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.