Libraries Are Now Purging Borrower Data — So Go Ahead and Take Out 'Fifty Shades of Grey'


When the question of online privacy arises, it's usually in regards to the latest data breach or concerns over government surveillance. But what can someone deduce from library books? 

Polly Thistlethwaite, the chief librarian of City University of New York Graduate Center, told the Guardian that the New York Police Department once came to her looking for the Zodiac killer after they received intel about a user taking out books on astrology. In 2005, a case went to the Supreme Court after the FBI demanded Connecticut's Library Connection give them access to a patron's search history. But as Thistlethwaite argues, "You are not the material you look at." In that vein, the CUNY library is moving to delete its interlibrary loan records. 

In an email included in the Guardian's report, the Graduate Center's head of library resource sharing Beth Posner told students and staff, "We will continue to keep all requests from 2013 forward until further notice; eventually we will only keep a rolling history of one year or less, though, in order to help ensure that ILL requests remain confidential." 

The issue got attention recently when the newspaper Kobe Shimbun published the library records of famous Japanese author Haruki Murakami, according to the LA Times. A former teacher at Murakami's alma mater found the writer's old library card and tipped off Kobe Shimbun. Though it was a contentious decision, the Shimbum editor ultimately decided to run the piece — which revealed the name of a saucy French book Murakami took out as a teen — because he believed the author's prestige made "these facts ... of high public interest."

Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

CUNY's new interlibrary loan policy is a move toward the right to privacy, but also the freedom of curiosity. For the founder and director of the Library Freedom Project, Alison Macrina, the new procedure has been a long time coming. 

"It's a book you wanted so bad that you went to special lengths to get it, and we know how intelligence agencies pay attention to breaks in patterns," she told the Guardian.

Her organization has drafted a "Library Digital Privacy Pledge" introducing the use of secure "https://" URLs on library websites and resources. The pledge reads, "It's just a first step: HTTPS is a privacy prerequisite, not a privacy solution. Building a culture of library digital privacy will not end with this pledge, but committing to this first modest step together will begin a process that won't turn back."

The Library Freedom Project is inspiring libraries across the country to keep your dirty little secrets. Several public, academic and digital libraries and databases have already signed the pledge. Just think of all the cheeky things you can read on JSTOR now. 

"It's taken a little too long," Macrina said of CUNY's new protocol. "But I'm really glad to see it's happening somewhere."

Correction: Jan. 14, 2016: A previous version of this story stated that the name of the library audited for their records by the FBI in 2005 was the "Connecticut Library Consortium." The name of the organization is Library Connection Inc., a cooperative of 30 public and academic libraries based in Connecticut.