Friday, November 17, 2017

Protecting Students' Privacy in School Libraries

By Gili Warsett, Hannah Mermelstein, and Maria Falgoust

At our next HVLA meeting (January 18), we plan to explore issues of privacy and digital citizenship as they relate to school librarianship. In this post, a few of us scrape the surface of this conversation as we talk about our own policies and thoughts. Please join the conversation in the comments!

Gili Warsett: As a Preschool and Lower School Librarian, my stance on patron privacy has evolved, and is evolving as the world changes. Although most of my students are happy to share their circulation history with each other, I now begin each school year by laying ground rules about privacy for our oldest lower school students, the third and fourth grade, when they are learning and/or reviewing how to do self-checkout. Our students use iPads to check their patron status and to check out books. I am very firm that they are not to look under anybody else’s library account when they are checking out books. They may not search their siblings’ or friends’ accounts. If I find that students have intentionally looked at somebody else’s account information, their iPad privileges are suspended.

At the beginning of this school year, a third grade student caught me off guard by asking why it’s so important for students to not look into each other’s library accounts. I began by saying that librarians have always been on the frontlines of protecting patrons’ privacy, but then I’m ashamed to say that the example I gave was less than inspired. I said something to the effect of, “Let’s say I did something I wasn’t supposed to do, and I had to go to court. Let’s say someone wanted to to decide what kind of character I am based on the books I read. If they could go to the library and ask for a list of all of the books I checked out, then they could make judgments and decisions about me based on what I borrowed from the library. If I knew that every time I checked out a book, I might be judged because of what I wanted to learn about, I might not feel so free to check out any book and to learn about whatever I want to learn about.”  I wish I had had a more articulate, thoughtful, and age-appropriate response to this student, and to use in the future when this conversation comes up. I’m curious to hear how other librarians approach the subject of privacy with their students, particularly with lower school students.

Hannah Mermelstein: I must admit we’re not necessarily so private when it comes to kids seeing each other’s accounts. We have our youngest students (4th-6th grade) help at the circulation desk during lunch and other free times, so they’re constantly checking books in and out, whereby they can see who’s reading what. Is there something we should/could be doing within that context to introduce the concept of patron privacy to our students?

Maria Falgoust: I am about to start self-checkout with 3rd graders and realized there is the option between using a barcode or having students type in names. If I go with the latter, there is potential for privacy abuse and shenanigans. Knowing I must plan mindful, intensive training to make sure I convey how important it is to take self-checkout seriously, I consulted Gili and asked her to share her self-checkout instructions and rules. Generously, she shared her experience and talked about the fine line between driving home the importance of privacy without opening a can of worms and scaring the students. I find my students often want to see their siblings’ accounts and I try to emphasize the right to privacy yet I don’t think younger kids get much privacy in their lives and really understand its significance.

HM: Where privacy comes into my thinking on a more regular basis is in regards to parents. When we send out overdue notices for our 4th and 5th graders, it goes to their parents, since the students don’t yet have email. Even with the older kids, we send to both the student and a parent. We could just send to kids, but often they don’t check their email, and ultimately it’s the parents who will be charged for the missing books at the end of the year. Given this, how can we protect the privacy of library records?

GW: Our Middle School and Upper School Libraries (Grade 5-12) email students directly with overdue notices. The Preschool and Lower School Library email the parents. I can understand Hannah’s uncertainty about sharing book titles with children’s parents. That’s an interesting quandary. I do like the idea of protecting even our younger students’ privacy by not sharing the titles of their library books with parents, but that seems like it would be a tough policy to implement.

