By Alexander Ames
When a patron of any library uses its services, there is an expectation of privacy on the part of the user. Otherwise, it would be extremely uncomfortable for them to get information on subjects that might even just be seen as touchy, and with a shifting social landscape, that might cover most topics. For example, the book Steal This Book , held at the Willis Library, has been set as a reserve and can be found behind the service desk. This has reduced the circulation of the book as patrons may be wary of telling a government-funded library that they are interested in reading a book that has themes of anarchy, while the real reason that it can be found behind the service desk is because the library was afraid that the book would be stolen if left on the general collection shelves.
To ensure the patron’s right to information, most libraries in the U.S. follow the Code of Ethics (Professional Ethics, 2021) and Library Bill of Rights (Library Bill of Rights, 2019) created by the American Library Association (ALA), either officially or unofficially. This Code of Ethics is taught to future librarians working towards their master’s degree in Library Science in ALA accredited programs. This is done to ensure equitable access to information via the librarian’s experience in an attempt to standardize library ethics rather than leaving ethical issues up to the individual library that might not have an ethical framework to work from. This code of ethics is meant to “…ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations” (Professional Ethics, 2021) while keeping each librarian as unbiased as possible. In the example with Steal This Book, this would mean that it is the library’s duty to see to the free flow of information held in the book, which is currently hampered by misconceptions that the book is held behind the desk to collect data on those who would ask for it.
However, libraries do not always clearly give their policies on patron privacy, which leads to patrons not knowing what rights they have or what information will be given away by the library they visit. Rather than this lack of availability being due to the libraries having no Code of Ethics, it may be due to institutions being wary of adopting a Code of Ethics created outside of their specific needs. As the ALA Code of Ethics is meant to be broad guidelines rather than specific rules to follow and is meant to be more like a set of ethical guidelines than specific rules, it should be applicable to most, if not all, situations.
UNT Libraries, as an example of a library without a patron privacy statement, is both part of an ALA Accredited University, meaning that the University’s Library Science program has been approved to ALA standards, and is an institutional member of the ALA and, by extension, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), upholding their ethical standards by association. However connected an institution might be to ethical bodies, if this is not made clear to patrons, the library starts seeing issues like the one mentioned before with Steal This Book , where a lack of clarity on ethical standards and policies on patron privacy cause distrust between patron and institution.
The core purpose of a service in the field of information services, especially an academic library, is the proliferation of information, and the lack of a patron privacy statement runs counter to that purpose. The issue here is one of transparency to the patron, as the only way that the library can guarantee equitable access to information is if the patron knows that, barring a subpoena, the books that they check out will only be known to them and the library. No matter how embarrassing or socially charged a book checked out from the library might seem to be, libraries are a place free of judgement, and a place patron privacy is protected: they simply need to make that fact clearer to their patrons.
Cooke county library policy appendices. (2011). Cooke County Library. https://cookecountylibrary.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/08/POLICY_APPENCIES.pdf
Library bill of rights. (2019). American Library Association. https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill
Privacy and confidentiality in the Cornell university library. (n.d.) Cornell University Library. https://www.library.cornell.edu/privacy
Privacy and confidentiality of patron records. (n.d.) redoaktx.org. https://www.redoaktx.org/427/Privacy-and-Confidentiality-of-Records
Professional ethics. (2021). American Library Association. https://www.ala.org/tools/ethics