Is video a patron record?


mdoneil writes "In a nearby town a library (a very nice new library) installed a video camera in its elevator. The video camera captured a patron doing something that was ostensibly illegal.
The library informed authorities and provided the electronic record of the alleged crime. The police charged the patron with a crime.
Why does this differ from the Newton story? In this case the library staff furnished the police with evidence obtained electronically, in Newton the library staff refused to allow the police to search for evidence.
I have a great problem with librarians talking out of both side of their mouths at once. Either you can, or you cannot reveal patron actions recorded electronically.

For more on the story see an interview with the Assistant Director here."


There is an enormous difference between a patron record of library use (book checkout, computer terminal use, etc.) and the observation of activity or behavior that any reasonable person would believe was illegal.

I see lots of illegal stuff every day but I am not the victim.

As a human being do you not have an ethical obligation to assist your fellow man?

Why does the library feel it should call the cops if the other kids in the elevator seemed to know it was a toy?

The librarian could have misinterpreted what he or she saw. If it was clear that the object being waved was a toy -- which a pellet gun is not, technically speaking -- then the librarian did not have a reasonable cause to believe a crime was in progress. Adolescent homosexual play is not a crime, only offensive to the degree that the viewer is easily offended.

It was certainly stupid to charge the offender with displaying a "dangerous weapon"; anything is dangerous if you don't use it properly. Disorderly conduct would probably be a better choice.

The mission or vision statement of the library (which is unfortunately not online) that I saw when I went to the grand opening made comment about patron privacy. That is the two sides of the mouth comment referred to.

I'm sorry you can't get baynews9 -the television report I mentioned, and I did check their webstite at but they don't put all of the video there.

I did bring this up because it was different enough, but still shared some similarities with the Newton incident. I brought it up not because I know the kid, or care about the outcome, but to discuss the extent that we as librarians will take patron privacy vs. assisting law enforcement. In Florida the video is not explicitly enumarated in the Statute as a patron record, but the question (and my original headline) is, is video a patron record. I hoped it would foster discussion and it has.

I'd say it's better to physically secure the computer equipment and keep a staff member in line of sight of the computers. I'm of the opinion screens should be polarized and/or upper desk areas surrounded by baffles to ensure patrons' privacy (and "protect" other patrons from subjectively "offensive" content.)

Network security is another issue. They used something like deep freeze at my last library, which wiped any files created or software install attempts at each shut-down - imperfect solution, but usually sufficient. (Hardware keystroke loggers installed by an industrious patron are bound to be recognized by a staffmember and not to be easily installed or removed in the first place if the computers are within view.) I would think that other abusive uses of library computers are a little outside the capability of video surveillance such that the putative risk of logging people's passwords (that's a lot of work to get all that from a tiny video image...) isn't offset. Most libraries tie computer use to a signup list or to the patron's card number, which is already controversial (we also gave out guest passes when space permitted, and had an open wireless network with its own problems I'm not qualified to detail).

Librarians also should not naively assume that they are not being monitored at their workstations.

I see lots of illegal stuff every day but I am not the victim. Why does the library feel it should call the cops if the other kids in the elevator seemed to know it was a toy?

Is it because there was a 'gun' involved and we all know guns kill people and start wars and cause STDs.

What if the kid waved his wang around in the elevator by himself offending no one, would they call the cops for that too? The kid didn't damage the elevator - which is why the cameras were installed because of vandalism- so the library is not the victim.

Because the ALA says so and the Mayor and Library director of Newton, Mass. say so?

There ya go a coherent argument, stupid but coherent.

Give me a coherent argument of why someone using a public computer in a public facility has any reasonable expectation of privacy.

In addition, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public elevator in public facility.

It's a far cry from: "I am witnessing something I believe is illegal and that gives me a reasonable cause to inform the authorities", to "the authorities are demanding to see records and cannot show me just cause to grant access".

Even if we grant your theory that security cameras are "patron records" and thus the same thing as circulation records or recoverable computer activity data, these things happened in two different library systems with two different library directors. There's no "hypocrisy" on the part of either library director, in coming to different conclusions even if the circumstances were similar or identical. Which of course, they're not.

Keystroke logging is a really, really bad idea, because it enables identity theft. And do you REALLY want librarians spending their time directly monitoring in detail everyone's activity on the public-access computers? If evidence connects illegal activity to a public-access computer, then the police can get a warrant to search and/or seize the computers involved, and then--when the warrant is presented--the library should cooperate fully with law enforcement officers doing their LEGAL duty.

Apparently you really, really hate video cameras recording activity in public areas. I'm not too thrilled with them myself. But so far, the courts have held that video cameras IN PUBLIC PLACES are not different from direct observers. An elevator at the public library is NOT private space, and there are things that are perfectly legal and totally unexceptionable, in your own home or in other private space, that are illegal in public.

