Which do you think is more secure: The record of the phone calls you have made in the last month, or the list of books you checked out from the library last year?
Thanks to the recent reports on activity by the National Security Agency, Americans learned their phone calls, Internet use and other records are gathered, entered into a database and mined during investigations. But library records cannot be included in that data, due to protective laws.
How are these records guarded?
In Lodi, the library staff send all search requests to Dean Gualco, library director, who confers with City Attorney Steve Schwabauer. That’s a normal practice for libraries in California.
The Lodi Public Library receives about one request every two years, and do refuse to grant them when necessary. Schwabauer does not know of any archives of these requests.
State law protects library patrons’ information. It cannot be shared with anyone but the patron without a court order or warrant. That rule goes for the FBI, Homeland Security agents or members of the Lodi Police Department.
Deputy city attorney Janice Magdich can only think of one time in eight years that library records were requested for a court case. The library received a subpoena from the San Joaquin County Defense Attorney. Magdich had to appear in court to quash it.
A subpoena is issued by an attorney, not a judge. It’s not enough to break the library privacy laws in California, which state only a librarian or the patron himself can access a circulation record.
“A subpoena, in either a criminal or civil proceeding, would not by itself be sufficient to invade the privacy rights of library patrons,” Magdich said. “We don’t want to hamper an investigation, but library records are not disclosable.”
In Sacramento, the rules are similar. Rivkah Sass says she knows of only two total requests for patron information by law enforcement. Sass is the director of the Sacramento Public Library, which has branches throughout the county.
Copies of requests, warrants or court orders for records are kept in a file in the basement. Library employees are instructed to never discuss a patron’s record unless they are checking out a book.
What information do libraries have on their patrons?
If government agents or investigators were searching through library records in Lodi, there wouldn’t be much to find.
At the Lodi Public Library, staff keep very little information on record, according to Rebecca Loveless, senior library assistant. They ask for a photo ID, and keep names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and birth dates. The system does not track what books are checked out by a single patron. In fact, once a book is returned and any fees are paid, the library has no record of the book you had in your car for three weeks.
They get occasional questions from patrons about records. Most ask if email addresses are sold — they aren’t.
“It is so important that people get information in this country that we ensure unfettered access to information and materials so patrons can check them out without worrying that anyone is going to look at it,” Loveless said. “If you checked out ‘The Anarchist’s Cookbook’ in 1987, no one can hold that against you.”
In Sacramento, modern technology helps to keep records clear.
They keep basic contact information for their patrons, including name, address, birth date and email address, as well as a recent record of what books they checked out.
Patrons have the option to access their own reading history online, behind a password.computer usage isn’t trackable, because the software wipes search histories and documents clean after each patron logs out. The library purges their system annually, removing the names of any patrons who haven’t checked out books in a year.
It’s an unusual image, but perhaps librarians are a final bastion of security, mused Sass.
“We know what the law is, but we want the public to know what the law is,” she said. “Nobody wants to go to jail over what somebody has checked out.”
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.