Children\'s Privacy in the Library


Pam Force wrote a fantastic in-depth look at childrens privacy concerns in the library.

How do we define privacy? And what are the problems behind the complex issue of children\'s privacy in the library? Privacy can be defined as the ability to control information about one\'s self. Respecting the privacy of others is tantamount to accepting others as members of the human race. Once gaining privacy was as simple as closing the curtains, but no longer. The internet has made the issue of privacy a very personal one for every individual, not just those who use it.

How do we define privacy? And what are the problems behind the complex issue of children\'s privacy in the library? Privacy can be defined as the ability to control information about one\'s self. Respecting the privacy of others is tantamount to accepting others as members of the human race. Once gaining privacy was as simple as closing the curtains, but no longer. The internet has made the issue of privacy a very personal one for every individual, not just those who use it.

The constitution guarantees us certain rights, and it can be said that by reading between the lines of the constitution we will find that personal privacy is something that belongs to all of us. Does this include children? In society at large the concept of privacy seems to be exclusive to adults. Parents are encouraged and even expected to know about every aspect of their child\'s existence. Should children be provided with privacy when using the internet in the library? Should children be allowed to use the internet in the same manner as adults? When faced with a parent - child conflict over privacy in the library, what is the librarian\'s responsibility? Should parents be allowed to know what a child has checked out on their library card, or what internet sites the child has been viewing? Certainly the child would not be allowed to know what is borrowed on the parent\'s card, nor would the child be given any information regarding a parent\'s net search. So should we create options that allow parents/guardians access to a child\'s checkout/personal information records? This is an issue that can be confusing for librarians. Because parents are frequently asked to sign as responsible parties to a child\'s library card, the issues of financial responsibility and children\'s privacy are often intertwined in the minds of librarians despite the fact that they are truly separate issues. It becomes the responsibility of information professionals to become aware of the privacy needs of children as well as adults, and to educate themselves regarding children\'s privacy, as well as the role the library must take to protect the privacy of patrons of all ages.

If a child is required to have a parent sign as a legally responsible party for the library card, then don\'t the parents have the right to know what materials they are legally responsible for? The answer to that is usually no. Unless the child has given their permission, or the library has a written policy and disclaimer that allows parents access to the records of minors, the library has an ethical obligation to protect that child\'s privacy. There are ways around this; at Timberland Regional Library (TRL), due to the multiple dilemmas that occurred as a result of the no-access privacy policy, it was decided that a family-card would be instituted. The family card allows every member of the family to have a library card, all of which belong to only one card record with all the family members on it, so that all members of the family can view the borrowing records of currently checked-out items. The card application states that family members willingly give all others with the same card record permission to view the library record, and requires signatures of all involved. At TRL parents can obtain cards for children immediately after birth, the identification required being a visual siting by a librarian of the child involved. Parents can then use the card to check books out, but can not check the borrower record without the child\'s permission if they do not have the card number. Since often the child is not even old enough to speak, this can pose a problem. Hence the family card solution, allowing parents to circumvent the privacy issue.

What is the information professional\'s ethical responsibility ? Perhaps there should be a paternalistic attitude taken. If so, are we willing to take a fallibilistic view on the matter of children\'s privacy? How much privacy should a child have? Do children have the same needs for privacy as adults? Webster\'s defines privacy as a \"state of retirement, seclusion, freedom from interruption by others. Privacy implies freedom from the observation and association from others.\" In 1928 Justice Brandeis stated that privacy was quite simply the \"right to be let alone\" (dissenting opinion in Olmstead at 478(1928). The U.S. government defines privacy as the right to be free from intrusion by the government rather than privacy between individuals. But what about children? There are many instances when children and others who are not fully cognizant are not given the same consideration as others. Children may not vote, may not buy alcohol or tobacco, may not serve in the military. Should they be offered exactly the same services in the library as adults? Some libraries regularly infringe upon children\'s privacy, allowing adults who have signed permission for those children to have a library card to view the child\'s checkout record. Other libraries take a more liberal view, denying anyone but the cardholder access to the card records. Most people would agree that adults as a whole have a responsibility to protect children from harm. If we must protect children from harm, then we must also guard the privacy of children from invasion by those with intent to harm.

