus we’ll call to tell a family member that a book is on hold for another family member, but not say which book it is. The call is “normal operations of the library.” Not saying what the title is constitutes withholding information about “specific materials,” as specified by law.

On the other hand, most of the time families aren’t snooping into each other’s intellectual investigations. They’re just trying to be helpful. “Is anything in for my husband?” “Did I get all my daughter’s books back in?”

My staff is sometimes extremely frustrated by my refusal to make this black or white. Some would prefer that I tell them, “Under no circumstances should you reveal the information attached to a library card to anybody other than the person who has it in hand.” It would make a lot of our patrons mad, but it would be strictly according to the law, and it would be unambiguous.

Others would prefer me to direct staff to “Tell any family member anything they want to know about another family member’s library card,” arguing that although it certainly undercuts the spirit of the law, this is part of the reasonable operation of a library. And many of our patrons seem to feel this is how it ought to be.

But the truth is, the issue isn't black or white. I believe in the right to privacy. I think it’s important that librarians live up to it. I’m also dedicated to good service. Sometimes they conflict.

So I have to tell our staff to use their best judgment, knowing that no matter how good that judgment is (and it’s plenty good), sometimes there will be goof ups. But I have told them to err on the side of respect for privacy. And I will back them up if they do.

The alternative is to put all of our patrons in the same fish bowl now occupied by Monica Lewinsky.

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