Sunday, 1 September 2019

How to maintain Privacy in a Social World – who cares about your Privacy Rights?

There is at least one place in Australia – in the nation’s cities and towns – that respects your privacy. Libraries care passionately about protecting the confidentiality of its library users. At the heart of this sentiment is the principles adopted by many libraries across the nation – the 2018 ALIA Free access to information statement

As the principle of this statement says, ‘Freedom can be protected in a democratic society only if individuals have unrestricted access to information and ideas.’ And underneath the principle is one of the statements: Protecting the confidential relationships that exist between the library and information service and its clients.

I would like to explore this theme, look at the history of privacy in relation to the individual liberty in democracy and how this can be applied in this modern, online world.

The freedom to read and receive ideas anonymously, is at the heart of individual liberty. If individuals in society fear that their privacy or confidentiality is compromised, true freedom of thought, inquiry and research no longer exists. The basis of this concern for privacy can be traced back to the public libraries of last century, when their mission was to help those wishing to become better read or educated, by providing materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. In turn, early librarians wished to protect the privacy of their readers in order to promote free expression in a truly democratic society.

This can be seen by library practices in the pre-electronic days, where the library patrons were assigned numbers on their library cards to protect their confidentiality, and library records used these numbers rather than the name of the user to keep track of issued items. When electronic management systems were established to keep track of the items patrons checked out, libraries used systems that captured the minimum amount of information needed to keep track of the items and automatically deleted that information from the system when the items were returned, trying to maintain a similar level of protection as in the past. In addition, in most libraries, the computerised catalogue systems do not require persons using the catalogue to sign in or identify themselves before searching, so that their searches remain private.

This approach to privacy and confidentiality by public libraries distinguishes them from the online presence that most people today take for granted eg Google, Facebook and other social media. Libraries do everything in their power to keep the library activities of their patrons confidential. This is, of course, quite different from the practice of the social media that has become part of everyday life, which collect and compile everything they can find about your Internet activities. Libraries make sure no one can find out what books you read, what search engines you use, what databases you go to, what websites you visit. However, I know when I log back into my social media accounts, I get a curated display including accommodation deals I may have previously searched, ads for products I recently bought and suggestions for Aps to download. Do you even think about the information you are inputting into search engines? What does your digital footprint say about your online habits?

While researching for this blog article, I went to have a look at Australia’s Privacy law. The Privacy Act 1988 is an Australian law which regulates the handling of personal information about individuals. I was pleased to see that the Privacy Act includes thirteen Australian Privacy Principles that set out standards, rights and obligations with regards to the handling, holding, use, accessing and correction of personal information. For more information please go to (

One of the Privacy Principles talks about the open and transparent management of personal information including having a Privacy Policy. Does your library service have a Privacy Policy? Do you have Policies, Procedures or Protocols when handling personal information about your patrons? Have you made the conscious decision of wiping patron’s loan histories from their online records once the items have been returned? What do you do if the Police ask if one of your library patrons has borrowed books on particular topics? Or is this all handled by your auspicing body – your Council, your University, your Corporation’s Privacy Policies? These are questions definitely worth asking for your library service and for your patrons’ safety and ongoing privacy.

On the ALIA website, there is an excellent Guideline document that can be used by your library to help develop your own Privacy Policy. I encourage you all to have a look at this document and ensure that your library has Policies and Procedures in place to protect the privacy of your library users (

I appreciate that libraries cherish this long-established practice of protecting my rights to privacy, confidentiality, and intellectual freedom. I will sign off by telling you which book I am reading next…. actually, no, I can’t say, that wouldn’t be protecting my privacy.