Wanted: Library Patron Records — Dead or Alive!

By TRobinson

L0014669 Allegory of death: skeleton, c.1600 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Allegory of death: skeleton holding banderolle "Vigilate quia nescitis diem ...", anon., possibly Dutch or German Engraving circa 1600 Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Allegory of death: skeleton, c.1600
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Recently, “digital life after death” has been a hot topic, especially in relation to social media accounts (Swallow, 2010). If you do not want to worry about your social media pages becoming memorial walls full of weepy birthday wishes, there are a wide variety of resources out there than can help. Some social media sites have even unveiled internal solutions, like Facebook’s “Legacy Contact,” which allows you to select a trusted individual to create your final post, manage friend requests, alter and archive photos, etc., without logging in as you or, having access to private messages (Linshi, 2015). This phenomenon led me to ponder policies related to the way that libraries handle personal records of patrons, after the inevitable happens. Considering all of the strict policies related to the privacy of the living, I assumed that I would find similar standards in place for the records of deceased information-seekers; however, when I explored this idea, I found that this privacy need has been largely overlooked within many library systems.

Currently, I work for a 4-branch-wide public library, which operates within a consortium of 37 participating libraries; amongst this large community, there is not 1 policy in place for deceased patron records. When I brought this up to our circulation department head, I was told that the problem simply had not come up, but I strongly disagree. In my 3 years as an employee in this system, 2 co-workers and 2 familiar patrons have passed away. All 4 of their borrower records are not only available, but active, and easily viewable by any employee who is working within the catalogue. 1 of the accounts even has a note to library staff, announcing the death of a co-worker. Furthermore, upon the passing of the 2nd deceased employee, our administration was contacted by a family member (via telephone, with no presentation of identification), asking for a copy of the employee’s ID, as he believed it to be a flattering photo of his late sister. Without hesitation, our director provided the photo. To me, these seem like questionable practices.

The Burley Public Library, in Idaho, reported similar occurrences: “’Over the years, we’ve had people request pictures of family members who have died, because the library happened to have the best picture of a family member,’ [Library Director, Julie Woodford] said, referring to pictures seen only by librarians in order to match the person checking an item out with the person who legally holds the library card.” BPL has also had patrons ask for the reading history of deceased family members, “to keep a family’s memories together” (Hunzeker, 2009). Interestingly, their reaction has been to explore the option of disclosing this information to those who ask for it. In 2009, their Board of Trustees was in discussion about a new policy that would freely release reading history to family members. No updates have been widely announced, to my knowledge. Presently, Las Positas College, in California, considers death an extenuating circumstance, which in itself, grants library employees permission to retrieve the full borrowing history of any patron. The policy states that employees may not request such lists for “idle curiosity, personal interest, or general monitoring,” but it also fails to elaborate on acceptable purposes (2015). It appears that, beyond a lack of policies, certain libraries are entertaining practices that would actually loosen privacy protection of deceased patron records.

Most libraries regularly purge records from their library management systems (including Burley Public Library, which mentioned that, while considering approval of the new policy, family members would still have to request reading histories prior to a systematic purge) (Hunzeker, 2009). The New York Public Library, which I frequent, has many transparent policies, when it comes to patron privacy. While there is no mention of how death may affect these policies, their deletion and purge processes are clearly stated. Similarly, at my current college, I was told that the issue of deceased patron records was irrelevant, as they regularly (at undefined intervals) purge their integrated library system records.

Although many libraries frequently dispose of their ILS records (other examples include Carlsbad Public Library and Paul Pratt Memorial Library), this does not represent the whole of information collected regarding patrons’ use of the library. At the public library where I am employed, we track every single time that a patron logs into a computer, we have research query forms, microfilm logs, Interlibrary Loan histories, program participation records, and so on. Of course, our computers also track internet activity, although I do not know to what extent that information is attached to individuals. The privacy of these records is protected at many levels (institutional, state, federal, etc), but in our case, those policies only protect the living. In response to Burley Public Library’s consideration of new privacy policies, Randy Stone, Burley’s City Attorney said, “People took the right of privacy far more seriously 25 years ago than they do now” (Hunzeker, 2009). This, to me, is laughable. As more aspects of our lives are prodded and tracked, for vast data collection, advanced by emerging technologies, privacy seems increasingly more important, and I do not personally understand the logic that releases these rights upon death; if the records live on, so must the policies that protect those who may be affected. I think that it is time that library policymakers take notice of this potentially unrealized need.


Carlsbad Public Library. (2015). Patron privacy & confidentiality policy. Retrieved from http://www.cityofcarlsbadnm.com/CPL-%20Patron%20Privacy%20&%20Confidentiality%20%20(2015).pdf

Hunzeker, D. (2009). A private matter?: Burley library to consider releasing readers’ reading history to family members. Magic Valley. Retrieved from http://magicvalley.com/news/local/minicassia/a-private-matter/article_b2bd01d7-93c1-50c8-8287-9c45b2864efb.html

Las Positas College. (2015). Library policy on confidentiality of library records. Retrieved from http://www.laspositascollege.edu/library/confident.php

Linshi, J. (2015). Here’s what happens to your Facebook account after you die. Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://time.com/3706807/facebook-death-legacy/

New York Public Library. (2009). Privacy policy. Retrieved from http://connect.nypl.org/site/PageServerpagename=privacypolicy&printer_friendly=1

Paul Pratt Memorial Library. (2006). Retention policy for Paul Pratt Memorial Library records. Retrieved from http://www.cohassetlibrary.org/policy_retention.html

PINES. (2013). Circulation policies and procedures manual. Retrieved from http://pines.georgialibraries.org/sites/default/files/files/PINES_Circulation_Policies_and_Procedures_Manual_v2013_08.pdf

Swallow, E. (2010). 7 resources for handling digital life after death. Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2010/10/11/social-media-after-death/#uk3kkZ.mIgkF

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