Privacy vs. Safety?

There’s a story going around at the moment about a librarian who refused to hand over library computers to police investigating the disappearance of Brooke Bennett.   She insisted on a warrant, which they eventually obtained.  The horrible punchline is that Brooke was found murdered.

I’m on the librarian’s side on this one, though, I must admit, rather reluctantly.  I understand that she was guarding patron privacy.  If I were Brooke’s mother, however, I would have a rather different take on the situation, I’m sure.

So here’s the problem: as librarians we’re charged with maintaining the privacy of our patrons and their records.  Before the advent of the Internet, I doubt it was often that law enforcement personnel would come into a library and demand the reading records for a patron.  However, with the social networking sites getting teens into trouble and potential terrorists using library public access computers for communication and education on things we’d rather they not know, this is all getting really messy.

This is what we – librarians and patrons – need to figure out: when does privacy go out the window?

Of course, this is what things like warrants are for.  Walk into a library with a warrant, and there’s no problem.  What we keep hearing about, though, are these situations where law enforcement comes into a library, demands private patron information, and then is amazed/upset/infuriated when the librarian asks for a warrant.

Please, Law Enforcement Folks: We want to help.  But we’re supposed to not hand this stuff over without a warrant. We’re supposed to protect patron privacy.  In many states, it’s the law that we do so.  Please have a warrant with you when you come.

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1 Comment

Filed under Customer Service, Libraries and Librarianship

One response to “Privacy vs. Safety?

  1. In my opinion, there were two problems with this. One, the police ran in thinking they were heroes without getting what they needed or even knowing what they were looking for. Most libraries keep the usage records on a central computer and the police (had they a search warrant) could have asked for the terminal she was using. They probably would have also found that the terminal used was probably wiped clean after her use, so there would have been no information to gather.

    If they knew she had a Myspace, why didn’t the have myspace given them her access code so they can see who she was talking to? I just see this as the police not doing their job and looking for the right information. Even if the librarian gave them everything, they just would have had an empty terminal.

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