Saturday, January 23, 2010

Regarding Privacy & Patron Records

On my refrigerator is a magnet that reads: ‘THE PATRIOT ACT: Turning citizens into suspects since 2001’.  That should give you some idea of my political views.  So, here’s a question:  Why don’t I care about this?

Yes, what you see there is my patron record from the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library.  Everything I have ever checked out on my card is there – hosted on a server, accessible on the web.  If this is possible, then I’m sure my checkout history is public viewing to everyone working at KHCPL.

So why don’t I care?  It’s not because I don’t have anything to hide – although I don’t.  And it’s not because I figured I’m already on a Homeland Security watch list so it doesn’t really matter – although I probably am and it probably doesn’t. 

The answer is this:  Carol Choksy.  If you haven’t taken Records Management with her, I highly recommend the class.  Not only will you learn a lot and have fun, but it’s a unique perspective on document and data management.  Part of what we discussed in that class is data security – or the lack thereof.

Last week in class, we talked a little bit about security of patron records and what libraries can do to protect their patrons.  I think most of us ended that discussion with the belief that library records are “wiped clean” after the materials are checked back in.  Unfortunately, that is probably not the case.

The patron records are deleted from the software system, but not the hardware.  The software is hosted on a server, and information written to that machine is incredibly difficult to erase.  Department of Defense standards say that the location of that data must be written over seven times before the data is destroyed.  I’m not sure libraries have programmed that command into their circulation software functions. 

It takes an incredible amount of time, equipment, and technical knowledge to recreate data that has been “deleted” from a computer, but it can be done.  The Department of Homeland Security would have the resources necessary to find patron records if the servers were ever seized. 

So I guess I don’t care that my reading history is available to anyone with my library card number (which is dangling from my keychain, by the way) and software to crack my password because I figure it won’t be completely deleted anyway. 

What libraries do to protect patrons isn’t nothing.  At places other than KHCPL, the information has at least been removed from public viewing.  That’s some comfort, at least.  Personal and legal issues are kept private from the people patrons see on regular basis, if nothing else.  I think it gives patrons some comfort to hear that their preferences are private, even if that’s not entirely true.

But I want to point out that this is not the only weakness in libraries’ records management.  We send e-mails to patrons informing them that their materials are due in a week and that materials they’ve requested are ready to pick up.  In most workplaces, all e-mail is stored on disk or tape in case there are legal or personnel reasons to critique behavior.  Some patrons reading interests will be stored there.

We also send out e-mails and letters regarding late fees.  For financial purposes, we are required to keep these records for a certain amount of time.  It’s true that those who break the law forfeit their civil liberties, but I don’t believe that a person’s right to privacy is nullified because they kept a library book longer than they were supposed to. 

All the same, libraries must keep these records, and they are patron records.


  1. You make some good points. But in most systems that I am aware of - patrons provide an email address - so they have the opportunity to use a personal rather than work account. Also, patrons select whether or not they want to receive communication from the library that way.

    While most libraries do not blast hard drives metaphorically with a blow torch - they do what they can to protect patron privacy because in most states the law requires it.

  2. My concern is that most people don't understand digital security well enough to make a knowledgeable decision about how to receive communication - not just from the library, but from everyone online.

    I do see merit in what libraries do, but I think we should be careful about believing that we're "covered" when it comes to digital information.