A concept that is central to children\'s need for privacy is the idea of cognition, self-awareness and thus self-responsibility. At what age is a child considered completely self-aware? Psychologically a young person is generally completely self-aware by the age of 15 or 16. A sense of self develops much sooner, however, generally in the preschool years as language begins to develop. Emerging self-awareness becomes apparent around the ages of 6-7. So how early should a child be allowed privacy in the library? With a graduated sense of self-awareness it would make sense to adopt a graduated privacy policy. A child of two or three simply does not have the cognitive skills necessary to establish and maintain any type of a relationship with a library without the help of a fully cognizant person. In this case it would make sense for privacy to be negligible. The party responsible for the young person needs to be responsible for that child\'s library use, including the library records regarding checked-out materials. This means that the responsible party must know what the child is reading or looking at on the computer. For a child between the ages of four to six a bit more discretion may need to be exercised. During these years language is becoming much more developed, and cognition as well is developing. A child of this age may not necessarily be depended on to remember what books they have checked out, and it is inappropriate to expect the child to be fully responsible for library use at this age. Here again we must look to the responsible adult party to monitor library use. Once a child reaches the age of six or seven, however, there is a definite emergence of a sense of self-identity and self-responsibility. At this age it would be appropriate to begin offering a limited amount of privacy. A child\'s library usage could be considered confidential - use of the library resources including books, computers and other materials. Once children reach the age of 11 or 12 it is appropriate for their records to become completely confidential. A child of that age is able to comprehend many of the ramifications of personal library use and responsibility for checked out materials.

The idea of a graduated-privacy rule is a reasonable one - the main problem that arises is when a parent feels that they should be able to know everything that their child does. The parent or guardian is responsible for that child until emancipation, and therefore does have certain legal rights. However, a child\'s need for privacy is undeniable. The four-year-old who doesn\'t want to share his thoughts; the 9-year-old who doesn\'t want to let anyone know she was reading about being a victim of child abuse; the 12-year-old who is surfing the net for information about hormonal changes in the human body: all these children should be allowed to keep their personal thoughts and feelings to themselves.

Children have a need for privacy online as well. The revised Children\'s Online Privacy Protection Act passed by the Federal government in April 2000 requires parental consent before children ages 12 and under may give away any personal information on the internet. This measure was enacted to protect children\'s personal privacy when using the internet. A child\'s need for privacy is something that is not always taken into consideration when drafting library internet policies. When dealing with internet issues some libraries that offer internet access to their patrons will draft one policy for adults and another for children in order to attempt to \'protect\' them. Jefferson County Public Library (JCPL) in Colorado adopted a general policy for all users, but in practice librarians in the children\'s department are expected to act in a paternalistic manner, monitoring all internet computers for images deemed unsuitable to a children\'s room. The official policy states that:

\"Access to the Internet is offered to support Jefferson County Public Library\'s mission to make it easy for the people of Jefferson County to find and use the information they wantand need. Information available through the Internet enriches, broadens and complements the existing print and audio visual collections of the library. Since it is impossible to monitor all resources available on the Internet, library staff work at identifying and pointing to useful sources consistent with the library\'s mission and Collection Development Guidelines.

-As with other library materials, a child\'s use of the Internet is solely the responsibility of the child\'s parent or guardian.

-It is the responsibility of the user to respect copyright laws and licensing agreements and assume responsibility for payment of fees for any fee-based service.

-The Jefferson County Public Library\'s staff shall develop such rules and procedures as are necessary to ensure the fair and reasonable use of Internet resources.\"

Instead of offering a link to child internet-safety resources, there is on the JCPL homepage a site called KidsCay, which contains a number of librarian-chosen websites deemed safe for children. The policy of monitoring for images is one that was decided upon by the JCPL Children\'s Librarian Round Table group as a means of controlling internet use in children\'s rooms. It was decided that if patrons were viewing internet images that would not be found within the JCPL children\'s collection, that they would be asked to use adult terminals in the main portion of the library. Librarians in JCPL must be able to personally justify in their own minds the need for such paternalistic action.

