Watching What Students Read in the School Library

by Helen Adams, Member, and Michael Robinson, Chair
IFC Privacy Subcommittee

The Collier School District in Florida now allows parents and guardians to see the titles of books their children (and wards) check out from the district’s school libraries.    Colllier County’s “Parent Portal” is being offered as a means of heading off book challenges in the district, with the thought that parents themselves can police the books their children are reading, rather than asking the school to remove the book from the school library.

Although Florida’s library confidentiality statute does not bar schools from providing parents a student’s library records,  it does not mean that it is ethical or appropriate for libraries to provide parents with  the technological means to check their children’s circulation records and their reading choices.  Established through case law, students have a First Amendment right to receive information in school libraries. Whether they exercise that right is dependent on whether they feel that their use of resources will be kept confidential. The district’s action will certainly chill some students’ use of resources that may be controversial and/or on sensitive topics. Instead of checking out some books, students will read the books in the library (hiding them somewhere on the shelves), have a friend check them out, or simply “borrow them” without benefit of checkout.

Do parents need to check the reading choices of their children? Younger elementary children often have difficulty managing the books they have checked out of the school library, so this means of confirming the number of books and when they are due may be useful to parents. However, the information can also be easily obtained by calling or emailing the school librarian. Is parental tracking of middle school students’ personal reading choices necessary? Tweens are beginning to explore new ideas including their sexual orientation and other sensitive topics. High school students are also in the process of maturing, establishing some personal independence, and preparing for life after high school.  Why should they fear that their parents may surreptitiously check on what they are reading?

Instead, schools should encourage parents to talk to their children or young adults face-to-face or look at the physical books.  Parents have the right (and responsibility) to guide their children’s reading – which does not mean spying on their child, but instead  talking about the ideas in the books, discussing reading choices in relation to family values, and recommending books.

As librarians, we follow the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association that states in Article III, “We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.”  It is incumbent on librarians to oppose practices that violate our ethics, especially those that concern the intellectual freedom of our patrons even if they are minors.  There is a delicate balancing act between the rights of minors and the rights of parents. The Collier County “Parent Portal” shifts the balance too much toward the rights of parents and endangers the ability of students to read and think in an environment free from surveillance.  It is a bad practice that the library profession must strongly advocate against before it becomes a precedent.

If the “Parental Portal” practice goes unchallenged, not only is students’ privacy substantially decreased, but also another opportunity for parent and child interaction about books, reading, and libraries will be lost. Students will grow up thinking surveillance of their reading and research topics is expected or the norm.  In a time when privacy and confidentiality of personal data is endangered, it is important for school librarians to challenge this use of technology to diminish students’ privacy. Just because we can give parents remote access to students’ school library records does not mean it is the right thing to do.

Learn more about students’ and minors’ privacy by visiting the Students’ and Minors’ Privacy Resource Page.

Helen Adams is is a former school librarian in Wisconsin and currently an online instructor for the School Library and Information Technologies program at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania.  She is the author of Protecting Intellectual Freedom and Privacy in Your School Library.

Mike Robinson is an associate professor and head of systems for the Consortium Library at the University of Alaska – Anchorage. Mike has worked with technology in libraries for most of his career and has a strong interest in online privacy as a cornerstone of intellectual freedom. He is currently the Chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Alaska Library Association.