Big Bro won’t learn much at local libraries
While critics of the U.S. Patriot Act fear a provision that allows federal officials to access records of what people check out of libraries, Big Brother would have a tough time learning much about patrons of facilities in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The libraries of Pitkin County, Basalt and Garfield County use a system called Marmot to maintain their databases and check-out materials. Even before the Patriot Act raised issues about civil liberties, the Marmot system was set up to protect privacy, according to local librarians.
Basalt Regional Library director Linda Levy said the system tracks current books and materials checked out by a patron and any materials that are overdue, lost or damaged. But once a person returns materials and deals with any fine, the record of what was checked out is purged.
“The fact that you ever checked something out is gone forever,” Levy said.
Unlike systems maintained by banks, which are designed to track past transactions, the libraries “want to get rid of [the record] as quickly as possible,” noted Pitkin County Library Director Kathy Chandler. Libraries have traditionally been very protective of their patrons’ privacy, she said.
Chandler said she regards officials at Marmot Library Networks Inc. in Grand Junction as equally diligent about protecting people’s privacy. “They wouldn’t think it’s any more ethical than your hometown library” to release records, she said.
Marmot handles data for 20 library systems on Colorado’s West Slope, ranging from one-library districts like Basalt to multi-branch districts.
Don Moeny, a systems development manager for Marmot, said it’s interesting that librarians have been ahead of the debate that has been raised by the Patriot Act. Librarians have always been concerned about privacy when it comes to books and materials checked out.
“We really don’t care what Joe Doe checked out, as long as he returned it,” said Moeny. Records are kept by libraries on raw numbers, such as how many books were checked out and the popularity of specific books. But records aren’t kept on individuals’ patterns or tastes in materials.
The Patriot Act goes the opposite direction. “The Patriot Act is trying to connect people with everything that they do,” Moeny said.
He believes Marmot’s policy drastically eliminates its use as a tool for federal officials. “If we don’t have records you can use, we can’t turn them over,” he said.
But in some cases, there are slightly more complete records on habits of library patrons. Levy said the Basalt library keeps its own records when it processes interlibrary loans. That’s when the library doesn’t have a book in its collection and must borrow it from another facility.
Written records of those transactions are kept, mostly to make sure there is a record that the book was returned to the lending library. Levy said the staff reviewed its procedures and decided records would be destroyed after a book is returned to the lending facility, usually in two weeks.
More complete records also exist for library customers who use computers for Internet access. At the Pitkin County Library, customers must use their library cards to log on. A record exists of what was viewed for that day but all records get purged each day when the library closes.
Moeny said it wouldn’t be practical to purge the computers after every user is finished. There would be too much time the computers were out of circulation.
Nevertheless, in librarian circles, that’s one issue that is being “heavily debated” in light of the Patriot Act, said Moeny.
In Basalt, computer users sign up on a sheet to use a computer. In theory, an investigator could match a sign-up sheet with information called up during that time period. Levy said she destroys the sign-up sheets at the end of each month. She holds onto them solely to track use, not who is using the computers or what they are using them for, she said.
Levy and Chandler said they receive occasional inquiries about their record-keeping practices, but passage of the Patriot Act in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks didn’t really spark concerns by patrons. Levy said trust exists.
“People seem to regard the library as a very safe place,” she said.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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