September 21, 2017

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The Privacy Problem

Although school librarians seldom discuss it, students’ privacy rights are under attack

SLJ1104w_Privacy(Original Import)

Illustration by Ken Orvidas

Imagine the look of horror on one New York school librarian’s face when she returned to her middle school library to find a list of overdue books with the names of kids who had borrowed them plastered on her door. She immediately thought of all the students who’d taken out titles on sensitive topics, like puberty.

Another school librarian in Wisconsin said her principal insisted on a list of every book a certain student had checked out since his first day of school—no explanation offered. She knew the boy liked to read about drugs, weapons, and war, and feared the information would end up in the hands of the local police.

And then there was the Georgia elementary school librarian who had to constantly fend off teachers who wanted to scrutinize their students’ circulation records. Although she always denied access, she says it really comes down to support from higher-ups, like her principal. “Even in this age of schools focusing on protecting children’s security and privacy, library information records are considered no big deal,” she says.

Every day in school libraries nationwide, students’ privacy rights are under attack, but many principals, teachers, parents, and community members don’t know much about these rights. Even though school librarians are among the strongest proponents of privacy, the subject is rarely discussed, probably because state and federal laws can be confusing. Unlike materials selection policies, few school libraries have regulations that address privacy issues—and that can make it difficult for you to respond authoritatively when asked about student records. There are also mixed feelings about saying no to parents, who have fiscal and personal responsibility over their children’s library use and feel they have a right to know more about the kinds of books and materials their kids check out.

What the law says

What do librarians and other educators need to know about students’ privacy rights in school libraries? For starters, every state—except for Florida, Maine, Connecticut, and Massachusetts—and even the District of Columbia safeguards the confidentiality of school library records when it comes to minors. Although these protections vary greatly, no state law gives teachers or principals the right to access a student’s library circulation record. For the most part, kids are protected from curious parents, too, with only 15 states (Alaska, Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) giving caregivers the authority to view their children’s circulation records.

On the federal level, the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the confidentiality of student education records. When contacted in 2009, the Family Policy Compliance Office, the agency that implements FERPA, assured me that library circulation records “meet the definition of education records under FERPA and cannot generally be disclosed absent consent of the parent unless an exception to the consent requirement applies.”

What are some of those exceptions? They include instances when there’s a “legitimate educational interest” (such as a teacher checking a student’s standardized test scores or previous year’s attendance), an emergency in which information is needed to protect a student’s health and safety, or a court order or subpoena.

Definite gray areas exist when interpreting state and federal library record privacy laws that apply to students, so a clear district-level library privacy policy is needed to further protect students’ rights. If you have a strong state library records statute, incorporate the most protective language into your policy and extend as much confidentiality to minors’ library records as possible. Be sure to create a records retention policy that defines the types of records and data that are essential to preserve and include a schedule for purging unnecessary information. Remember, you can’t give out information that no longer exists.

When it’s OK to overstep students’ rights

John’s high school librarian often saw him using the library, and then three months after the honor student graduated from his rural Midwest school, he shot and killed himself. The librarian still wonders if she and her colleagues had failed to notice his signs of distress.

Although rare, there are times when a school librarian may feel compelled to violate a student’s privacy rights out of a concern for his well being. In fact, educators are required by law to report suspected child abuse, but there are also other potential dangers, such as bullying or severe depression. According to psychiatrist Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, a former assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD, suicide is the third leading cause of death among people 10 to 24 years old. (For more on this topic, visit www.medicinenet.com/suicide/article.htm.) As a school librarian, you’re in a unique position to observe kids outside the classroom and are likely to notice significant changes in their personality, circle of friends, or degree of sociability.

What action should you take if a student needs help? Begin by talking informally with him and letting him know the discussion is strictly confidential. If the student’s troubling actions persist, seek out the school counselor. Bound by confidentiality, the counselor may have received reports about the student from other teachers and students, and he’s better trained than you are on how best to proceed. If you’re worried about the safety of students and staff, the logical choice of a confidant is your principal.