The other side of this coin would be a complete lack of censorship. This position would be inappropriate for a children\'s department - otherwise why would we have separate collection selection-policies for children? The great difficulty is to decide what must be kept out. Each library will need to make its decisions based on community needs, as well as local and federal laws. Some library systems draft one internet use policy for all users and follow it to the letter. Timberland Regional Library (TRL) system in Washington state adopted a policy That states that :

\"Timberland Regional Library offers Internet access to its patrons as part of its mission to provide resources which reflect the great diversity of interests and opinions in our communities. Timberland Regional Library does not monitor and has no control over the information viewed through the Internet and cannot be responsible for its content. As with other library materials, parents or legal guardians are responsible for their minor children\'s use of the Internet.\"

They then provide a link to a very informative site on Child Safety On The Internet at as a means of providing information to parents and guardians who wish to provide a safe internet environment for their children. TRL\'s policy regarding the internet is one of complete access for all, and within the 27 library branches computer use is not monitored in any way other than for length of use, as long as patrons are not disturbing others. Internet filters are available for patrons to use if desired, as well as privacy screens for further protection of patron privacy. Terminals have been situated in such a manner that no passersby are be able to see what is on the screen without literally bending and peering over the shoulder of the user. Of course, this then means that those bent on wrongdoing practically have free

license to do so at the public library.

The governing idea in this case is that the library will assume its role as a provider of services and information, but that the responsibility of protection of children belongs to the parents. Efforts may be made to educate patrons to some extent regarding safety on the net and when using the library, but ultimately parents are in charge of their children, not the library or its staff. Should the library every take a paternalist attitude towards its young patrons? Perhaps in some instances. Should a child be blocked from using the internet as he/she sees fit simply because of their age? This is a decision best made by a child\'s parents, and the best solution may be for the parent to accompany the child during the net search. Keep in mind, and this is heresy here, that not all parents are fit (or, perhaps more realistically, not all parents are present and able to act.) Similarly, if the parent wants to know what books the child is checking out, then perhaps if the parent were to accompany the child during their visit to the library and assist in book selection there could be no questions regarding what has or has not been checked out.

According to Mill, if one takes a fallibilistic attitude, then one must give his/her best shot at solving the problem, and move on to the next thing. One must live with the possibility that one\'s decisions may be wrong. If libraries take this stance, and frequently they must, then we will all live with the possibility of error. In regards to the privacy of children, we certainly live with the possibility that our library policies may be wrong, but it is our responsibility to follow the needs of the community, not dictate to them.

While recognizing that the brunt of responsibility for minors falls upon the parents or guardians, we must also recognize that there is a real need for paternalistic action on the part of the library and staff in some cases. When a parent fails to provide appropriately paternal action, then someone needs to step in. ALA states, and many librarians concur, that it is not the responsibility of the library and staff, but rather the parents or guardians. But if the parents fail in their responsibilities, then it is appropriate for librarians or other paternal entities to step in. There is an implied ethical duty to prevent someone from self-injury, to provide preventative education in cases where those who are supposed to provide protective surroundings fail in their duties. It simply is not appropriate to allow a child to unknowingly harm itself. We would not stand by and watch a child jump from the top of a tall bookshelf, nor should we. Unfortunately current ALA policy regarding intellectual freedom seems to support such a role. ALA states \"Intellectual Freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. \" Yet we are all aware that certain kinds of information can be very damaging to young minds.

There need to be mechanisms that allow parents to protect their children. Taking a hard-line \'NO ACCESS\' stance with parents regarding their children\'s library records and use will do nothing to endear parents to the library, and may in fact cause patronage to fall off. As information professionals it is our responsibility to provide families with a middle ground, with procedures that allow full access if that is what is desired, yet provide a means for protecting young people. Graduated privacy rules can be a very useful method of allowing children to develop a sense of privacy and responsibility as they develop a sense of self, as well as allowing parents to grow used to the idea of their children\'s developing autonomy within the library. We must also be able to separate a parent\'s financial obligations from their needs for access. Finally, we must recognize that as a society we have an obligation to protect those who are unable to protect themselves, and that this must be done with the utmost respect for the privacy and humanity of those whom this obligation encompasses. After all, the children of today are the library users of tomorrow.




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