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Nov 24 / Isidoro Alastra

Internet Privacy and Protecting Patrons

Written by Barb Szutkowski

As librarians, “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” (Code of Ethics of the American Library Association, n.d.).  This responsibility now includes providing patrons with privacy while they are accessing the Internet.  Two necessary steps in this process are selecting a browser with a reputation of being secure, and configuring the browser settings to provide an adequate level of protection.  Libraries also need to promote good practices of online reputation management within their communities.

“Selecting software that has historically proven to be secure, such as Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome, immediately places your users in a safer arena” (Kern & Phetteplace, 2012, p. 211).  Conversely, Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari browser are known to be more vulnerable.  It is also important to install anti-virus and anti-malware software on the library’s public computers to provide further protection.

After choosing an appropriate browser, a library needs to configure user preferences on its computers in a way that helps to avoid the exposure of patrons’ data.  “Browsing history, download history, form autofill information, and most especially passwords should all be erased each time the browser is exited” (Kern & Phetteplace, 2012, p. 211).  Appropriate settings are especially important on public computers so that information from a person’s browsing session cannot be viewed by the next user.

In addition to providing safe browsing environments, another way for libraries to help protect patrons is by integrating “online reputation management into privacy awareness events and existing digital literacy instruction” (Magnuson, 2011, p. 137).  This integration can begin to happen by taking the following steps:

  1. Expand the ethics conversation
  2. Promote user empowerment
  3. Set an example
  4. Make connections
  5. Celebrate privacy
    (Magnuson, 2011, pp. 138-139).

Although this list was prepared for academic libraries, public libraries can also utilize these guidelines.

Expand the ethics conversation:  In addition to promoting awareness about the ethical issues related to using copyrighted content in the online environment, it is important to address the ethical handling of private information.  Librarians need to include these issues in digital literacy instruction whenever possible.

Promote user empowerment:  Patrons need to be taught how to take advantage of the available opportunities “to shape their online reputation and promote themselves through awareness, vigilance, and critical thinking” (Magnuson, 2011, p. 139).  Instead of only being told about the privacy concerns and negative consequences of using social media, they need to understand the importance of their online presence and learn how to take responsibility for managing their images.

Set an example:  The library should display its privacy policy to patrons using its online reference tools to increase awareness of issues related to privacy and security.  Reference librarians should include a brief discussion of these issues when assisting patrons in accessing information through online sources.

Make connections:  In an academic setting, coordinate the library’s efforts to promote awareness of privacy and security issues with campus career services, seminars, and faculty members teaching courses about the implications of social media marketing.  In a public library, an effort needs to be made to educate patrons on this topic by communicating guidelines in a number of ways, such as on the library’s website, in pamphlets and bookmarks available in the library, and through instruction in all classes related to using online tools.

Celebrate privacy:  “ALA’s first Privacy Week was May 2-8, 2010, and International Data Privacy Day was January 28, 2011.  These events offer great opportunities to promote online privacy as an issue of user empowerment, encourage dialogue across your campus, and expand the library’s visibility and relevance” (Magnuson, 2011, p. 139).

Librarians need to be aware of the impact of advances in technology on their roles and responsibilities.  This article has discussed the responsibility to protect the privacy and confidentiality of library patrons as they seek, obtain, and use information through the use of the internet.  A more direct way that “librarians can most easily inform users about the privacy implications of mobile technology [and the use of the internet] is through implementing privacy oriented services. A basic incarnation of this would be to offer to configure privacy settings for users on mobile devices and social networks” (Cyrus & Baggett, 2012, p. 294).  Although this is already being done at some library help desks, “advertising this as a service of the library may draw in users who otherwise would not have sought help” (Cyrus & Baggett, 2012, p. 294).  Another specific area which requires attention is the use of mobile devices.  It is important for library and information science professionals to constantly monitor changes in technology in order to understand and embrace the effect of those changes on the responsibilities of librarians.

Discussion Questions

  1. How concerned are you about privacy when browsing the internet?
  2. What steps do you take (if any) to protect your privacy and security when accessing the internet?


Code of Ethics of the American Library Association. (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2013, from

Cyrus, J., & Baggett, M. (2012). Mobile technology: implications for privacy and librarianship. Reference Librarian, 53(3), 284-296.

Kern, M., & Phetteplace, E. (2012). Hardening the browser. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 51(3), 210-214.

Magnuson, L. (2011). Promoting privacy: Online and reputation management as an information literacy skill. College & Research Libraries News, 72(3), 137-140.