Confidentiality and Libraries

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is there a library confidentiality law in New York?
Yes. Confidentiality of library records is covered under Subsection 4509 of Civil Practice Laws and rules. This Confidentiality of Library Records Law of New York was enacted in 1982.

What does this law cover?
§4509. Library records states, Library records, which contain names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of public, free association, school, college and university libraries and library systems of this state, including but not limited to records related to the circulation of library materials, computer database searches, interlibrary loan transactions, reference queries, requests for photocopies of library materials, title reserve requests, or the use of audio-visual materials, films or records, shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed except that such records may be disclosed to the extent necessary for the proper operation of such library and shall be disclosed upon request or consent of the user or pursuant to subpoena, court order or where otherwise required by statute.

Are there any rulings regarding this law?

Yes. The following is from a ruling regarding Quad/Graphics, Inc. v. Southern Adirondack Library System, 174 Misc. 2d 291, 664 NYS 2d 225, September 30, 1997:

“It is the court’s determination that disclosure of the information sought [i.e., employees who used the Southern Adirondack Library System’s “Library Without Walls” electronic information service to explore the Internet] should not be permitted. …Were this application to be granted, the door would be open to other similar requests made, for example, by a parent who wishes to learn what a child is reading or viewing on the ‘Internet’ via ‘LWW’ or by a spouse to learn what type of information his or her mate is reviewing at the public library.”

The Committee on Open Government Advisory Opinion, FOIL-AO-6046, April 26, 1990, states:
“With regard to the request for releases [signed by parents whose children appeared on a promotional videotape produced by the library board of trustees], it [Section 409 of the CPLR] is applicable, the releases would be exempted from disclosure by [Freedom of Information Law, Section 87 (2) (a)].”

The Committee on Open Government Advisory Opinion, FOIL-AO-6721, July 10, 1991, states:
“Based upon [Section 87 (2) (a) through (I) of the Freedom of Information Law and Section 4509 of the CPLR], I believe that registration cards or other library records containing ‘names or other personally identifying details’ concerning library users are confidential.”

The Committee on Open Government Advisory Opinion, FOIL-AO-8855, May 24, 1995, states:
“While most library records, including bills, must be disclosed, I point out that [Section 4509 of the CDLR] dealing directly with records pertaining to library users requires that those records be confidential.”

What does this mean in my library?

The most obvious confidentiality breach is the use of patron’s names to manually sign out library materials. All libraries should use card numbers for circulation of library materials rather than patron names.

Some less obvious ramifications concern use of electronic resources. Many libraries use sign-in books listing patrons’ names and times on the public computers for previous days, weeks, or months. This sign-in sheet or book s a library record containing names of patrons, and seems to fall under the Committee on Open Government’s Opinion, “other library records containing ‘names or other personally identifying details’ concerning library users are confidential.”

Other sign-in sheets for library programs or services where a patron can view names or other personally identifiable details would be in breach of confidentiality.

Postcards should not be used to notify patrons that a reserve book is available if the title of the material is listed.

Bills or overdue notices should be in envelopes rather than on postcards, to protect the confidentiality of the patrons.

Libraries should use library card numbers whenever possible when dealing with patrons and library records.

Are there any other positions or statements on libraries and confidentiality?

The American Library Association ( has made a statement regarding confidentiality and libraries:

Policy Concerning Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information about Library Users (available online at :

The ethical responsibilities of librarians, as well as statutes in most states and the District of Columbia, protect the privacy of library users. Confidentiality extends to “information sought or received, and materials consulted, borrowed or acquired,”: and includes database search records, reference interviews, circulation records, interlibrary loan records, and other personally identifiable uses of library materials, facilities, or services.

The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and of the press requires that the corresponding rights to hear what is spoken and read what is written be preserved, free from fear of government intrusion, intimidation, or reprisal. The American Library Association reaffirms its opposition to “any use of government prerogatives which lead to the intimidation of the individual or the citizenry from the exercise of free expression … [and] encourages resistance to such abuse of government power….” (ALA Policy 53.4). In seeking access or in the pursuit of information, confidentiality is the primary means of providing the privacy that will free the individual from fear of intimidation or retaliation.

Libraries are one of the great bulwarks of democracy. They are living embodiments of the First Amendment because their collections include voices of dissent as well assent. Libraries are impartial resources providing information on all points of view, available to all persons regardless of age, race, religion, national origin, social or political views, economic status, or any other characteristic. The role of libraries as such a resource must not be compromised by an erosion of the privacy rights of library users.

The American Library Association regularly receives reports of visits by agents of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to libraries, where it is alleged they have asked for personally identifiable information about library users. These visits, whether under the rubric of simply informing libraries of agency concerns or for some other reason, reflect an insensitivity to the legal and ethical bases for confidentiality, and the role it plays in the preservation of First Amendment rights, rights also extended to foreign nationals while in the United States. The government’s interest in library use reflects a dangerous and fallacious equation of what a person reads with what that person believes or how that person is likely to behave. Such a presumption can and does threaten the freedom of access to information. It also is a threat to a crucial aspect of First Amendment rights: that freedom of speech and of the press include the freedom to hold, disseminate and receive unpopular, minority, “extreme,” or even “dangerous” ideas.

The American Library Association recognizes that, under limited circumstances, access to certain information might be restricted due to a legitimate “national security” concern. However, there has been no showing of a plausible probability that national security will be compromised by any use made of unclassified information available in libraries. Thus, the right of access to this information by individuals, including foreign nationals, must be recognized as part of the librarian’s legal and ethical responsibility to protect the confidentiality of the library user.

The American Library Association also recognizes that law enforcement agencies and officers may occasionally believe that library records contain information which would be helpful to the investigation of criminal activity. If there is a reasonable basis to believe such records are necessary to the progress of an investigation or prosecution, the American judicial system provides the mechanism for seeking release of such confidential records: the issuance of a court order, following a showing of good cause based on specific facts, by a court of competent jurisdiction. — Adopted July 2, 1991, by the ALA Council

How do I implement changes at the library to be in compliance with library record confidentiality?

The American Library Association has an online document entitled, Suggested Procedures for Implementing Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records, available at .

Issue barcoded library cards to each patron of your library.

What training is available?

MHLS will coordinate training opportunities.

Are there any online resources available?

The ALA Taskforce on Privacy and Confidentiality in the Electronic Environment addresses the confidentiality of library records

Sample library policies on confidentiality are available at Public Library Policies – Development Tips & Samples

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