In the strictest confidence

Case study


Module 1: Library Associations in Society


Topic 2: Contextual factors for library associations


While library associations can make a significant contribution to the development of government policy and legislation, they also face challenges resulting from ongoing socio-political changes that impact on library services. The case study highlights the role played the Illinois Library Association (ILA) to safeguard library users’ democratic rights to confidentiality and privacy at a time when there was pressure to amend the legislation to allow law enforcement officers access to library records.

Key Ideas

As you read the case study, think about the following issues:

  1. What role can a library association play in shaping legislation that affects members of the association, individual librarians and members of the community?
  2. What role can a library association play in supporting members when dealing with government agencies?
  3. What are the benefits of being a member of a library association?
  4. How does being a member of a library association give you a voice?


The Illinois Library Association (ILA) was established in 1896 and is recognised as the voice for Illinois libraries and all the people who use the libraries. There are more than 3,700 members representing both library institutions (academic, public, special and school libraries) and library and information professionals (librarians, library assistants, students and library vendors). The Illinois Library Association has three full-time staff members. A sixteen-member executive board, made up of elected officers, governs it. The association employs the services of a firm of legislative consultants for some of their advocacy work. As a non-profit, charitable, educational organization, the association is supported by membership dues, conference registration fees, and publications.

The ILA’s mission is to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library services in Illinois and for the library community in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all. This access is essential for an open democratic society, an informed electorate, and the advancement of knowledge for all people

The ILA has traditionally adopted a strong position with regard to advocacy and public awareness of legislative issues impacting on libraries. The ILA keeps a very close eye on the political activities within the Illinois General Assembly in Springfield and the US Congress in Washington, DC. The association’s eNewsletter and website provides alerts and updates on relevant legislative developments. In 2010 the ILA has expressed its commitment to “serving as an advocate for libraries by developing legislative initiatives that: improve funding for libraries; protect intellectual freedom and patron confidentiality; expand access to information and library resources to all Illinois residents; and increase the effectiveness of Illinois libraries” (Public Policy Initiatives of ILA


In recent years, libraries in the United States (US) have noted the increase in the number of visits to libraries made by law enforcement agencies, which include police officers from municipal, county and state departments as well as FBI agents. The level of interest in tracking library users reflects the increase in surveillance and investigation following the events of September 11, 2001 and the legislative provisions in the US PATRIOT Act. The number of investigations into computer crimes (e.g., incidents associated with email threats, child pornography and obscenity) has also been steadily rising.

The introduction of sophisticated library management systems (LMS) means that personal data about library users is stored in digital format, which can be linked to transactional data about the information resources they may have consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted. It is acknowledged that different countries have very different codes of law that impact on libraries and library users. In the US, there are national and state constitutional rights protecting the information of citizens, as well as specific laws that safeguard the privacy and confidentiality of library records; librarians’ professional ethics also require that personally identifiable information about library users is to be kept confidential (Code of Ethics of the American Library Association).

The Illinois Library Records Confidentiality Act is one piece of legislation that impacts on libraries. Key provisions in the Act determine that the registration and circulation records of a library are confidential and that individual users should not be identified in any library reporting processes. Information contained in the library records should not be made available to the public. Widely regarded as key institutions of democracy, libraries must of course comply with legislation; the ILA and the law enforcement agencies of Illinois have developed a valuable working relationship to ensure that there are channels for communication to support collaboration and consultation.

The police came calling

Naperville Public Library is a member of the ILA. On 18th May, 2004 the Naperville Police received a call from a Naperville Public Library staff member. The call was made in response to complaints from three patrons who claimed they had witnessed an act of public indecency in the computer lab. As part of the investigation, the police asked the library to supply the individual’s identity. The library staff would only be able to do this by searching the patron’s record used to book a computer workstation. The library staff indicated that the information would be supplied if a court order were provided, in line with the provisions of the Illinois Library Records Confidentiality Act.

A warrant was received that compelled the library to produce the suspect’s name, to release the computer work-station used by the suspect and videotapes from the library’s surveillance system. A week later a grand jury subpoena and court order requested the registration records identifying all other patrons who were in the computer lab at the time of the incident.

