Protecting Privacy: Remembering the Lowtech

General Interest, Privacy

by Kenneth Sawdon

Not long ago the Japan Library Association spoke out against the Japanese newspaper Kobe Shimbun for revealing the loan records of library patrons from around fifty years ago. Back on October 5th the newspaper ran a story that revealed what books famed author Haruki Murakami had checked out as a high school student. Of course, the records weren’t electronic at that time–the newspaper was made aware of the physical library borrowing cards.

Librarians are doing great work at finding and providing resources for digital privacy concerns, and have been for years. The Library Freedom Project maintains a great list of resources for personal and institutional use, as well as regularly providing instruction to library staff and supporters. Further, there have, to my knowledge, been no major breaches in library databases for patron records–which would be a large concern for libraries that don’t try to disassociate patron and item records as soon as possible. Professionals in all types of libraries are trying to ensure libraries digital privacy solutions progress with digital privacy issues.

But, this case is a reminder that we cannot forget legacy issues. The progress of privacy issues into new venues doesn’t disregard the privacy issues of the past. Not that I suspect library staff have forgotten–and in most cases libraries remove borrowing cards when updating to use barcodes, or similar alternatives. But, I do think it’s important to take some time out of each year to think about how our own institutions have been protecting patron privacy. Additionally, while we cannot instruct every volunteer about every library value (try throwing down the ALA Policy Manual in front of a volunteer sometime–the condensed version is only 102 pages long, it’s the Policy Reference File that will really make their eyes bulge), we can remind them of the core values as it relates to their work.

It appears the case concerning Murakami was caused by a volunteer, and presumably a fan of the novelist, who became excited at finding the cards while preparing books for weeding. The volunteer can be forgiven for contacting the newspaper–it’s natural to be interested in what inspires creative people. Authors, and all artists, are regularly asked who and what influenced their own works and efforts. They are asked what they’re currently reading, what helps them through bad times, and their bookshelves and collections may even be examined posthumously.

But, as patrons of and depositors in heritage institutions, and more importantly as allies in the fight for intellectual freedom, journalists should think twice before publishing a person’s library loans. Kobe Shimbun was not wrong to claim that library patron records are historically significant, especially for renown authors, but they overstepped themselves. They could have used the opportunity to interview Murakami, asking if he wanted to talk about the books he read at the time–omitting any book he did not want to discuss.

So far, Murakami has not spoken publicly about the affair, suggesting he may not care so much about the issue. Certainly he has been forthcoming about his reading habits in the past.

I suspect this is as far as the issue will go. The JLA and Kobe Shimbun have not yet resolved their issues, but neither would gain anything by escalating events.

The case does remind people that all librarians around the world care about patron privacy and aren’t afraid to fight loudly to protect their place as privacy defenders.


Ken Sawdon is a Footage Curation and Metadata Specialist at Dissolve Ltd., a startup stock footage and photo company. He is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Alberta, where his activities included co-chair of the Forum for Information Professionals student conference and community activist and blogger for the Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom. He has been a volunteer librarian for the Aero Space Museum of Calgary as well as a Collections Assistant at Fort Calgary. Connect with him at @kainous on Twitter.


  • Thank you for your article and thoughts. Protecting privacy cannot be passive. We have to identify active steps we can take to protect privacy. We shouldn’t wait for books to be weeded in order to destroy old records. Old records should be destroyed because the contain private information (full stop).

  • Thank you for your comment, Dustin! I agree, protecting privacy is both active and proactive; librarians and like-minded professions cannot wait for things to happen and react. Certainly, as with weeded books, we can’t wait for the last minute actions–leaks must be plugged *before* they are an issue.

    I will say, to play devil’s advocate (a favourite pastime), that while pragmatically I fully support destroying old records with private information, I wish we could archive all records for another time. Archival institutions already hold private information which is kept private until X years after death, when it is agreed that the information won’t hurt the friends/family/etc. of the individual. I do find any permanent loss of information distasteful. When I die, do not delete my browser history! No, keep those records private for many, many years, and then let anthropologists and research study the data!

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