As for the pellet gun being a fake and an obvious fake--sorry, there's nothing in the story linked to to suggest that, and "I saw it in a local news broadcast on a station I'm not naming and there's no video link" is not persuasive. But even if that's correct, it points up the idiocy of "zero tolerance" policies, and the OVER-REACTION of one library director in one town, not the hypocrisy of the library profession because some other librarian elsewhere, in a different state, with a completely different set of circumstances, did something unrelated.


And, yes it is a bit disingenuous, but I do so enjoy the debate we have had on it. I don't have any problem with security cameras.

Now an even more complicated question is it OK to put security cameras in the computer area? After all these are public areas of the library and patrons know that someone can stand over their shoulder.

If you can put security cameras in the computer area how about key loggers, after all these are public computers.

Where does one draw the line. What is a patron record? Is it just what they have in the circulation department? Is it what they do in the bathroom? It apparently is not what they do with a group of friends in the elevator. Where do you (all of us) draw the line.

Freedom to read (and to search anonymity) does not equal freedom to comport yourself in whatever fashion you please in a public building. I dislike the increasing commonness of video surveillance, and that is part of the broader right to privacy issue, but in a library where I worked, we had patrons stopping the elevator running (inconveniencing disabled patrons), stealing and destroying books, and attempting to set fires in unobserved areas. Staff found everything from sticky latex gloves to needles to free-range feces (not always in the restroom) and we began resorting to taking IDs for the restroom key and recording names (list destroyed end of the night). Only the main doors were covered by the security gate (antitheft strip detector, NOT to scan for metal/weapons) and I'm sure we all know how easy those are to fool. Every time the DVDs were left open to browsing (or released into patrons' hands before being checked out to them) we'd find cases empty, stuffed back somewhere in the stacks, contents missing. We had yellers, grabbers, fistfights, material destroyers, unattended tiny kids left to wander - with understaffing and real work to do preventing us keeping tabs on who did what to whom and enforcing policies fairly.

What exactly is it you want patrons to be free to do? Video footage should not be sold, or used to link a patron with a "seditious" book, but that is the extent of the relevance, in my opinion, to patron circulation and searching records.

It sounds as though the case in question MAY have been a panicky overreaction, but there is no place in the Library Bill of Rights anything about sanctuary from a jurisdiction's laws. It looks to me as though that video is b&w - no way to tell if something is clearly a toy from its color, and in any case apparently the local laws don't consider pellet guns to be harmless toys, even if library staffpersons were trained to discern them from lethally-gauged weapons in a tiny, fuzzy image.

There is a very big difference here. We protect library circulation records and computer usage in order to protect the privacy of a user's information usage. There is no expectation of privacy in a public hallway, parking lot, elevator, etc. The camera was not in a computer lab, bathrrom, or group study room recording what the patron was reading oo discussing with others.

The only way the library would have been in violation of intellectual freedom would be if the patron held up his books to the camera. But even than, I think the patron waives his rights with an action like that. There is no expection of intellectual privacy in riding in an elevator in a library.

Interesting observation. I think the difference here is a public area which is observable by all. Somewhere I've read/seen/heard that video cameras are legally considered surrogates for human observers. No citation to go with thatI think the points you are making would be a fascinating debate because I believe there is substance to your argument. I liken the arguments against your points as simillar to every time someone is against something said or done but for free speach. That always goes "I'm for free speach, however....."

1. It wasn't the same library or librarians, so they're not talking about both sides.2. "expectation of privacy" in a public place like a elevator isn't the same as a circ record. Different legaly?3. It's just not that same thing.I'm not saying Newton or these folks were right or wrong, just saying it's not at all the same thing (in my mind) and saying "Either you can, or you cannot reveal patron.." isn't at all fair since it's not the same place. Librarians ain't the borg.It would be interesting to see the laws on public cameras and see how they apply to that. Sould be an interesting case to follow if it goes anywhere.

It's really a turf battle. Patron records and catalog records at public libraries may have a high degree of unreliability, a fact little known by those outside the library community. Libraries don't want outsiders probing into their internal affairs. The video tape doesn't represent a threat or challenge to the integrity of their internal procedures.

But they didn't observe the action, and those that did observe the action did not complain about its illegality. The library staff observed an electronic recording of the action.

Would recording of the keystrokes on a computer and calling the police if someone types a threatening email be OK? If not why not, it is the same as surreptitiously recording the goings on in an elevator -spying on someone.

In a local news program which I saw but for which I can find no video link a police officer related that the gun had an orange front piece which had been covered up with black marker, thus establishing that this was a toy.
Since the other students in the elevator were not alarmed, and since the incident was not directly observed by any library staff members the elements of a crime are non-existant.

This is another example of librarians talking out of both sides of their mouths. They want to protect patron privacy yet they spy on them with hidden cameras. Having cake != eating it too.

Give me a coherent argument of why someone using a public computer in a public facility has any reasonable expectation of privacy.

Because a private citizen's right to free speech includes the right to seek and receive information without intervention of any form. Which includes surveillance, active or passive, and the chilling effect such surveillance would create.

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