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Library records and student privacy

A colleague brought to my attention a question one of the students in her library class asked: "Should my school's parent portal show the books their children have checked out from the school library?"

Parents use school portals to check lunch account balances, attendance, grades, homework completion, and a host of other real-time data about their kids. Why not library circulation records? FERPA (see below) clearly gives parents this right - if one considers circulation records educational records. A big if.

The American Library Association and state laws (at least here in Minnesota) require libraries to protect library patron data, including circulation records. Is this a case of minors not having the same rights as other citizens?

As I explain below in the selection from my book, there are no clear cut answers to if and how we protect student school circulation records, but I do believe we have the obligation to have a clear policy and set of practices around why and with whom we share library records.

Personally, I would advocate that:

  • Library records not be routinely shared on parent or student portals (kids can check their own data in the library circ system), but given to parents on an as-needed basis with the knowledge of the building administrator.
  • Library circulation histories in the library automation system be deleted - or not kept - to protect student privacy.
  • Each request for library circulation information be treated on a case-by-case basis, using the questions I've outlined below.

As a school librarian, I would certainly not make this a unilateral decision, but involve parents, students, teachers, and administrators in forming the rules without clear cut laws pertaining to the issue.


 From Chapter 11 of the Indispensable Librarian, 2nd edition:

ALA Library Code of Ethics Statement III: 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.

Privacy issues are a hot-button topic as citizens become more aware of how easily technology can gather, hold, analyze, use and share personal data and how increasingly their own online activities can be monitored. As a society, we weigh our individual need for privacy against our need for security and convenience. Schools reflect the societal concerns and the librarian is often placed in a decision-making position regarding privacy issues.

State and national laws are specific about the confidentiality of some forms of student information, including grades, health, and attendance records. State laws that address the confidentiality of library records can be found on ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom website. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a Federal law that addresses student educational privacy rights. School board policies address student privacy rights and these policies should be in compliance with federal and state laws.

While the librarian needs to be aware of the general laws and board policies regarding student data privacy issues, the ethical choices we must make about giving student library usage information may fall outside the parameters of legally or policy defined “education records.” Circulation records, Internet use histories, and other professional observations generally do not fit the description of an “education record.” State laws referring to library records may not be interpreted as applicable to school library records. (Please remember, I am not a lawyer although I sometimes play one on the Internet.)

Adding complexity to ethical choices that must be made in interpreting the general statement about a library patron’s right to privacy, minors have traditionally been accorded fewer privacy rights than adults. To what extent do we as librarians reveal the information-seeking and reading habits of an individual student to other adults who have a custodial responsibility for the well being of that student? Do I let a child’s parent, teacher, or school counselor know if one of my students has been accessing “how-to” suicide materials on the web? Do I give information to an authority on a child’s Internet use if it appears that the authority is just on a “fishing trip” with little probable cause for needing this data?

There are often legitimate pedagogical reasons to share with a child’s teacher information about that child’s library resource use. Is the child selecting reading materials at a level that allows that child to practice his or her reading skills? Is the child using the online resources to complete a classroom assignment?

While most of us can agree that violating the privacy of our students for our own convenience (displaying overdue lists that link student names with specific materials on the library website, sending such information to parents directly, or blindly supplying information about student reading or browsing habits to any adult who requests such information) is unethical, finer guidelines need to be established if we are to act ethically in the broader context of student and school welfare.

I would suggest we ask ourselves as librarians when making decisions about student privacy issues: 

  • What are my school’s policies and state and federal laws regarding the confidentiality of student information? Have I consulted with and can I expect support from my administration regarding decisions I make regarding student privacy? Is there recourse to the school’s legal counsel regarding difficult or contentious issues?
  • What is the legitimate custodial responsibility of the person or group asking for information about a student?
  • How accurately and specifically can I provide that information?
  • By providing such information is there a reasonable chance the information may prevent some harm to either the individual or to others in the school or community?
  • Is there a legitimate pedagogical reason to share student information with a teacher? Am I sharing information about materials that students are using for curricular purposes or for personal use?
  • Have I clearly stated to my students what the library guidelines are on the release of personal information? If the computers in the library are or can be remotely monitored, is there a clear statement of that fact readily posted?
  • If student activity on a computer is logged, are students aware of this record, how long the log is kept, how the log may be used, and by whom?

