What Would You Do? Everyday Privacy Questions

Many of the privacy issues we talk about are pretty clear cut, but what about those that exist in the grey area between customer service and privacy protection?  The following are three scenarios I’ve recently pondered – either because they’ve come up in conversation in my professional life or because I’ve read about other libraries grappling with them.  I hope they spur thought and conversation in you, too.

Want to discuss these or offer your opinion?  Tweet me at @srjttomaszewski

Wellness Calls


During the pandemic, a public library realizes that many of its elderly users are confined to their homes with little support.  The library decides to pull the phone numbers of all the patrons who have birth dates in the ILS that match a particular criteria.  Those numbers are then put into a spreadsheet for staff to call. 

What do you think?  Is this a violation of privacy?

My take: 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been hard for everyone in our communities, but for those who are most vulnerable, the isolation can be particularly difficult.  

It’s for that reason that a few libraries across North America (and beyond) have instituted wellness calls.  It’s a simple concept – a library staff member picks up the phone and calls an elderly user to find out if they are ok and if they need any help from the library.  Canadian libraries such as Toronto Public Library and US libraries such as Somerset County Library in New Jersey have posted stories about their wellness call services in the past few months.

This sounds like a wonderful way to connect with users during a difficult time when we cannot have face to face interactions with them.  Indeed, Toronto reports that they’ve received very favorable feedback.  

That said, there are a couple of privacy concerns that make the practice problematic.

  • In order to isolate users who belong to particular groups, we must mine our systems for the data they provided for the purpose of getting and maintaining a library card.  I believe that the tacit assumption is that the PII provided will be used for operational purposes only, and that it won’t be compiled for other uses.  
  • Cold calling users forces an “opt-out” situation on the user – they must tell the staff member calling that they don’t want unsolicited calls.  They may already be on a no-call list.


Some libraries and city and county governments have wellness call programs in place, but they are “opt-in”.  

The City of Mission Viejo has a program that allows users or their loved ones to request wellness calls.  These are scheduled at the user’s convenience and they can opt out at any time.  

The City of Menlo Park in the San Francisco Bay Area has a similar service. They offer a form that users can fill out.  

Enhanced Services


A library has purchased an eBook on a platform that offers a metered edition that allows one checkout at a time.  Holds are increasing on that copy, but the selector realizes that there is also a copy on another of the library’s platforms that offers simultaneous use.  

Should the librarian email the people who have the book on hold to tell them of the other copy they can check out immediately? 

My Take: 

Although those users would most likely appreciate an email letting them know of an alternative source for a book/service they want, getting that information requires using information that was provided to a vendor’s system for the sole purpose of receiving hold notifications.  The user did not consent to the library using their email in a third party email system or in a group email.  


The library could add a note on their website or in a newsletter explaining how to find out if there are alternatives to one copy/one user materials.  Perhaps add a how-to blog entry so that everyone who visits the site can learn.

Lost Child


The library is about to close, and staff realize that there is a child in the library who doesn’t have an adult with them.  They don’t remember their parent’s phone number, but they do have an item with them that was checked out by their parent before the parent left the library.  

Should you look up the account information to call the parent?

My take:

This one is really hard because handling stray children in the library at closing is hard.  Since the health and welfare of a human being is at stake, I would probably look up the record and call the parents if all other avenues — besides calling the police — were closed.  Am I right? What would you do?

Privacy is hard!

There’s a lot of nuance in every situation.  Though the big issues are easy to see and understand, it’s the little day-to-day privacy decisions that will really define the library profession.  Discussion and debate are the best way to figure out where we stand on these questions.  I’d love to hear your examples! 

AuthorStacy Tomaszewski

Stacy Tomaszewski is the Electronic Resources Librarian at The Alameda County Library (CA).