Library Privacy Rights - Parents Beware

Long before my training wheels and I peacefully parted ways, I devoured every word printed on back panels of Cheerios, Wheaties and Rice Krispies cereal boxes. As a matter of fact, every room of our home offered reading material, my father crediting bathroom personal care product labels for my “amazing“ ability to spell complex chemical names. By age 5, I was a “teacher“, spending hot summer days reading to my “class“ of neighborhood friends, as we lounged in the shade of a giant oak tree. The joy of reading has remained a lifelong habit, with my purse, suitcase, camera or golf bag considered “packed”, only if their contents include at least one book.

Three of my most cherished possessions – having survived as many decades and cross-country moves – are beautifully illustrated books of poetry given to me by my grandmother. Through them, she passed along her love of well-crafted literature. Her spacious walls were lined with bookcases overflowing with Dickens, Kipling, and Longfellow – more than enough to keep us busy reading to each other during rain or sunny-day visits. When my parents realized their discretionary income wouldn’t keep up with my voracious appetite for all-things-print, they offered a solution – my very own library card.

The process of obtaining a card was a bit intimidating. First, there was the issue of the waist-high – if you were an adult – solid wood librarian counter. It required that I stand tippy-toe, grasping its edges, in order to peek across its highly-polished surface. On the other side stood a librarian. Her bright blue eyes, framed by beautifully-coiffed silver hair, locked onto mine. “Stern“ doesn’t adequately describe the set of her jaw, although a slight twinkle in her eyes softened her countenance. Squinting through eye-glasses perched on the tip of her nose, she stage-whispered “Rules and Etiquette of Proper Library Conduct“, reading from a well-worn 3×5 index card.

She left no doubt, that any transgressions would interfere with my access to “her” books. “No running. No gum, candy, soda or food. No voice above a whisper – ever. No bending of the books, breaking their spine. NO dog-earring. No writing and No highlighting in any book – ever. No Exceptions. No overdue books. No lost books. No damaged books. Drop a book in the snow, we will know.” I knew I wanted to test her sincerity about as much as I would that of a diamondback rattler.

She awarded my final nod of assent by sliding a brand new library card across the counter accompanied by a heart-felt, “Congratulations! Please sign your card.” She announced to my father, “I think she’ll be a wonderful little patron. If there’s anything we can do to help – any favorite, special reading material you’d like us to locate for your daughter, or any material you’d find objectionable – simply let us know. We’re here to serve.”

That was the beginning of a long and satisfying relationship. While my mother went about the business of Saturday shopping chores, I was given free reign of the library. Entering through its hard-carved solid-wood doors, I never failed to experience a sense of “coming home”, its peace and tranquility drawing me inside. While friends of the outside world built forts, engaging in secret handshakes and clubhouse door-knocking rituals, I learned my chosen clique’s unique signals. When I entered the library, a double-quick jerk of a rubber-thimble encased index finger meant that my immediate attendance was required at the once-intimidating librarian’s counter.

“You’ll find this to be of interest“, a librarian might say, proffering with a gentle, two-handed slide across the counter, a book secreted from circulation just for me. Even more exciting were the days I’d hear, “I have something brand new – just came in and I thought you’d like to be the very first“. Their genuine warmth and encouragement reminded me of my beloved grandmother, who was spending more time in hospital than home. Like my grandmother, the librarians encouraged my parents, sharing perspectives and insights about my choices in reading material. My “obsession“ became more purposeful and legitimate in the eyes of my parents.

Fast forward to the present, years and miles removed from those sweet memories, my 9-year-old daughter asked if she could have her “very own“ library card. Truth be told, we had never visited our local public library, but instead, created our own “in-home“ library, filling over 40-shelves with reading material reflecting our home-education faith-based values.

Thinking and praying through a decision, my husband suggested library visits would provide our daughter with practical real-life experiences in selecting reading material. My daughter’s winning argument was: “Your library, Mommy, as much as I love it, doesn’t have enough horse veterinarian stories and since that’s what I want to be when I grow up, I need more books.” Well, she had me there.

The next morning, after giving her the same speech my father had given me, regarding “responsibilities” that came with a library card, we walked into our town’s library, hand-in-hand. When the steel and glass doors closed behind us, I felt a warm sense of home-coming and joy, as if I had found a long-lost friend. “This is going to be fun”, I told my daughter, nodding toward the librarian station.

