Calling Users in a Pandemic: Best Practices to Protect Privacy

by Eileen Palmer

As so much of life has been ‘closed down’ due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many libraries have begun to reach out to their users directly over the phone. These calls, sometimes referred to as wellness checks, come from our professional tradition of service and a genuine concern for the well-being of the users we have come to know so well and care for so deeply. This desire for checking in on our users can come into conflict with our ethical charge to protect user privacy and confidentiality regarding library use. Before jumping into action, take time to think about the purpose of the calls and how they will be done. The guidelines below were developed to help libraries consider if, and how, staff can make calls to users.

  • If staff are instructed to contact users, define the purpose of the contact. Contact should only be made with users to discuss matters directly related to library services. While these calls may touch on the well-being of the user, it should not be the primary purpose. Create specific instructions for staff to guide them in the purpose of the call.
  • Information provided to the library by the user is meant for the delivery of, or notice about, library services. If a call to a user is for another purpose (well-being, completing the census, non-library related services, etc.) check with the library board and/or legal counsel to see if they agree that such services are within the library’s mission, comply with the state library confidentiality statute, and are within the library’s liability policies.
  • Libraries should only use the method identified by the user as the preferred means of contacting them. Access to Personally Identifiable Information (PII) should be limited to authorized library employees. Staff that are working from home should receive training on handling confidential information in a secure fashion.
  • Allow staff to opt-in to making direct calls to users. Not all staff may feel comfortable making such calls and some may not feel equipped to do so. Staff who opt-out of making such calls should be allowed to do so without any negative repercussions.
  • Do not select particular groups of users to call based on any protected class, including age, race, gender, or religion.
  • Ensure staff making calls have access to appropriate referral information that they can share with a user should they express a need or concern unrelated to library services.
  • Do not allow staff to make calls to users from their personal phones. Staff should be given access to call from library phone lines or masked phone numbers.
  • Consider alternatives to library staff reaching out to users directly by phone, such as encouraging users to contact the library directly. If possible, offer and promote online and/or telephone reference services. Reach out to users through electronic newsletters they have subscribed to and market services through the library’s website and social media.

It’s an overused statement lately, but we are in unprecedented times. Library workers are to be commended for seeking new paths to service and for reaching out to our users during this difficult time. But, it’s important that we do so within a framework that respects the talents and abilities of library staff and also respects the privacy and confidentiality of our users.

Eileen Palmer (image)Eileen M. Palmer is Executive Director of the Libraries of Middlesex Automation Consortium serving 33 libraries in central New Jersey.  She is a past president of the New Jersey Library Association (NJLA) and has chaired both its Intellectual Freedom Committee and Public Policy Committee.  She currently serves as the NJLA Chapter Councilor to ALA and chairs ALA’s Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship.

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