As librarians, we of course need to help students be aware of technology issues related to privacy both so that they can protect their own privacy and honor the privacy of others. Students need to understand that businesses and organizations use information to market products, and that information is often gathered electronically, both overtly and covertly. Students need to know that a stranger is a stranger, whether met on the playground or on the Internet and that personal information shared with a stranger may put themselves and their families at risk. Students need to know that schools have the right to search their files when created and stored on school owned computer hardware. Students need to be taught to respect the privacy of others: that because information is displayed on a computer screen doesn't make it public; that information inadvertently left accessible does not mean that it is appropriate to access it.


Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA): "Parents or eligible students have the right to inspect and review the student's education records maintained by the school."

MN Government Data Practices - Library Data Minn. Stat. §  13.40 Subd. 2.  Private data; library borrowers.  (a) Except as provided in paragraph (b), the following data maintained by a library are private data on individuals and may not be disclosed for other than library purposes except pursuant to a court order:
(1) data that link a library patron's name with materials requested or borrowed by the patron or that link a patron's name with a specific subject about which the patron has requested information or materials; or
(2) data in applications for borrower cards, other than the name of the borrower.  
(b) A library may release reserved materials to a family member or other person who resides with a library patron and who is picking up the material on behalf of the patron.  A patron may request that reserved materials be released only to the patron. 



BFTP: What's the place of futurists?

Predicting the future is easy. It’s trying to figure what’s going on now that’s hard.
Fritz Dresser

One of the more interesting characters in literature is Cassandra from Homer's Illiad. She was a Trojan woman so babe-i-licious that the god Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy. But when Cassie told the besotted god to get lost, Apollo put a little curse on her: While her predictions would be dead on, nobody, but nobody, would believe them. Which turned out not to be a wise move by the Trojans, as you know.

I thought about Cassandra reflecting on a comment to my post Dangerously irrelevant libraries. Michael Doyle eloquently responded:

Futurists are charlatans, and they know it, we know it, but it's fun to gaze into crystal balls, so we play the game.

Like fortune tellers and seers, they state the obvious in deep and mysterious ways, which is not hard, since the future is (in our heads, anyway) deep and mysterious.

Scott McLeod [whose futuristic comments about libraries lead to the comment] has a nice side job stirring folks up. So long as he doesn't get swallowed up in his own hype, he performs a necessary service, and he performs it well.

Any man who believes "we are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist, using technologies that haven't been invented, in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet" then proceeds to predict the future anyway gives me pause. (I think the quote was Karl Fisch's, and to be fair, it was originally meant for a school presentation where hyperbole is encouraged.)

The last question posed (#9: "There is no conceivable future....") either reflects brilliant tongue-in-cheekiness, or a lack of imagination.

We are human. We eat. We breath. We poop and we pee, We play to make more of us. We get old. We die. We will always need food, and food will remain tied to the sun, the the earth, to the air.

The recent shift in ownership in this country is frightening; the unemployment rate is not just an accident of economics. We cannot educate ourselves out of replacing people with machines.

The McLeod's of our culture have found themselves a nice niche. If we ever took the time to deeply look at any of the questions posed above, we might have a wonderful discussion about what it means to be human, what it means to use a tool, what it means to place value on things ultimately useless.

Those kinds of discussions are not glittery enough to hold our attention, and we would not like the conclusions if we could sit still long enough to think them through. We've become more magpie than human.

I enjoy your blog because it encourages the kind of reflection shunned by so many other blogs. Posing a list of McLeodisms jars the reader seeking BlueSkunkisms, but it's a good reminder of what many of the tech elite believe.

Since I often play the role of futurist/charlatan in my own talks, Michael's strong words made me stop and think. What impact does predicting, warning, excoriating, and building dread or hope in teachers and librarians really have in how we actually act?

By describing the future are we creating a better future ... or is it just using a coping mechanism for dealing with the present? Do we do a disservice to ourselves by not fully processing the implications of future trends and putting perspective to them?

Michael, thank you for your comments. You've give me deep pause.

By the way, Cassandra came to a rather bad end. She was raped, lost the power of prophecy, was taken to Greece as a war prize where she was promptly whacked with an axe by a jealous wife (as I remember). Perhaps futurists never have been all that popular.

Cassandra warns the Trojans. Engraving by Bernard Picart (1673-1733) Image source

Original post November 8, 2009.


A four hour practice test for 3rd graders

  • The SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes long.
  • The ACT including essay is 3 hours and 45 minutes long.
  • The LSAT is 3 hours and 30 minutes.
  • The GRE is 3 hours and 45 minutes long.

Minnesota's OLPA, the optional local purpose assessment is a version of the MCA II that districts can offer twice a year to students grades 3-8, is between 3 and 4 hours long for the reading portion and up to 2 hours long for math. 

And this is just the practice test. 

Good grief. Perhaps we will see some of this in Minnesota?