HM: I also think about how much influence we and parents have in what students are reading. We have no official policy on whether our 4th graders can read YA books, but there are always a few 4th and 5th grade John Green fans, for example. I generally think kids are their own effective censors; if they’re not going to be comfortable with a book, they won’t check it out, or they’ll return it when they get uncomfortable, or the part that’s too much for them will go over their heads. So usually we just tell a kid why a book is marked YA if they don’t know, and we’ll sometimes ask whether they think their parents would be ok with their reading it. Occasionally we very strongly encourage a kid to put a book back and help them find something more age-appropriate. It’s not a science. And it’s not 100% about privacy, but I do think about how our responsibility as educators and librarians interacts with the individual freedom to read and, yes, patron privacy.

MF: I too struggle with the YA books as I serve Nursery-8th grade. There are often 3rd and 4th graders who want YA books and depending on the book, I may discourage them from checking it out although I do agree with you; kids are good at self-censoring. I often suggest a parent and student read the book together. YA graphic novels feel even trickier to me and a handful of my students are asking me for manga which often falls into the YA category.

GW: This conversation has helped me to articulate my stance on privacy and also to question it.  I have been asking myself, “Why do I stress the importance of maintaining privacy?” Maybe this heightened level of privacy isn’t an age-appropriate issue. The students that use the Preschool and Lower School Library are fairly open and curious about their peers’ reading interests.

The “inspiration” for my stricter privacy policy came from an incident that happened last year.  I had a fourth grade student who thought it would be funny to discretely check in books that his “friend” had just checked out from the library. It didn’t sit well with me, particularly because it seemed to hurt the friend’s feelings to have someone else meddle with his account. I took away the meddler’s iPad privileges until we were able to sit down and talk about using the iPads in a thoughtful way. But invasion of privacy wasn’t the root of the problem; I believe he was looking for ways to poke at his classmate.  Maybe it wasn’t necessary to reexamine our privacy policy in response to this student’s behavior.

At present, I work almost exclusively in the Preschool and Lower School Library. We are connected to the Middle School Library and on a case-by-case basis, I will grab a book from the Middle School Library if a student asks. Lower school students may also check out books from the Middle School Library if they are with a grownup before or after school.

Perhaps the line of appropriateness is crossed when students are looking into the accounts of students who are not present or are not consenting. (All students beginning in third grade through high school could technically search each others’ accounts by name on the iPads. For that matter, students could easily look into a faculty or staff person’s account to see what books they have checked out.)

There is a certain amount of cynicism (and despair) about the invasion of privacy that I think I’m projecting as a grownup onto our students. As I meditate on the issue of privacy more, especially after I felt unable to give a thoughtful answer to my student’s question about why it matters, I wonder if perhaps I’ve brought broken parts of our outside world into an overall kind-hearted community.  I’m grappling with whether I need to be teaching our kids about the evils of the world when they are merely interested in who has what.

On the other hand, if I was a student who happened to be a slow reader, and I had a book checked out for which another student was waiting, I would not want that other student to look into my account to find out what I had checked out, and for how long I had it.

HM: I worked at another school for a little while when I was in library school, and they had a section that was sort of hidden away with a sign that said something along the lines of, “You don’t have to check these books out. Just take and return when you’re finished.” These were books about bodies, puberty, and sexuality. On the one hand, that might create a sense that the books are embarrassing or somehow forbidden, but on the other hand, I think this is a fairly accurate reflection of middle schoolers’ feelings. So, while you may be right, Gili, that bringing in some of the bigger privacy questions that we as adults ponder might not be as salient to the kids, there is a definite possibility that a kid will check out different books based on whether they think other people will or won’t see what they’re reading.

MF: Gili, the term invasion of privacy does evoke cynicism and despair. It is important to address the issues concerning intellectual freedom, security and confidentiality from a young age, plant the seeds and build upon them. As role models and teachers, we are making impressions and if we do not respect students’ privacy, we become a part of the problem. Creating a space for awareness is a good first step in addressing it. School librarians talk about digital citizenship but perhaps we’ve forgotten to address privacy in our actual libraries?

GW: Is there a positive way to frame privacy for students?

MF: HVLA librarians, how do you teach students to respect and value privacy?

Here are a few articles and resources that consider these questions:

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