9/11 and Patron Privacy in the Public Library

The tragic events of September 11, 2001, have left us all scarred and a little scared. Since that infamous date, many of us in the library community have been wrestling with issues of patron privacy and protecting ourselves from threats of future terrorist attacks. So what happens if you suspect a patron of Middle Eastern origin of preparing some unlawful activity based on the choice of books or materials he/she has checked out of your library?

The Michigan Library Privacy Act, Section 3(2), MCL 397.603(2), clearly forbids the disclosure of a patron's library record without a court order. "Library record" is defined in Section 2(i), MCL 397.602(i), of the same statute as a document, record or other method of storing information retained by the library that personally identifies a library patron, including his name, address or telephone number or that identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific materials from a library.

As such, identifying your Middle Eastern patron to law enforcement officials would clearly leave you open to a civil lawsuit from the patron pursuant to Section 4 of the Michigan Library Privacy Act, MCL 397.604. The patron may bring a civil action for actual damages or $250.00, whichever is greater, in addition to reasonable attorney fees and the costs of bringing the lawsuit.

Clearly, you have a choice between identifying a patron you suspect of preparing to do something illegal based on his/her national origin and selection of reading materials and risking a lawsuit versus not informing law enforcement, which may go against what you believe is the right thing to do. I can't tell you what to do, only that disclosure of such information without a court order takes patron privacy right out of your library doors.

November 2002

Updated 04/27/2006