Suppose the police, an employer, a neighbor, or any public or private organization wanted to know what books a person has been checking out of the library? On the face of it, what a citizen reads is nobody's business, but the confidentiality of library records isn't protected everywhere.
Utah is one of only 12 states without a library confidentiality law. That issue is on a list of things that Utah librarians want to take to the Legislature, although there is some question whether it will be raised in next January's session. Libraries in the other 11 states also are trying to get such laws passed.Some law enforcement agencies see library records as a useful investigative tool and want them kept as open as possible, despite the potential for intrusions into personal privacy.
Utah librarians, like most of those around the country, are not averse to cooperating with police armed with court orders for specific records. But they rightly oppose the idea of police or others simply fishing around to see what people have been reading.
J. Dennis Day, Salt Lake library director, says there hasn't been a real problem with requests for records, but emphasizes that protecting the privacy of people's reading habits is an ethical responsibility.
In fact, librarians have gone to jail in a couple of instances in other states for refusing to release records about books checked out by certain individuals.
The potential exists for abuse. Just consider the FBI's "Library Awareness" program in which the agency asked librarians to keep an eye out for foreigners - people with an accent - who ask for library materials. The FBI also wants to have access to library information without having to get a court order.
Americans ought to be able to use the public library without fear that their reading habits will fall into other hands and be used as a source of investigation, criticism, or accusation. A confidentiality law for libraries would strengthen that right.