A Journal of the Canadian Association for School Libraries


Students’ Privacy Rights in School Libraries: Balancing Principles, Ethics and Practices

Donna Riehl

Donna (B.Ed, MLIS) has taught at elementary and post-secondary levels and worked in school and public libraries. She is passionate about library services and literature for children and teens and is currently Assistant Supervisor of Children’s Services at Strathcona County Library, Alberta.

Issue Contents


Curtis, who is questioning his own sexuality, wants to read Eight Seconds (Ferris), but is hesitant to borrow it from his school library. He wonders how many people will know he has the book, if a list of books due will be posted in the classroom, or if his father will check his borrowing records. Although a discussion Curtis might have with his school counselor would be confidential, his independent inquiry through library use may not be treated confidentially. (Fictional scenario set in a junior high school)

In this article, I examine some of the implications regarding privacy and confidentiality of library use for Curtis and other students, for teacher-librarians, school administrators, staff and other stakeholders in the Canadian education system.

Privacy and confidentiality are often cited in library and information studies literature and position statements as prerequisites for intellectual freedom. This is because only when individuals feel assured that their inquiries or choices of material will not subject them to judgment or reprisal, can they freely explore and evaluate diverse ideas, and make informed decisions.  Teacher-librarians promote intellectual freedom, personal inquiry and respect for diversity. However, few documents available to teacher-librarians specifically address these issues with respect to privacy in school libraries. In particular, there is a lack of clarity about whether or not teacher-librarians can fulfill “in loco parentis” responsibilities and also respect students’ privacy. Although students’ privacy rights have been defined in relation to student records, counseling sessions, and search and seizure practices, there exists scant documentation that addresses the privacy and confidentiality of students’ library use.

In this article, I aim to demonstrate how the breadth of our professional rhetoric presents a glaring gap regarding privacy of school library use. In addition, I suggest that student privacy and confidentiality are legitimate intellectual freedom issues for teacher-librarians for legal, philosophical, ethical and societal reasons.  It is also my contention that responsibilities of “in loco parentis” do not preclude responsibility to respect student privacy regarding library use. Schools can employ practices that respect and educate students regarding privacy rights and still fulfill responsibilities to protect students and provide safe learning spaces and environments. Although formal documentation at national levels would provide critical support to teacher-librarians, discussion and privacy audits at school levels can also support the development of practices that acknowledge privacy rights and that promote recognition that rights and freedoms are often tempered by social responsibilities and contexts.

My intent is to raise critical questions about this issue rather than to suggest concrete solutions. But I hope that the questions I raise will contribute to our collective desire to seek solutions. At the time of writing, my recent school library experience was limited as was my access to school documents. This article was originally written during a summer course, so time constraints did not allow for field research. However, I drew on information from library and information studies literature, legislation, students’ rights literature, and library position statements and codes of ethics and conduct for librarians and for teachers as a first step.

Although I am particularly interested in Alberta contexts, information is drawn from Canadian legislation, the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), the Canadian Library Association (CLA), the American Library Association (ALA), the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), and international human rights documents. I recognize that the extent to which students’ privacy rights are currently respected may vary from school to school. I also acknowledge that teacher-librarians and school administrators are in the best position to respond to the questions raised within this document.  

Library users’ rights to privacy and the need to respect the confidentiality of library use and records are indivisible. Privacy cannot be protected unless records and inquiries for resources are treated as confidential information. This is clearly substantiated by many library position statements and by the introductory comments of the ALA Privacy Tool Kit as quoted below.

Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association. …. The possibility of surveillance, whether direct or through access to records of speech, research and exploration, undermines a democratic society.

Confidentiality of library records is a core value of librarianship.  … Choice requires both a varied selection and the assurance that one’s choice is not monitored. (American Library Association, 2004.)

Although privacy and confidentiality are recognized as inseparable tenets of librarianship and intellectual freedom, it is not always clear how those core beliefs should be translated into school library practices.

Is there a gap in professional documentation?

Teacher-librarians are in the unique position of needing to balance the expectations of two professions – education and librarianship. Teacher-librarians and teachers see the tensions in addressing students’ privacy, while encouraging parental involvement and fulfilling “in loco parentis” responsibilities. What guidance is available to teachers and teacher-librarians? Human rights documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child affirm that all people have a right to intellectual freedom and to protection from unreasonable invasion of privacy. However, formal documents that guide the applications of these principles in school libraries are not readily available from either profession.