This incident led to the police department questioning the definition of ‘public’, as outlined in the provision in the Confidentiality Act about information contained in the library records not being made available to the public. The police department argued that as a government instrumentality, they should not be considered to be the ‘public’. The police believed that they should have the right to ask library staff to release information about library patrons without a warrant.

The Naperville Public Library sought advice and guidance from the ILA. After the Naperville Police Department were unable to obtain legal opinion on the matter from the district attorneys, the City Council sought the support of a State Representative, a Senator of the Illinois General Assembly, attorneys and lobbyists to submit draft legislation amending the Confidentiality Act, which would provide the police with less restrictive access to library records. ILA engaged in discussions with the State Representative and the Senator to present their concerns about the proposed amendments.

Negotiations between the authorities continued over several months, producing a series of draft amendments which ultimately sought to ensure that requests for information could only be made under ‘specific emergency situations’, which involved an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm, limiting the disclosure of records to the identity of the person concerned, without any further registration or circulation details.

During this time, ILA held a meeting with the Naperville police, the Naperville lobbyist, the Naperville city attorneys to discuss the fifth attempt to draft legislation revising the law. ILA canvassed their members, collected stories on how library records might be misused and developed a campaign whereby staff and members of the association were encouraged to initiate discussions with the public, the press and politicians. The association stressed the important role that members could play by understanding the implications of the statutes and discussing the issues with the relevant civic groups and with the legal community, so that those community members are prepared to speak effectively to legislators on the behalf of libraries and library users.

The amendment to the Library Records Confidentiality Act, which came into effect on 1 January 2008, now allows a law enforcement officer to request that a library releases the identity of a suspect, witness or victim of a crime on occasions when it is impractical to secure a court order as a result of an emergency where the officer has probable cause to believe there is an imminent danger of physical harm. Circulation or registration information that includes details about the materials borrowed, resources reviewed or services used at the library may still only be released under a court order.


The established relationship between the legislators, government instrumentalities and the ILA allowed for consultation and negotiation, enabling the library association to ensure that its voice was heard and expressed in the legislation. The expertise of committee members ensured that members’ rights would be protected and that the professional rules of conduct and ethical codes would not conflict with the laws of the land which library staff must comply with. Confidentiality is a hallmark of library service and the library user must be confident that their privacy is protected and free from unwarranted intrusion. Associations are well positioned to consult, negotiate and mediate with legislators to protect the autonomy of libraries as institutions of democracy.

ILA highlights the following strategies as being the keys to success:

  • Be alert to developments
  • Respond to challenges
  • Engage the library community
  • Draft a solution, in this case draft revisions to the law
  • Convene key stakeholders, including police, attorneys, elected officials, etc.
  • Advocate your values to the press and elected officials
  • Communicate, communicate, and communicate


  1. What were the most important steps taken by the Illinois Library Association?
  2. In your context, what kinds of library user activity can be or should be reported to the police without violating user confidentiality?
  3. In your context, what questions can library staff answer for police that will not violate user confidentiality?
  4. In terms of privacy and confidentiality, are there any differences between public, school and academic libraries?
  5. Do you feel that your library association is well positioned to face challenges to the principles of privacy and confidentiality?
  6. Has your association has been involved in a similar case? Can you explain what actions were taken and discuss the extent to which the situation was successfully resolved?
  7. Is your association well positioned to work with legislators? How could your association improve its relationship with relevant government agencies?

Case Notes

Resource: Case study
Country: United States
Region: North America
Agency: Illinois Library Association
Topic: Protecting the confidentiality of library patron records
Keywords: advocacy, influence, law and legislation, confidentiality, privacy


Doyle, R.P. (2005). Confidentiality: a case study in progress. ILA Reporter, 23(1), 18-23. Also available as an online resource at

Doyle, R.P. (2002). Privacy and confidentiality in libraries. Illinois Library Association & American Library Association (2002). Available as an online resource at

Magi, T. J. (2006). Protecting library patron confidentiality: Checklist of best practices. Available as an online resource at

Associations, Building Strong Library Associations

Last update: 21 October 2012