ON LIBRARIES: Regarding Guarding Privacy

With the recent uproar over privacy on Facebook and so many other breaches of privacy, including a password breach last week at Twitter, it sometimes feels as though privacy no longer exists. Certainly, it’s much harder to protect.  And yet, as educators we need to do all that is possible to protect our students’ privacy and to teach them what they can do to guard it. Today, I’d like to discuss the former.

ALA through its Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) is a resource you can turn to for help. Choose Privacy Week is held annually on May 1-7 (yes, today’s the last day).  The OIF “works with other privacy advocates to highlight current privacy practices and guidelines”. ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, Privacy Subcommittee, is one of the sponsors of the week and helps in creating and providing resources.   But how does this play out in your library and school? In too many places, there isn’t a Privacy Policy or even guidelines to raise awareness and take the precautions needed to protect students. To get an overview of what is needed, I recommend reviewing the Library Privacy Guidelines for Students in K-12 Schools.

Most school libraries have set their automation system to not keep records of what students have borrowed (it usually is the default setting.) which is an extremely important part of guarding student privacy.  Yet there are other practices that erode that privacy. For example, notifying students of overdue books is invariably done through the classroom or homeroom teacher depending on grade level. If the teacher receives a list of the outstanding loans/books for each student that’s a violation of the student’s privacy. It’s not the teacher’s business what the students are reading. What should be done, is to create individual notes for each student. Staple the notices closed and put the student’s name on the outside.  This can then be sent to the teachers.

I have no solution for the common practice of generating a list of overdues (and fines) at the end of the year.  In these situations, it may be the school’s policy that students do not get their report card or next year’s schedule until the books are returned and any fines paid.  What should never be done, and I have seen it, is to post the list on the windowed walls of the office, allowing anyone passing by to see who had taken out what book.

Gossip is another issue that infringes on student privacy.  There are still a number of you who have volunteers in your library.  I have often said they are your program’s eyes and ears to the community. They can be your biggest supporters and spread the good word about you and your program. The problem is they are also the mouths.  They see different students whom they know from other settings.  Without guidelines to inform the volunteers, or, better yet, a Board approved Privacy Policy, they may share their opinion of the behavior of different students and what books they have checked out.

If a parent group runs the book fair and it is held in the library, the same thing has a tendency to happen.  You have a responsibility to do your best to eliminate or minimize these violations of student privacy.  With your volunteers, share a written privacy policy, including the Library Privacy Guidelines for Students in K-12 Schools. Explain to them why it’s important.

When parents are in the library to run a book fair, you won’t be able to go into detail, but you might want to try a quick rundown of your guidelines.  You cannot guarantee it will help, but you will know you have made every effort.  We know when students are concerned that people are “watching” what they read, it has an inhibiting effect.  And that is counter to the Open Access and Freedom to Read values so important to most of us. Safeguarding our students’ privacy is a part of making and keeping the library a safe place for all.

Don’t worry that the first week in May is up. It’s never a bad time to look at what you are doing to safeguard your students’ privacy and helping them to understand the value that privacy has for us all.





ON LIBRARIES: Stand Up for Privacy

digital privacyBenjamin Franklin said, “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

Time and again in these years since 9/11 our right to privacy has been challenged in the name of security.  I am proud of ALA, our national organization, for its ongoing efforts to protect the privacy of patrons despite being accused of being unpatriotic. This is an important part of making certain our libraries are safe places for everyone who uses them.

ALA, through the Office for Intellectual Freedom, works to safeguard the reading history of library users. Individual librarians have had resisted warrants demanding those records.  As with dealing with challenged materials, it is a lonely fight and many don’t understand the importance of holding onto these principles when they feel the nation is being threatened by terrorists.

Re-read the Benjamin Franklin quote.  In giving up a freedom we give those who seek to destroy our way of life what they want. We become more like them.  It’s easy to think you have principles you believe in when no one challenges them.  Standing up for them in the face of so many opposing you is when you discover what you are made of.ala privacy week

We have just concluded Choose Privacy Week, an annual initiative of ALA.  Its purpose is to involve library users in a discussion of “privacy in a digital age.”  It is increasingly difficult to have any degree of privacy in today’s world.  Security cameras are everywhere and while I, too, recognize it is a protection against criminal behavior, sometimes in my head I hear the words of George Orwell, “Big Brother is watching you.” Our phones can be used to track us. We choose to use (and I do) E-Z pass, or whatever it’s called where you are to go through tolls without stopping, which records our actions. Ads on the side of my Facebook page remind me of where I just shopped and thanks to countless searches on my computer, Google “knows” a great deal about me and my preferences.

In this world of surveillance, at least what we choose to read should be our own business.  As school librarians, we also have the responsibility of keeping what students are reading private. If asked, we must tell a parent or guardian. They are still minors.  Be sure your automation system has been disabled so it does not maintain a record.  Most ILS systems don’t keep the record as a default, but you should check.  Once an item has been returned it should disappear from the student’s reading history.

Sending out overdue notices can be an easy way to violate student privacy. Teachers should not get a list of what their students’ overdue books.  Although it takes more time, either put them in envelopes or only give the name of the student and the number of overdues.

privacyEnd-of-the-year notices present a more difficult problem.  Where students can’t get their report cards until they complete their library obligations, it is customary to hand a list of student names with outstanding items to the school secretary who deals with returns, late fees, and lost book charges during the summer. There isn’t much you can do about that, but make a point of informing the secretary that what students have borrowed is private, and as with other information she learns throughout the year, it is to be kept confidential.

All school libraries should have a Privacy Policy spelling out how student and teacher information is to be kept private. ALA has information on Privacy and Confidentiality with resources including a toolkit.  Check it out if you don’t have a Privacy Policy or want to know more about your responsibilities in this area as a librarian.

The website for Choose Privacy Week had a highly informative blog with ideas for what to do to inform users about their privacy rights and how to safeguard it.  The post on Resources for Teaching Privacy offered information on How to Teach Internet Safety in Primary School and a Teen Privacy Guide.

ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee issued new Library Privacy Guidelines for Students in K-12 Schools.  Download it and share it with your administrators. Incorporate it into your current Privacy Policy. And if you have any volunteers in your library, make sure they are aware of it, and recognize they are not free to discuss outside the library what students borrow.

School librarians strive to make the library a safe, welcoming environment.  Protecting the privacy of our users is one way we ensure they feel safe – and welcomed.