The digital dilemma

The Internet has increased everyone’s access to information, and it’s given us new opportunities to communicate and express ourselves. In exchange, children and teens have often paid a steep price. When kids use school technology in computer labs, classrooms, and the library, they’re governed by their district’s acceptable use policy. Under these policies, schools are allowed to monitor students’ online activities, which means that kids sacrifice some of their privacy rights.

Library management technology, which captures student information, can also pose a serious threat to students’ privacy. Circulation systems, for instance, retain the title of every item that’s checked out, unless they’re specifically set to delete a student’s circulation history. Circulation systems can also easily print out overdue items and fine notifications, which, if distributed improperly, can compromise kids’ privacy. Esther, a Midwest high school librarian, takes great care to protect her students’ circulation records by never letting kids check books in or out for their classmates. “When I first started in this position, student media aides worked at the circulation desk and spent a lot of time looking up other students to see what they had checked out,” she explains. “I don’t think students should know what others are checking out. We have adult staff do this job for confidentiality reasons. The American Library Association’s Code of Ethics states: ‘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.’”

As more districts allow students to bring cell phones, iPods, and other electronic devices to school, privacy issues are bound to increase. “These devices are so much a part of their lives,” says Connie Williams, a teacher librarian at Petaluma High School in Sonoma County, CA. “We allow kids to use their smart phones in the library during down times, like lunch, and before and after school. This means that they’re texting all the time! If kids are going to be using these devices more in school, if we’re going to provide them with more school-related apps, and if they’re logging on to more 2.0 apps and social networking sites, then privacy is going to become a big deal. It’s already one.”

To help tackle the problem, Williams has started a privacy campaign in the library to teach kids the importance of online basics, like how to create a great screen name without giving away too much personal information or how to set up a profile that limits access to one’s self. Using a tutorial adapted from the California School Library Association Teen Learning 2.0 Team (http://teenlearning.csla.net/about-2), Williams is working with ninth-grade students in a required course that includes digital citizenship and the acceptable uses of interactive tools. She begins by introducing the concept that every student has his own “digital footprint” and then invites the class to watch several videos about protecting their privacy and personal reputations online. “I thought at first that they’d roll their eyes when I came into their class to talk about Internet stuff, but they generally engage in delightful conversations,” says Williams. “They want their voices heard.”

Now that electronic books are outselling hardcover titles on Amazon.com, it’s time to consider whether there are privacy issues associated with circulating ereaders in the school library. For example, can a student’s name be linked with a particular book that he’s read on one of your library’s Kindles? So far, Teresa Voss, a Wisconsin high school librarian who checks out bar-coded Kindles, hasn’t had a problem with privacy. “Because I have multiple books and multiple Kindles, no one has figured out who has read what,” she says.

But what about privacy concerns related to digital books downloaded from ebook distributors, like OverDrive? “We issue OverDrive user numbers to students who express an interest in downloading an audiobook, and the numbers don’t correspond to their library user numbers,” says Maine high school librarian Suzanne Hamilton. “When a student wants to listen to an audiobook, we check it out in the student’s name in OverDrive; then we sync it to one of the library’s players. The student checks out the device, and when it is returned, we delete the file. I’m not an expert on privacy, but I don’t think there are privacy concerns. The company doesn’t know the names of any of our patrons who use the system.”

OverDrive’s director of marketing, David Burleigh, can vouch for that. “We do not collect, store, or provide access to identifying information including name, address, gender, or age of the student,” says Burleigh. “We do gather aggregated usage statistics on the content; however, none of the information is tied to any student or patron.” Although companies like OverDrive are aware of librarians’ privacy concerns, we need be alert to the potential impact of technology on student privacy and work with vendors to ensure confidentiality for our users.