The CLA Code of Ethics states that CLA members have a responsibility to “protect the privacy and dignity of library users.”  The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) Code of Professional Conduct states that “the teacher may not divulge information about a pupil received in confidence or in the course of professional duties except as required by law or where, in the judgment of the teacher, to do so is in the best interests of the pupil.”  While there are similarities in intent, questions arise about whether or not students’ library queries and borrowing are considered confidential, to what extent parents or teachers should monitor use of library resources, and at what point teachers’ professional judgments should supersede students’ privacy rights.

In the broader library field, the ALA interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights titled Free Access to Libraries for Minors affirms that children should be accorded the same rights as adults. The American Association of School Librarians Position Statement on Confidentiality of Library Records calls on teacher-librarians to “respect the rights of children and youth by adhering to the tenets expressed” in the ALA Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records. However, even in public libraries, children’s rights are often contested and in schools the debate is further complicated by parental rights and by the social responsibilities of teachers.  CLA does not have a position statement on library services for children and the CLA Statement on Effective School Libraries does not address privacy. The IFLA/UNESCO School Library Manifesto recognizes intellectual freedom as an essential component to developing literacy, but does not address privacy as an aspect of intellectual freedom.

Legislation and school policies define the degree of privacy accorded to students regarding official school records, search and seizure practices, displays of work or test results, and communications related to counseling and special education (Bezeau, 2005; Carroll, 2005; Student, 1980). However, procedures regarding the confidentiality of library use are seldom documented. Furthermore, the competencies for teacher-librarians approved by the Association of Teacher Librarianship in Canada (ATLC) and Canadian Association for School Libraries (CSLA) do not include reference to a need to respect confidentiality (Students’ Information, 1997). The Students’ Bill of Information Rights published by the ATLC recognizes that all students have a right to “freely choose reading, viewing and listening materials” but does not address confidentiality as a prerequisite for freedom of choice. It appears that formal documentation underscores the ideals but does not provide practical guidance in interpreting and applying those ideals in school libraries.

A literature review conducted in July 2006 revealed extensive support for adults’ rights to privacy in libraries (Riehl, 2006). However, the privacy rights accorded to children in libraries remain contested and range from legislation providing extensive privacy protection to children’s library records, to legislation that allows parents unchallenged access to their children’s records (Simpson, 2003). Some issues about privacy in school libraries that were raised in library literature nearly twenty years ago are still unresolved (Jenkinson, 1989; Scales, 1991; Vandergrift, 1991). However, privacy is being addressed in newer books for teacher-librarians (Simpson, 2003; Woolls, 2004). 

The challenge of addressing privacy in school libraries appears to be hindered by a lack of formal documentation to guide the application of principles in the school libraries. Student borrowing records, requests for information, and Internet-use logs are not defined as protected student records. In addition it is not clear how privacy laws and library position statements should be applied in school libraries. At this point, interpretation is largely dependent on individual teacher-librarians or school administrators.

Should teacher-librarians be concerned about privacy issues?

Recent emphasis on privacy issues is reflected in legislation, in ethics training for librarians, and in societal trends. A proactive stance and a review of library practices will put schools in better stead to address potential challenges and to be recognized as advocates for youth.

Legally, all schools receiving public funds in Canada are subject to Charter of Rights scrutiny, including the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression” and the “right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure” (Canadian, 1982). The seizure of library records continues to be challenged in public libraries and can be questioned in school libraries. Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPP) protects many library records but is vague regarding access to children’s records (Freedom, 2003). For instance, FOIPP FAQs for public libraries, suggest that in the case of parental access to borrowing records, librarians should consider the parent’s intent and whether or not the disclosure would be an unreasonable invasion of the child’s privacy (Freedom, 2003). However, in a FOIPP interpretation for schools, the issue of library use is not addressed (Legislation, 1998).  Previous litigation has upheld children’s rights over restrictions imposed by school districts or unjustified access to student records by third parties (Essex, 2000; Office, 2002; Sealander, 1999). It is feasible that students may also challenge the rights of third party access to school library records without reasonable justification.  This may be particularly compelling in instances where disclosure of information is deemed to contribute to negative impact on an individual. For example, if Curtis were bullied for his reading choice, might the school be in a precarious position if no steps had been taken to protect Curtis’s privacy?

