Libraries & Diminished Patron Privacy in the COVID-19 Health Crisis

Christopher Muhawe, Hsin-Yuan Wang, Tian Wang, Carol Mullins Hayes, Masooda Bashir

Research output: Working paper


The COVID-19 health crisis has ushered in an era of great change in the way individuals and institutions function. With the contagious and deadly nature of the COVID-19, libraries geared their efforts to increase access to and use of digital collections. With the introduction of stay-home orders, the option of adopting full virtual services became the go-to solution as a way of protecting library staff and users. Collaboration with third-party vendors that provide library services heightened like never before. At some points during the pandemic, libraries had to carry out health checks of their patrons by taking their temperature readings before entering the library and actively monitoring whether library users were socially distanced. The drastic change to library operations due to the pandemic has resulted in the increased collection of patrons’ personal information ranging from health information to location data coupled with library records. Much as librarians are traditionally and professionally committed to protecting their patrons’ privacy, the sudden increase in the use of virtual services in library operations has a profound impact on library users’ privacy with potentially long-lasting repercussions. This paper investigates whether the 25 Association of Research Libraries (ARL) members with the largest number of titles held developed or modified their privacy policies in response to privacy threats that may be associated with the increase in data collection during the COVID-19 health crisis. Privacy policies are living documents that should evolve with the times and thus should be updated or changed to reflect the current realities. The research further investigates whether the existing pre-COVID-19 library privacy policies adopted the American Library Association (ALA) library privacy toolkit provision in developing their privacy policies. The results show among others that of the surveyed 25 ARL libraries, none of them developed a new library privacy policy or modified an existing one in response to the new data collected like health data and the privacy threats presented by increased data collection and massive use of digital services during the COVID-19 health crisis. Results further show that by the time of conducting this research, 4 of the 25 ARL member libraries in the survey did not have library privacy policies.<br>
Original languageEnglish (US)
StatePublished - Jan 29 2022


  • Privacy
  • Library
  • COVID-19
  • data
  • policy


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