Patron Privacy and Self-Checkout Machines

Library patron using a self-checkout kiosk

Does your library have a self-checkout? It seems like a simple question, but the ramifications are deep. After the Patriot Act was passed, libraries pushed back against government surveillance by purging patron records as soon as an item was returned. But that's only one step in a long and arduous process.

The Self-Checkout Machine

Consider the self-checkout machine, the bane of every clerk from CVS to Wegmans. It allows patrons the ability to check their items out without having to interact with a library employee. It has many benefits, not the least of which is inherent privacy. Many people aren't comfortable checking out books when they know someone is going to know what they are reading.

For the majority of us, this may not seem like a problem. But consider the 14-year-old struggling with their identity, or someone who may be dealing with a very private illness, or even someone who doesn't want to be side-eyed because they are picking up a controversial book. These reasons are more than sufficient, but also consider what happens when someone isn't afforded privacy when they check out an item. They may decide not to pursue that topic, which can be detrimental. Less severe but still worth alleviating, they may just take the book (and may or may not return it).

Assurances of Privacy

True, the item will go on their record. But if your patrons are concerned about library staff seeing what they are checking out, you need to be able to assure them that your staff uses the information appropriately. In a previous lifetime, I was given access to databases to run background checks. I was told if I ever used the software for anything other than its intended purpose, the penalties would be severe. Apart from losing my job, felony charges could be brought down. This is the standpoint I take when it comes to our patrons' privacy. We keep only the information we need and only for as long as we need it.

Taking Extra Precautions

But the self-checkout machine isn't enough. If there are cameras pointed at the machine, the footage is subject to record-keeping laws. Though cases may be rare when law enforcement views it, it's still information they would otherwise need a subpoena or court order to access directly. So take extra precautions. As I said earlier, only keep information you need, and only for as long as you need it.

Anonymity and privacy are bedrock principles of libraries, and we should do everything in our power to assure our patrons that we take them as seriously as possible. In order to continue to secure adequate funding, we need the good will of our communities, and we need to show our worth. Letting them know we value them not just as patrons, but also as private individuals, goes a long way showing them our priorities.

This piece was originally published on Medium and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

About the Author

T.J. LamannaT.J. Lamanna is the emerging technologies librarian at the Cherry Hill Public Library in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He's currently the chair of the New Jersey Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee and well as serving on the American Library Association's Privacy Subcommittee though the Office of Intellectual Freedom, where he focuses on the intersection of privacy and free access to information.