ALA Midwinter 2018

Children’s Librarians are Experts on Privacy and Confidentiality

Once while I was working the reference desk, a young woman around 12 years old or so approached me and asked if the library had any books on sperm.

Image result for where willy went

I told her that I would see what I could find and brought her to the stacks and pulled a couple of books off the shelf including Where Willy Went by Nicholas Allen. In addition, I pointed out a couple of shelves she might want to browse if she didn’t find exactly what she wanted in the books I had given her. I added that if she had any other questions, to please let me know and I left her to her research.

I went back to the reference desk to continue my shift, and around an hour later, she approached the desk again, this time with her father. As I greeted the father and daughter, the young woman’s eyes widened with what I perceived as fear. She shook her head the tiniest bit. While I am not sure we had a telepathic conversation, it seemed as if she was silently telling me, “Please don’t say anything about what we talked about earlier. Please!” And I had absolutely no intention of speaking to her father about anything other than his own questions, but she had no way of knowing that. Was the privacy of her inquiry safe with me?

“How may I help you?” I opened to both of them. Her father asked for a series of books by a certain author, and the three of us walked to the stacks together with her father making small talk. The young woman remained tense during our excursion. She never quite relaxed until she knew they were walking away without me acknowledging our earlier conversation.

Later, I found the books I had given her as well a few more in a pile on the floor in a very back corner of the library.
The right to privacy is the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others.” **

As children learn and grow, they need to experience their right to open inquiry at the library. Asking a question at the library is an act of courage and vulnerability. Our patrons model bravery to us every day. As children’s librarians, we honor their bravery by preserving their privacy and confidentiality, respecting their right to browse, and providing nonjudgmental answers to their questions.

The story above is based on a real reference interaction, but the details have been altered to protect the patron’s privacy and confidentiality.


Ashley J. Brown, a member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee, is the Engagement and Outreach Librarian at the Auburn Public Library in Auburn, AL.  She enjoys storytime, playing the ukulele, and walking with her Chow Chow Sammie.

This blog post was inspired by Competencies for Librarians Serving Children in Public Libraries: II. Reference and User Services 6. Respects the patron’s right to browse regardless of age, and provides nonjudgmental answers to her or his questions and VII. Professionalism and Professional Development 7. Preserves patron confidentiality.


**“Privacy and Confidentiality.” United for Libraries, 20 July 2009, www.ala.org/Template.cfm?Section=ifissues&Template=%2FContentManagement%2FContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=25304 . Retrieved Nov. 9, 2018

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