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September 20, 2004

See what you think: A library staff member took a phone call from a mom looking for her daughter, who often comes to the library, or who perhaps was supposed to have been at the library at that time.

The librarian went to look for the girl, but she wasn’t around. The mom then asked that the Internet sign-in sheet be consulted to see if the daughter had been there, but the librarian wouldn’t do it.

The mom was understandably annoyed, since she had but one goal in mind, but the staff member was understandably correct. I’ll explain.

Colorado has a very strong library privacy law, which can create some interesting conflicts for libraries striving to serve citizens and community.

However, my main argument for not consulting the Internet sign-in sheets in this case is not primarily concerned with user privacy. It has to do with accuracy and, thus, liability.

You may have no idea what the sheet looks like. It starts out each day as a nice, clean sheet with numbered columns and ends up a mess.

People make illegible scribbles that are then scratched out. Or erased. They use first names, last names, nicknames, other people’s names. Even Satan has apparently signed up for a computer.

Users sign up but take the wrong computers, or they don’t sign up at all, until we discover the problem.

The mom might have recognized her daughter’s handwriting on the sign-in sheet, but I’m not going to have staff interpret chicken scratch and declare yes, no, or — the worst case — maybe.

We weren’t keeping the mom from her daughter. We went to look for her, as we have many times for others, but she wasn’t there.

The sign-in sheets are tools for us to keep a handle moment by moment on the use of the Internet computers, but there is probably no less reliable a record of anyone doing anything in Salida.

The sheets are public, of course, while they lay on the front desk, but after that they’re not available for consultation. The most accurate thing on the sign-in sheets are the start times, because we keep an eye on them.

In a similar case, another mom wanted to see an old sign-in sheet when trying to figure out who might have accessed her daughter’s email account and used it rudely. They figured it must have happened at the library.

I said no. The opportunities for bad inferences from such incomplete and inaccurate information are so many that I dread the library being party to it.

If the information were deemed necessary for a criminal investigation, that’s different, and the district attorney has the tools for getting the information within the law.

The privacy law (CRS 24-90-119) states “Except as set forth in subsection (2) of this section, a publicly-supported library shall not disclose any record or other information that identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific materials or service or as otherwise having used the library.”

We’re not the strictest interpreters of the library privacy law, by any stretch. I see the law as protecting privacy for library services but not necessarily in the public space that is library property.

Otherwise, we could never mention having seen anyone, child or adult, in the library for anything — public meeting, restrooms, to meet a friend, to get a drink, anything.

It’s a strange and wonderful middle path to find. We’ll talk more about it later.


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