USA PATRIOT Act and Library Confidentiality

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the San Francisco Public Library's (SFPL) confidentiality policy?

SFPL champions intellectual freedom and respects and protects the privacy of all library users, no matter their age. Unless required by law, the Library does not share information about titles of books checked out, the number of books overdue, or the titles of books overdue to anyone other than the user. Protecting user privacy and confidentiality related to information and materials sought and received has long been an integral part of SFPL's mission. In addition, library records are protected under California Government Code Title 1, Division 7, Chapter 3.5, Section 6267. This law exempts from disclosure circulation records showing use of specific library materials by a library borrower, as well as the address or telephone number of the borrower.

What kind of information does the Library keep about books I check out or other information services I use?

To receive a library card, borrowers are required to provide a name, birth date and mailing address. This identifying information is retained as long as the borrower continues to use the library card. A borrower's library record includes current information, items currently checked out or on hold, as well as overdue materials and fines. The Library does not maintain a history of what a borrower has previously checked out once books and materials are returned on time. Similarly, the Library's computer search stations are programmed to delete the history of a user's Internet session and all searches once an individual session is completed. The Library treats reference questions, whether in person or online, confidentially. Personal identifying information related to these questions is purged on an ongoing basis.

What is the USA PATRIOT Act?

On October 25, 2001, Congress passed the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism" (USA PATRIOT) Act. The act broadly expands law enforcement's surveillance and investigative powers, with Sections 214-216 applying to libraries and bookstores.

How is SFPL responding to the USA PATRIOT Act?

The USA PATRIOT Act is law, and the Library will comply with it. However, both the Library Commission and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors have formally opposed the Act, including Sections 214-216.

What are Sections 214-216 of the USA PATRIOT Act?

These sections of the Act give law enforcement agencies expanded authority to obtain Library records, secretly monitor electronic communications and prohibit libraries and librarians from informing users of such monitoring or information requests.

In general, how does the Library handle requests for records from law enforcement?

Typically, a court of competent jurisdiction must subpoena requests for borrower records. Based on the advice of the City Attorney in each case, the City Librarian releases the records only if the subpoena is legal and binding upon the Library.

How has the enactment of the USA PATRIOT Act changed how the Library handles requests for borrower records from law enforcement?

Basic protocol remains the same: the request is forwarded to the City Librarian whose response is informed by the advice of the City Attorney. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, requests may come in the form of a search warrant rather than a subpoena.

What about the "gag" provision of the USA PATRIOT Act?

Should Library records be requested under the Act, the law states that Library staff cannot inform the person about whom the information is requested, nor speak to co-workers, the media or other government officials about the inquiry.

Will the Library advocate for a legal challenge to the USA PATRIOT Act?

SFPL supports Congressman Bernie Sanders's Freedom to Read Protection Act. SFPL joins with the American Library Association and other organizations concerned with civil liberties issues that are reviewing the USA PATRIOT Act to determine if there is a legal basis for challenge. For more information, go to the American Library Association's USA PATRIOT Act Web page (www.ala.org).

Take our survey