Contact Tracing and Library Workers

Government Information, Legislation, Privacy

By: Holly Eberle

I have been watching the library community’s comments about contact tracing in various social media groups. As a community, it seems to me that we are a mixed bag regarding contact tracing. Some see it as an intrusive privacy concern and some see it as necessary for combating the virus. Like it or not, it would appear that contact tracing is going to be a new reality. 

South Korea

Contact tracing is still a fairly new thing in the United States. However, in Asia, high-tech contact tracing has been implemented for a while. South Korea has run into some very real and life threatening privacy issues with their smart-phone tracing system. These issues are affecting minority groups.

South Korea’s extremely detailed phone alerts have put the lives of the largely underground LGBTQIA+ community at risk. If you are an in-the-closet member of the LGBTQIA+ community, now everyone you have been in contact with has received an text alert that you visited a gay nightclub experiencing a coronavirus outbreak. Government text alerts should not be the way that a member of the LGBTQIA+ community is outed to their family, friends, employer, ect. 

This problem was not anticipated before rolling out the tracking program, which shows the need for diverse staff in tech fields. South Korea has since modified its program with the concerns of the LGBTQIA+ community in mind, however for some South Koreans, the damage has been done. We should absolutely learn from this! 


The city of San Francisco has started contact tracing and its Library workers have been included in the task. San Francisco has implemented a low-tech method that involves lots of phone calls. One Librarian turned Contact Tracer shared her story with NBC Bay Area. As this Librarian mentions in her NBC interview, the privacy of those being called is one of the primary concerns.

Without revealing the infected person’s identity, San Francisco Contact Tracers call that list of people they’ve been in contact with and conduct an interview & ask them to self-quarantine for 14 days. This is followed by daily texts or calls to each of those contacts to track their health and wellness throughout the two-week monitoring period.

While San Francisco is maintaining some privacy with this low-tech method, it looks like the trend is moving towards app-based contact tracing. Google & Apple developed an App for Singapore called TraceTogether and the UK is developing a contact tracing App for the NHS. That being said, the app-drive method requires everyone to have functioning smartphones. I know several people who outright do not have a phone. I am sure you do too.

Will It Work?

All of these contact tracing methods require an individual to have some access to some type of phone. The high-tech methods require individuals to bring their smartphones with them everywhere they go. The low-tech methods require honesty through the honor system. Both methods have holes in them but are not without merit.

Contact tracing was used in addition to quarantining during the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014. The World Health Organization believed contact tracing to be one of the more effective Ebola outbreak containment measures and that it must be implemented prudently. 

Ebola is different from Covid19, so the two cannot be compared directly. However, it seems like contact tracing needs to start as soon as possible if it is going to be effective against any virus. I am unsure on the merits of starting Contact Tracing several months into a global pandemic compared to at its immediate onset last year. 

Should You Start Keeping a Patron List?

No, you should not. There is no reason to start keeping a list of patrons who have used your library. If your library receives a court order to begin keeping a list of patrons who have used the library, then you must abide by that order. Finally, please consider Article III of the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics:

We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired, or transmitted.

Holly Eberle

Holly Eberle is the Youth Technology Librarian at the Algonquin Area Public Library District in northern Illinois and a member of the Intellectual Freedom Committee. She received her MLIS from the University of Illinois in December 2015. Her passion for the intellectual freedom rights of youth began in kindergarten when her elementary school library pulled the Goosebumps series off the shelves. She also is interested in the technological realm of intellectual freedom and privacy issues. Outside of the library she is a metalhead and you may follow her on Instagram @doom_metal_librarian.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.