Library Policy Hurts Privacy, Patron Says

Books on hold at the Shirlington Library are put on shelves in the lobby.
Books on hold at the Shirlington Library are put on shelves in the lobby. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

When the ultra-modern $17 million library and theater complex opened in Shirlington in March, Elliott Jaffa was ecstatic. The library, a half-mile from his home, boasted the latest in technology, with 28 computers, wireless high-speed Internet access and books with built-in microchips to enable patrons to use special machines to swipe their library cards and check out books themselves.

He loved it. Self checkout is part of the transformation among libraries as they redefine themselves in an age of multimedia, using technology to free librarians from boring, routine tasks so they can spend more time organizing author talks and poetry workshops and helping with in-depth research questions.

But then Jaffa asked the library to hold a book for him, and when he came to pick it up, he didn't like what he found. Instead of his book being held discreetly behind a desk, he found it on shelves in the lobby, with the title and his full name in plain view of passersby.

"This is not new technology," Jaffa said. "This is a break away from all the rules about privacy typically associated with a library."

It's not that Jaffa had anything to hide. He said he wasn't ashamed that he liked to read mysteries and schlocky fiction. It was the principle. Libraries are supposed to protect privacy and intellectual freedom. Libraries have gone to Congress to fight an anti-terrorism law that gives the FBI greater authority to seize records of patrons under suspicion. With the new hold policy, all an agent -- or a nosy neighbor or passerby -- would have to do is walk into the lobby, where people's reading choices were in full view.

Jaffa decided to press his case. He called the branch manager and talked with the director of Arlington County's public libraries. The Shirlington library went from putting a Post-it note with the person's name on the spine of a book to covering the book with a sheet of paper that had the person's name. Jaffa persisted. So library officials began putting the books in manila envelopes. Jaffa is still unhappy.

"Why don't they use the library [card] number? Or, like American Airlines, use the first three letters of the first name and the first three of the last name?" he said. "Just eliminate the full name."

Branch manager Susan McCarthy said the new system illustrates efforts of libraries to fit the vibe of their communities.

"Really, it was a matter of convenience," she said. "Here in the village, we have people who come to do multiple things -- buy lunch, pick up dry cleaning, buy theater tickets. We wanted them to be able to bop into the library, pick up their books and browse."

She said the library took Jaffa's complaints seriously, pointing out that it began putting the reserved books in envelopes. Further, she said, the books on hold are linked to a person's library card and can't be checked out by anyone else. "We did offer (Jaffa) an accommodation to hold his books and anyone else's behind the desk, but they would have to wait in line to pick them up."

McCarthy said she walks by the shelves of reserved books all the time and has never seen anything untoward. And no one else has complained, she said.

Jaffa is not convinced. He went last week to the airy, 15,000-square-foot glass-and-steel library to prove his point. He easily picked books at random from the shelves, opened the envelopes and peeked in, finding that his neighbors wanted to read books on raising emotionally intelligent children, had asked for "Jews and Power" and had ordered DVDs of the TV show "The West Wing."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company