Making a difference

How can you protect students’ right to privacy in the library while responding to information requests from parents, teachers, and administrators? These steps can help:

  • Talk to your principal about student privacy in the library and how to resolve various types of record requests in adherence to state and federal laws.
  • Request that your board of education adopt a privacy policy stating who can access library patron records and the circumstances under which they may be released.
  • Conduct a privacy audit to determine what student data you’ve collected, stored, shared, and used—and then determine what records should be purged.
  • Develop a library records retention policy that includes a records-removal schedule and conscientiously maintain it.
  • Be proactive and educate administrators, teachers, and all persons working in the library about the need to keep student library records confidential.
  • Create and retain as few student library records as possible.
  • Set library automation software to automatically delete students’ circulation history.
  • Password protect circulation records and provide different levels of access for the adult library staff, students, and volunteers.
  • Fold and staple overdue notices so that only the student’s name—and not the book’s title—is visible.
  • Make sure that students’ reference questions, reserve and interlibrary loan requests, and the types of books they check out are kept confidential.
  • Don’t label and arrange library books by reading levels (a common practice in some schools that use Accelerated Reader) so that students can observe their classmates’ reading levels.
  • Teach students how to protect their privacy and to respect the privacy of others.
  • Encourage parents to speak directly with their children about their reading choices and what they’ve checked out from the school library.

Students need to know that their privacy will be respected and their records kept confidential in the school library. At the very least, they should be able to read and borrow materials free from the scrutiny of others. They should also be able to seek information on a topic without disclosing the subject of their research. Privacy in school libraries will remain a thorny issue unless we work with principals to create board-approved privacy policies and train the entire school to be sensitive to students’ rights. As school librarian positions continue to be slashed, that won’t be easy. But as one library professional pointed out, without our advocacy efforts, the loss of student privacy rights could become “no big deal.” And that would be a very big deal.


The American Library Association’s (ALA) second annual “Choose Privacy Week” (CPW), May 1–7, is right around the corner. Why not use it as a way to educate your students and school community about kids’ privacy rights? Be sure to check out ALA’s CPW website (http://privacyrevolution.org), which offers four lesson plans for teaching privacy to students in grades K–2, 3–5, 6–8, and 9–12. And if you really want to get the celebration rolling, a Choose Privacy Week Resource Guide (which includes a privacy checklist for school libraries), as well as bookmarks, posters, and a 23-minute video and study guide is available at ALA’s online store (www.alastore.ala.org).


For More helpful ideas about student’s privacy rights, don’t miss…

Adams, Helen R. Ensuring Intellectual Freedom and Access to Information in the School Library Media Program, Libraries Unlimited, 2008.
It’s impossible to cover everything that’s important about student privacy in one article. To learn more, grab a copy of this book, which includes the best practices to protect student confidentiality in the library.

Adams, Helen R. et al. Privacy in the 21st Century: Issues for Public, School, and Academic Libraries, Libraries Unlimited, 2005.
Searching for more specific issues related to protecting student privacy in school libraries? You’ll find them here. There’s also a sample school library privacy policy and a records retention policy, plus information on how to conduct a privacy audit.

ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom Intellectual Freedom Manual: Eighth Edition, ALA Editions, 2010.
Recently updated, this intellectual freedom “bible” provides policy statements and a rationale for supporting K–12 students’ privacy rights. There’s also a free online supplement (http://ifmanual.org) that includes the full text of intellectual freedom documents, such as “Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” and “Questions and Answers on Privacy and Confidentiality.”

American Association of School Librarians “Position Statement on the Confidentiality of Library Records.” www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/aasl/aaslissues/positionstatementsconfidentiality.cfm
AASL’s position statement provides school librarians with a rationale for explaining the legal and ethical basis of students’ privacy in school libraries.

Electronic Frontier Foundation. www.eff.org
If you visit this free-speech watchdog’s website, you’ll discover two items of special note: “E-Book Buyer’s Guide to E-Book Privacy,” which reviews privacy policies of ereaders and their effect on readers, and “Digital Books and Your Rights: A Checklist for Readers,” a white paper that, in part, offers basic background on privacy issues associated with ebooks.

Scales, Pat R. Protecting Intellectual Freedom in Your School Library: Scenarios from the Front Lines, ALA Editions, 2009.
Check out this book for a concise but understandable description of FERPA, the exceptions under which student education records may be released, and the law’s potential effect on school library users’ records.


Author Information
Helen R. Adams (hadams1@centurytel.net) is a former school librarian and technology coordinator. She is the author of Ensuring Intellectual Freedom and Access to Information in the School Library Media Program (Libraries Unlimited, 2008). Her comments are not to be considered legal advice.
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