Library Privacy Act Issues

Many requests for information about Michigan's Library Privacy Act, 1982 PA 455 focus on the amendment to the Act embodied in PA 188 of 1996 which took immediate effect upon the Governor's signature on 7 May 1996. Trustees and library directors have kept abreast of the legislative action and realize the need for a review of policy in this area of library service.

Michigan's Library Privacy Act was enacted in 1982 with the express purposes of providing for the confidentiality of certain library records and for the determination of the selection and use of library materials by library employees. The majority of the questions and concerns about the act deal with the issue of confidentiality.

A "library record" is defined in the Act as a document, record, or other method of storing information that identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific materials from a library. The "library record" is specifically exempted from the disclosure requirements of the state's Freedom of Information Act. In the original act, library staff were prohibited from releasing or disclosing a library record unless the person identified in the record gave written consent to the disclosure or a court ordered the disclosure after a hearing on the matter.

The amended act states: "Unless ordered by a court after giving the affected library notice of the request and an opportunity to be heard on the request, a library or an employee or agent of a library shall not release or disclose a library record or portion of a library record to a person without the written consent of the person liable for payment for or return of the materials identified in that library record." - MCL 397.603. In the case of minors or persons under a legal disability with court appointed conservators, the person liable for payment for or return of the materials may not be the person identified in the record.

Many librarians welcome the amendment to the Library Privacy Act because of the difficulties they have experienced with the return of overdue books. Enlisting the assistance of parents of minor patrons was often difficult if the library was prohibited from identifying the overdue materials. Many libraries were faced with a dilemma when flagrant abusers of library borrowing privileges were immune from prosecution or civil claims because of the inability of the library to reveal specific titles borrowed by the offending patrons. Librarians can now develop a procedure and form for giving the written consent necessary for the disclosure of the specific titles that have not been returned to the library according to the lending policy.

The amended act, however, does not require a library to adopt a policy of disclosing the library record of a young patron even if a parent or guardian consents to such disclosure. The choice is with the library. Many libraries will continue to uphold the confidentiality of the record in spite of a patron's unwillingness or inability to return borrowed materials in accordance with library regulations. Other institutions, faced with overwhelming losses, will take advantage of the amendment and seek the assistance of persons who may be ultimately responsible for the return of the materials or the payment of fines or replacement costs.

Many library patrons do not understand the effect of the amendments to the Library Privacy Act . Library trustees are challenged to formulate or revise confidentiality policies to reflect the amendment to the act and to educate library staff and patrons about possible new procedures. Young patrons, in particular, need to know that their previous expectations of privacy in regard to the selection and use of library materials may be changed. Good policy development in this area will be an exercise in balancing legitimate, but competing, interests.

September 1996

Updated 04/27/2006