Ethics related to student privacy are discussed in several recent books for teacher-librarians.  For example, in The School Library Media Manager, Blanche Woolls (2005) discusses the ALA Statement on Confidentiality of Library Records and implications for school libraries. Doug Johnson outlines ethical issues of students’ use of electronic data in schools, and emphasizes the need to purge library borrowing records (Johnson, 2003). In Ethics in School Librarianship: A Reader, a chapter devoted to confidentiality reviews historical perspectives, library literature, legislation and the challenges of turning principles into practice in school libraries (Simpson, 2003). Privacy in the 21st Century: Issues for Public, School and Academic Libraries reviews controversies and provides detailed recommendations for privacy audits, policies and practices (Adams et al., 2005).

In the past decade, privacy and confidentiality have garnered much attention in the wake of concerns such as government and workplace surveillance, Internet safety and child protection, digital records, identity theft, business ethics and lawful access to records. Evidence of privacy concerns range from formal studies to local newspaper articles (Cockfield, 2006; Canadian Press, 2006). A major goal of education in Canada is to develop students who are informed, critical thinkers and responsible citizens (Curriculum, 2006). To this end, students must be aware of their own and others’ rights to privacy. Teacher-librarians are in a position to promote respect for privacy rights as one component of intellectual freedom and responsible citizenry.

From Principles to Practice: Privacy Audits

Principles of intellectual freedom, including privacy, are never absolutes. Some charter rights are abridged in schools because teachers are required to assume professional and discretional authority to protect the well being of students. Situations might arise in which a teacher-librarian must breach the confidence of a student for his or her own safety or for the safety of others. For example, if Curtis were using a library computer to threaten another student, the teacher-librarian is bound by teaching ethics and social responsibilities to intervene for the safety of all students. In addition, there may be legitimate reasons to share information with a teacher about a child’s resource use for an assignment. Situations such as these are acknowledged. However, many school library interactions do not endanger students’ welfare and therefore provide excellent opportunities to demonstrate respect for privacy.

A privacy audit conducted at a school level might provide an enlightening review of practices and identify modifications to better support students’ rights.  Recent literature and Privacy Toolkits provide sample policies and practices (Adams et al., 2005; Johnson, 2003; Woolls, 2004; Privacy, 2004).

Select considerations that may be relevant to school libraries are listed below within very broad categories. The categories are not mutually exclusive and, as in practice, many aspects are relevant to more than one classification. Resources for conducting privacy audits and for developing privacy/confidentiality policies identify many more points for consideration.


  • What legislation and school policies address the confidentiality of student information?  Do these documents apply to library use?
  • Are students aware of parameters placed on their rights to privacy? For example, do they know if computers are monitored and who might have access to their circulation records and information queries?
  • Are students aware of the school’s search and seizure policies and how those policies apply to library records?
  • Are students informed about third party requests to access library records?
  • Are students and parents involved in aspects of the privacy audit and informed of results?

Practices & procedures

  • Are overdue notices read aloud or posted in classrooms, or are students notified privately and directly?
  • Do students have self-checkout options?
  • Do students have opportunities to access library services and materials during times that are more private than class visits?
  • If students place holds on material, are those holds handled in a confidential manner?

Advocacy & training

  • Are all teachers, library staff and volunteers trained to respect the confidentiality of student queries and use of library materials?
  • Are library staff members trained to conduct interviews for personal queries in a confidential manner?
  • Are library staff members and volunteers aware that students may consult resources for both curriculum and personal reasons?
  • Do students assist with checkout procedures? If so, are they informed about their responsibilities to honor other students’ privacy?
  • Have teachers and library staff discussed the implications that labeling may pose for privacy and intellectual freedom?


  • Is the Integrated Library System (ILS) set to purge borrower records as soon as is feasible?
  • Are Internet temporary files and access logs retained? If so, how is the information used, by whom and for how long is it kept?
  • Are students, teachers and parents aware of any filtering used on library computers? Have they been informed about the limitations of filters?

Balancing intellectual freedom & social responsibilities

  • Are library staff members trained to differentiate between queries that represent curiosity and personal interest versus those that pose a reasonable concern for the safety of students?
  • Do guidelines identify channels to report concerns about student safety?
  • Have staff members discussed how to balance parental involvement and students’ rights to privacy? Are parents encouraged to ask their children directly for information before requesting access to library records?
  • Are students informed that teachers have a responsibility to intervene if, in their professional judgment, the welfare of any student might be jeopardized?
  • When library staff members make judgment calls about confidentiality, are they acting as parents or as librarians? How do the roles differ?

