Small town public library life and library school topics of interest

Teens Are People Too: Privacy Rules and the Teen Patron

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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 (American, point III). When the American Library Association crafted these words regarding patron confidentiality, they set a privacy standard that usually called to mind privacy standards for medical or legal professions, and they set that standard for ALL patrons, even those who are under eighteen. The issue of privacy in libraries has two parts: confidentiality concerning materials of interest to the patron and confidentiality of the patron’s library account information.

Teens in the library have the same privacy rights as adults when they seek information, even when asking for  information concerning difficult or controversial issues such as sexuality, drugs, the occult, or mental health. For the most part, it is fairly easy for library staff to wrap their minds around this area of privacy for teens since it is easy for them to put themselves in the teens’ place. Because staff would not want their own reading broadcast to the world at large, they can identify with the teen patron. The time when this does become an issue is when the staff member’s personal values conflict with the request for information. An example of this might be when a teen is asking for a title that has been banned such as Jay Asher’s controversial book Thirteen Reasons Why. This book deals with teen suicide and the reasons one of the characters in the book took her own life. Criticisms of it include: references to suicide, drugs, alcohol and smoking, and offensive language and sexually explicit text. Asher’s book is written in a way that the reader feels uncomfortable with and perhaps even complicit in the suicide by immersing the reader in the after effects of the death. Many people feel the book is inappropriate for the young adult age group for whom it was written, causing this book to be the third most banned book in 2012 (American, n.d.). When confronted with a young person asking for a title with so many potentially controversial topics included in it, a staff member might be disinclined to offer the book as an option; they might try to act in a parental rather than professional role. A solution to this problem is to provide an excellent training program for staff before they are faced with making these types of decisions and to continue that training throughout the staff member’s employment (Rubin, p. 1753). Staff must recognize, as stated by Hansen, that, “Patron confidentiality is a major component of ethical practice. An individual’s reading choices are confidential. The questions they ask, the reference sources they consult, the internet sites they visit, and the books they check out are all confidential” (Ethical, p.10).

A teen’s use of the public internet in the library is also confidential. Search histories and documents can be in danger of being viewed by future patrons who use that computer. At the Paso Robles City Library, unless staff receives a complaint about what the teen is viewing, he can access sites just as any adult user. Confidentiality is further maintained at the end of each day; when the computers shut down, they reset themselves, erasing any documents patrons may have created, and voiding any search history. Teens can request that staff reset the computer at the end of their session as well.

A more complicated  aspect of the teen privacy issue arises when information from the teen’s account is being requested. Usually for teens to open an account at the public library, they must have a parent or guardian sign paperwork saying that they will be responsible for charges incurred on the account. Once the parent has signed the teen up for the library account, the teen is free to use the library without the parent being present. This system usually works well, until a problem with the account arises. An example of this is when the parent who signed for the account becomes aware of charges (overdue or lost items usually) and visits the library to find out what is owed. Staff members often have difficulties with this issue; they take the position of the parent, believing that as the legal guardian of the teen, the parent should have full access to the account. This attitude flies in the face of ALA’s Library Bill of Rights which states, “A person’s right to use the library should not be denied or abridged because of…age.” (Hansen, Professional, para 4, point 5). Libraries have different ways of handling this type of request. At the Paso Robles City Library, I believe we have developed a fair plan that both recognizes the financial liability of the parent while still maintaining the confidentiality of the teen. If the parent either has the teen’s library card in hand or has the teen present with their school ID card, all information from the account can be given. Sometimes, though, the parent visits the library without either the teen or the library card present. Because the parent can be sent to a collection agency since they signed for the account as the responsible party, often the parent’s main concern is paying what is owed. We have allowed lead staff to access the patron’s record and have supplied the parent with the amount owed. Sometimes the parent wants to know the details of the charges, such as title information, and this is where we draw the line. Assuming the parent pays the charges (as is usually the case), we write a handwritten receipt for the transaction rather than a printout that would include title information. If the parent insists on knowing the details of the charges, we ask them to bring in the library card. There have been times when a teen is caught between two households (as in the case of a divorced family) where we have made the decision to open two library accounts for one teen (one with each signing parent’s address and other information) to make it easy for the parents to keep track of their responsibilities regarding their child.

Library records can be accessed by law enforcement agencies if there is a subpoena or warrant for the information. The most recent experience I had with this situation involved an officer from Florida working on a case of identity theft. He wanted to know what identification had been presented when a particular patron’s account had been opened (this example did not involve a teen account, but the procedure would be the same). The officer did not have a warrant or subpoena, so I had to turn down his request. Although I would have liked to have helped the officer with his case, because he had not acquired the proper documentation needed, he did not receive the information he requested.

The issue of privacy in the library can be a complicated one. Although the guidelines for staff behavior in enforcing patron confidentiality are clear and mostly simply worded, staff often let their personal beliefs override their professional behavior. This happens frequently when staff are working with young people (under 18) as it is easy for adults to want to guide them in a parental way rather than treating them the same as they would an adult. This can lead to breaches in confidentiality, a real problem for the agencies to which the library belongs. It is important that all staff be trained, and reminded of this training, throughout their employment with the library to avoid these breaches in confidentiality, particularly when assisting teens in their use of the library.


American Library Association. (2010). Intellectual freedom manual. Retrieved from http://www.ifmanual.org/codeethics

American Library Association. (n.d.). Frequently challenged books of the 21st century. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10

Hansen, D. (n.d.). Ethical issues and the information seeker. Retrieved from https://sjsu.instructure.com/courses/1117618/files/34242003/download?verifier=mc7nxBK5jp5knHCLvI1zuFdxYErpAHtYTuiFi8Gi&wrap=1

Hansen, D. (n.d.). Professional codes of ethics. Retrieved from https://sjsu.instructure.com/courses/1117618/files/34242012/download?verifier=8kUQ6JixZhAQlMmtdrLvCAAPcTeiP3OigzR98Ppw&wrap=1

Rubin, R. & Froehlich, T. J. (2010). Ethical aspects of library and information science. In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences.  (pp. 1743-1755).



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