Privacy and the young reader.

young girl reading black and whiteLike all good school librarians I was upset to read about the leaking of the school borrowing history of author Huraki Murakami. This has yet again raised the issue of privacy and the discussion has flared in social media and within library communities.

This is something that I have had to deal with many times in my career, both in public and school libraries. I am a strong advocate of the protection of the human right to privacy at any age, and feel that this protection should be guaranteed under law in public libraries, but what about schools and for very young children?

To me the answer is simple – privacy is a human right that belongs to everyone regardless of age. I was based in a primary school and in my library I had a clear policy of free voluntary choice and the pupil’s borrowing record was protected and belonged to the individual. The only exemption to this was if (after discussion with the person responsible for care issues in the school and myself) we felt that there might be an issue that would put the child personally at risk. This would then involve a private discussion with the child in a safe environment.

This was not an easy policy to maintain as there were many times that parents wanted to know what their child was borrowing and my refusal to share that information was often challenged. I stood my ground and the school supported me for one simple reason; I had it written into the library policy document. Having it in black and white meant that I could guarantee that the children were able to make a free voluntary choice of their reading material and were able to do that without judgement or fear of recrimination.

The first thing I had to do was to ensure that the library policy was accepted, agreed and signed off by the senior leadership team of the school and the school governors. I made sure that the right to privacy was guaranteed for every child, and I also made it clear that the library had a policy of stocking books of all types. I have supported many schools in the development of their own library policies and I quote the suggested outlines here…

“Library users of all ages and levels (including both pupils and staff members) are guaranteed the right of privacy. Should the librarian feel at any time that the pupil is at risk, this will be discussed in private with the pupil and the care team of the school, but the specifics of items borrowed from the library will remain within the ownership of the borrower. This information will be permanently deleted once the pupil leaves the school.”

“It is policy to ensure that material deemed sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise offensive or sexually explicit is not accommodated. However, challenging material will not be excluded simply because it is challenging, and the library will offer some material that may be outside the reader’s normal life experience. This will be to broaden and add depth to their studies, knowledge and understanding.”

This sort of clear policy gives a lot of scope for choosing stronger material and, as an unbiased professional, I felt that I was the best qualified person to make this decision. I’m the book expert in the building, it’s my job! However there were times that I would turn to other professionals and to my colleagues to help me make the decision. No matter what I had on my shelves the pupils knew that they would be able to borrow it without anyone else knowing that they had done so. That was very important to me as I felt that the library had an essential role to play in fostering a love of reading for pleasure and that can’t happen if a child feels that someone is breathing over their shoulder.

That’s not to say that there weren’t times when a Rhino Mum (or Rhino Dad!) came storming in to see me in a shortsighted rage demanding to know why their child had brought home a book that they didn’t approve of. It’s part of the job to be honest and we all have our ways of dealing with it. I had a good friend who was a school librarian in a private Catholic girl’s school and he used to keep a separate library card for girls who wanted to borrow books that they knew would be disapproved of. Another friend kept what she called her “junk card” for pupils in a high achieving school who wanted to secretly borrow trashy novels away from the prying eyes of pushy parents and teachers. I must confess that I also had a large number of books that I had ostensibly borrowed myself but had actually been borrowed by children who didn’t want it to go on their library record. Even the promise of privacy was not enough for some children.

A school library has two main functions – to support and develop reading skills, and to encourage and nurture reading for pleasure. In order to develop reading skills it is often necessary to keep a progressive list of books read, but this process should be distinct and separate from reading for pleasure. Learning how to read, and learning to love books are often muddled for younger children and this is a mistake. I personally feel that there should be a separate school library issue system for study books (including books on reading schemes) to those read for pure pleasure and free voluntary choice.

Privacy for pupils and young people is always going to be a thorny issue as we often bring to bear issues of care and responsibility, but I have always felt that it is deceptively simple. In fact, these rights are protected under Article 16 in the UN Convention document – The Rights of The Child. Furthermore there are a number of other articles within this document that ensure children should have unrestricted access to leisure and information. To restrict their privacy is to restrict access.

Every human being of any age deserves the right to privacy. If we restrict that then we also place restrictions on curiosity and understanding. We drive young people to find information though darker sources, and through marginalized means and that is what in turn leads young people to harbour feelings of loneliness, isolation and social disengagement. The right book at the right time can change or save a life – but will the vulnerable and confused young person find that information if they fear their borrowing history will be shared or sold? 

This is not just about children, this is about the right to privacy that is due to us all. As professional librarians we have a duty of care to the sensitive information contained within our records. If that trust is broken then we not only damage the service we offer, but we also put at risk the mental health and wellbeing of library users. I offer as an example the Books on Prescription scheme. This is having great success and as a result is not only saving the NHS a small fortune, but is hugely improving the quality of life for its users. Would that be the same if people feared that their borrowing history would be leaked or sold? Borrowing history could be open to catastrophic misinterpretation that could be permanently damaging to an individual’s life. Take for example student doctor, Yousif Badri, who was recently cleared of terrorism charges. One of the charges against him was that he “owned books on terrorism” when in fact he’d purchased freely available and academic books on Islamic extremism from Amazon. Misinterpretation of the books he read has dragged him to the point where he had to defend himself in court, and this has been hugely damaging to his career.

 Leaking Murakami’s teenage borrowing history might be interesting to his fans, but what it actually does is chip away at a private part of his life that should only ever have belonged to him and that is an erosion of everyone’s right to privacy.

Dawn Finch is a prominent UK school library and literacy consultant, and a children’s and YA writer.

Useful documents

UN – Rights of the Child – full document

UN – Rights of the Child – summary

UN – Rights of the Child – summary for children

CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) – User Privacy in Libraries – full document

Data Protection Act – UK – search for law pertaining to personal privacy

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One thought on “Privacy and the young reader.

  1. H says:

    Brilliantly well said, Dawn.
    My dad encouraged me to read whatever I wanted. At home, it didn’t matter but I wanted more. He could see me getting frustrated. I devoured all the recommended children’s books way ahead of my contemporaries and was beginning to get into trouble for inattention in class while they plodded through the livre du jour.
    Dad knew that restrictions were placed on what I could take out of the library because of my age so he claimed to have lost a couple of his brown cardboard cards and gave the replacements to me. I was allowed to go to the library myself from the age of 9 (imagine that now!) so I had strict instructions that whenever I took books out on them I was to keep them separate, put the adult cards with his name on top and say ‘And my dad asked me to pick these up.’
    That opened up new worlds to me: Ian Fleming, James Clavell, Jeffrey Archer, Tom Clancy, George Orwell and Trevelyan became new favourites. I remember having difficulty holding the thick books up for lengths of time so I could squint at the small print through the shaft of light from the landing! A four years later, still not able to officially borrow the books I wanted, I swapped one of dad’s cards for one of mum’s. I didn’t think it would be prudent for the librarian to think dad wanted to read Jilly Cooper or Jackie Collins.
    With library cards now defunct it would seem that it only takes one hacker, or in this case volunteer, to tell the world what you read when you were young so that everyone can make judgments. That’s sad.

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