Blurred Lines: Rethinking Privacy Policies in the Age of Social Media

Image by Jack Moreh

Sharp Objects. Fargo Season 1, and House Beautiful. That’s a list of everything currently checked out on my public library card. I’m not worried about sharing this information with others, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be kept private. In 1938, the ALA instituted the first promise of confidentiality from libraries to users (Johnson 1989). Since then, libraries have fought to uphold this promise and the battle continues as libraries become more technologically advanced.

The use of emerging technologies in the library has brought about major challenges in regards to patron privacy. “In the past, when libraries dealt with only print materials, librarians could easily monitor privacy. When patrons started utilizing social media sites for information, it became difficult for the library to manage patron privacy the same way” (Lamdan 2015). For example, in 2012, librarians at Harvard University tweeted out book titles that had been checked out from the library. The tweets were randomized so that the tweet would not occur immediately upon check-out. Even though the tweets weren’t connected to specific patrons, it still raised concerns that patron privacy was being violated (Gressel 2014).

The central privacy dilemma posed by social media is the necessity of users to share personal information in order to obtain information. The line between information access and privacy becomes blurred as users trade-off their personal data for information. Social media collects usernames, biographical data, personal affiliations, “likes”, sometimes even check-ins, GPS locations, chat replies, and clicks (Lamdan 2015). I may be comfortable sharing my list of checkouts with the internet, but my personal data? Not so much.

Despite these concerns, social media tools greatly enhance the delivery of library services to users. So what can librarians do to continue great library service while protecting patron privacy? First, they must understand the new technologies and identify how patron privacy may be at risk. Next, librarians should re-examine their organization’s privacy policies to ensure that patron confidentiality is upheld even in the digital realm. Sarah Lamdan, Law Library Professor at the City University of New York, takes it a step-further by issuing a call-to-action to all librarians: campaign for change.

Lamdan’s campaign may fall outside the traditional realm of librarianship, but she explained that “as traditional keepers of information, librarians have innate roles as Internet advocates for their patrons” (Lamdan 2015). As such, librarians should lead the change to push social media providers to establish privacy boundaries. The privacy model Lamdan is fighting for cites seven principles crafted by Ann Cavoukian, the Privacy Commissioner for Ontario, Canada:

Privacy by Design concepts designed by Ann Cavoukian

Compromising personal privacy should never be a necessary sacrifice to obtain information. Armed with these guidelines, librarians can push for major social change and ensure the privacy of their users. “Our role is vital, and our time is now: librarians can take the reins of a privacy-centered social media future” (Lamdan 2015).


Gressel, M. (2014). Are Libraries Doing Enough to Safeguard Their Patrons’ Digital Privacy?. Serials Librarian, 67(2), 137–142.

Johnson, B. S. (1989). A More Cooperative Clerk: The Confidentiality of Library Records. Law Library Journal 81(4): 769–802.

Lamdan, S. S. (2015). Social Media Privacy: A Rallying Cry to Librarians. Library Quarterly, 85(3), 261–277.




Librarian-in-training, Dominican University GSLIS.

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Emma Norris

Emma Norris

Librarian-in-training, Dominican University GSLIS.

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