A privacy audit provides both an opportunity to review practices and to inform staff and students about the principles, rationale and parameters that inform decisions in the school context.  A privacy audit can benefit both teacher-librarians and students.

Benefits for Teacher-Librarians

When students’ rights to privacy in school libraries are addressed through broad position statements or through local privacy audits, more support is available for teacher-librarians who are promoting and defending intellectual freedom. Without clear directions and positions statements, the outcomes of debates about privacy might be determined primarily by the personal interpretations and opinions of local school stakeholders without reference to professional codes and ethics. National and international statements would provide direction and lend authority to local school library statements. However, since privacy legislation varies from country to county and from province to province, provincial documentation might be required to translate principles about privacy into practices in local school libraries.

The position of teacher-librarians is particularly complex as they blend the ethics of two professions. Where can teacher-librarians turn for clarification and guidance when responsibilities related to intellectual freedom and to “in loco parentis” seem at variance? Interpretations specific to school libraries are glaringly lacking. If such interpretations existed, they would not only clarify and support the role of teacher-librarians in defending intellectual freedom, but also increase public and professional awareness of the dual responsibilities accorded to teacher-librarians.  Without the support of formal documentation, it may be difficult for teacher-librarians to advocate for privacy as a component of intellectual freedom.

Unfortunately, a shortage of teacher-librarians in some parts of Canada directly hinders the promotion of intellectual freedom in school libraries (Haycock (2003); Schrader (2005); Statistics (2005). In another article in this issue, Claudia Klausen further discusses the impact of teacher-librarian shortages on intellectual freedom in schools.  Therefore, when teacher-librarians are not available on site, interpretations and position statements provided by the Canadian Association of School Libraries (CASL), by school districts or by individual schools would provide vital direction for school staff and administrators who must address these issues with limited teacher-librarian resources.

Furthermore, documentation can be an effective tool to increase awareness of teacher-librarian roles as advocates for intellectual freedom within the school and within the community. As awareness of this role increases, teacher-librarians will more often be consulted and their responses will be more respectfully considered in addressing issues related to intellectual freedom.

Benefits for Students

When rights to privacy are addressed, students may benefit in three areas. First, assurance of some degree of privacy will bolster appreciation for intellectual freedom. As students become aware of their rights to intellectual freedom and privacy, they may be less hesitant to access material that they believe might elicit comments from other students or teachers. Secondly, students may become more cognizant of their own rights and more respectful of those of others. As teacher-librarians work with teachers, there may be many opportunities to incorporate intellectual freedom lessons into studies and to reinforce the human rights principles applicable to many areas of student life. If students do not have opportunities to learn about these rights, how will they recognize situations in which those rights might be threatened or jeopardized? Thirdly, as students learn how school responsibilities temper the privacy rights accorded to students, they become aware of the balance between freedoms and social responsibilities. Although intellectual freedom and privacy are basic human rights, they are neither absolute nor uncontested in schools or in society in general.


Although the rhetoric of human rights and librarianship clearly support the protection of privacy as an element of intellectual freedom, ideals are seldom absolutes. In reality those principles are melded with social responsibilities and molded by contexts. This is particularly true in school libraries. Fortunately, the parameters set by sensitive school contexts do not preclude an opportunity to respect student’s rights to confidential library use. Although the practices may differ from those in public or academic libraries, there are prime opportunities for teacher-librarians to collaborate with teachers, library staff members, students, parents, and other stakeholders to demonstrate respect for privacy, to encourage students to honor the rights of others and to recognize the influence of school and social responsibilities. Reviewing current practices and developing formal documentation might also provide important guidance and support to teacher-librarians who are striving to balance principles and practices within the ethical obligations of both librarianship and teaching.

Most importantly, students will have an opportunity to learn about their privacy rights. According to standards outlined in Achieving Information Literacy (Asselin, Branch & Oberg, 2003), a key indicator for responsible use of information is evidence that a student will “understand and honor privacy rights when accessing and using information and media sources”. Surely one of the best ways to support students in this learning is to model respect for their rights in library use. In addition, the first tenet of the ATA Curriculum Position Paper states that: “The basics in education are those learning experiences that assist students in acquiring knowledge, skills and attitudes that contribute to continued learning, social awareness, cognizance of a changing society, responsible citizenship and personal well-being.”

Teacher-librarians are in a position to advocate for the rights of youth and to promote respect for privacy and confidentiality as components of intellectual freedom and of responsible citizenry. If Curtis does not learn about his rights as a student, how will he defend and advocate for human rights as an adult? 


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