Explaining our purpose to the gentle-mannered, gray-haired librarian behind the counter, my sense of renewing relationships deepened. Her mannerisms – arms gently crossed over a stack of books, holding them snugly to her chest – was identical to “my“ librarians who had all long-since retired or “passed“. While she expressed willingness to help, she suggested if we wanted a “real treat”, my daughter could obtain her card directly from the library’s director who “just happened to be seated at her desk”. Following the librarian’s lead, we were escorted to a desk occupied by a woman who looked up from her work, only when cued to do so by the throat-clearing of the librarian. Without benefit of perfunctory greetings, much less glancing in our direction, the Director nodded to her employee that she’d take care of the “transaction“. Efficiently retrieving forms from her desk drawer, she lowered her head once again, silently reading them to herself.

“Okay. I guess this is it,“ I said, smiling encouragingly at my daughter when she looked at me quizzically, not sure what to make of the Director’s strange behavior.

Extending a pen to my daughter, but still not making eye contact with me, the Director directed my daughter to, “Please fill in your name, address, phone number as well as an easy-to-remember four-digit security code. Before I give you your card, there’s something I’d like to share with you, as soon as your mother gives us some privacy.”

Briefly glancing in my direction, for the first time since we’d arrived at her desk, she said , “Now, if you’d just step over there“, waving me in the general direction of numerous library shelves located a good distance from where her desk sat.

I felt like a dog being shooed away from a flowerbed. Parroting her words, “You want to speak with my daughter in private…”,

“I’d be very interested in hearing anything you have to say to my child. I still fondly remember every word the librarian said to me on the day I was given my card. It was quite an occasion – a privilege, really. So, please, continue,” I said with a smile, stepping closer to my daughter, laying my right hand on her shoulder.

“Thanks, Mom,“ my daughter said, tucking her head against my side.

In response, the Director’s scowl deepened, as she contemplated whether or not it was worth debating the issue. Deciding to ignore me, she leaned down, planting her hands, fingers spread on the desk, her face level with my daughter’s.

“What I have to tell you is very important. You have a right to privacy. We have a policy hung on our front entryway. You may have seen it when you entered the library. No? Well, our New Hampshire lawmakers guarantee everyone, no matter their age, has a right to privacy. That means that no one has any right to know what books you are reading.“

Holding up my daughter’s library card, she continued, “This is YOUR library card. It’s not your mother’s card or father’s card. It’s yours. What that means is if your mother or father called me, or if they came in here to the library, asking me what books you’ve checked out, I will not tell them. I cannot tell them, because our law protects your right to privacy.”

My daughter turned to me with a perplexed look, asking, “Mommy, that really doesn’t sound right to me. She’s telling me she won’t help you if you need help. And it makes it sound like I can lie to you.”

“Well, no, no not quite, dear,“ the head librarian said in a voice one uses to talk to an obstinate four-year-old, “that’s not quite the intent. The intent of this is to let you know that you have a LEGAL right to privacy. Here in New Hampshire, we take our privacy very seriously.“ She was tenacious AND repetitive, I thought.

“Our lawmakers want to make sure that you are aware that children have a right to privacy, just like adults do. So when you take out books, if you don’t want your parents to know what you are reading, we will not tell them.“

Suddenly, I felt tired, my feet feeling as heavy as my heart, doubtless the reason I stood there, mute and motionless. There were so many things wrong with what I’d just heard, I wasn’t even sure where to begin.

I pictured Auntie Em twisting her apron, tearfully saying to Miss Gulch, “I’ve.been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now, well, being a Christian woman, I can’t say it!“ Thankfully, the Apostle Peter’s words washed over me, giving me peace and perspective – “Why are you always so surprised by fiery trails.”

The Director, still avoiding eye contact with me, made it clear that any further discussion would prove unprofitable.

She extended the brand new bar-coded library card to my daughter. Intercepting the pass, I examined it and then asked, “I’m curious. Would you tell me the details of the privacy law – a reference number, or name – anything that can help me study it?”

Busily placing items into desk drawers, she dismissively waved her hand telling me she “couldn’t remember specifically, but that if the ALA and the state library had developed this procedure, that it had to be completely legal”, and that while she was “without any specific ability or knowledge to answer legal questions, I can tell you that I would trust those organizations and their procedures.”

Having arranged her desktop to her satisfaction, she summarily dismissed us with yet another wave of her hand, telling my daughter she hoped she enjoyed the library “experience“. We watched her disappear around the corner.

“Well,” I said to my daughter, “that was unexpected“.

“I’ll say”, she said. “What do you think about just going home, Mom? I’m kind of out of the mood, if you know what I mean.”

Yes. I knew what she meant.

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