Half of Community Colleges in North Carolina were tracking book check-outs.

Thanks to one person’s interpretation of a new law created for children in North Carolina, the Parents’ Bill of Rights, many community colleges are now keeping a record of everything these adult students read.

On January 1st, half of all community colleges across the state of North Carolina had their patron checkout history tracking turned on, compulsorily, for every patron;

Both child and adult.

No one was allowed to discuss the situation beforehand. Bureaucrats just did it. And then required each school to perform unnecessary steps to undo it. Several schools went through those steps immediately because this kind of record keeping is entirely antithetical to library practice. But not all of them have.

Before January 1st, 2024, NC libraries did not keep historical checkout information. A book was on your record while you read it, and when you returned it, it was removed and forgotten. But thanks to one person’s interpretation of a new law created for children, the Parents’ Bill of Rights, many community colleges are now keeping a record of everything these adult students read. 

The problem is that everyone is being tracked, not just minor-aged students. And everyone is being tracked perpetually. This information is saved in an ever-growing, massive collection of personal data easily accessible by the Government - unless your college is one of those who turned it off. 

Librarians have a professional association, the American Library Association, just like doctors and lawyers do. And like those two professions, librarians value confidentiality for our patrons. We value it so much we incorporate it into a Library Bill of Rights that says, “all people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use. Libraries should advocate for, educate about, and protect people’s privacy, safeguarding all library use data, including personally identifiable information.”

These and other ethical codes make libraries one of the last safe spaces. Libraries strive to be a place where anyone can access information and educate themselves to become productive members of society, especially a community college whose primary focus is the instruction of adult students in vocational studies.

While Parents' Bill of Rights might occasionally impact community colleges due to infrequent hosting of early colleges and college promise programs with minor-aged students, the difference for those students is that attendance in these programs is both voluntary and entered into under the agreement that those students will abide by college rules and regulations. The intention of minor-aged students attending a college campus class is to prepare those students for the real world and to inspire the formation of critical thinking citizens who will benefit our complicated world.

There are quite a few problems with tracking adult library use. For example, student library workers could spy on other students or even their instructors and see what they are reading. An evening library staffer could be asked by a well-meaning but warrantless police officer for information. If provided, that information exchange would break state law and expose the library to a lawsuit. Or no less than eight North Carolina counties have been cyber attacked within the last few years. Bad actors want your information. But they aren’t the only ones.

The government has come for library records almost as long as libraries have been in business. From the Red Scare, to the Cold War, to the War on Terror, libraries have kept citizen information that the government wants. Librarians went to court about it after the secretive Library Awareness Program was outed in the 1980s, and they did so once again after the Patriot Act was passed with its expanded FISA laws that are still active to this day! 

To be clear, librarians are not obstructionists.

When presented with a warrant, librarians comply. What librarians struggle against is government overreach and unlawful fishing expeditions. These fishing expeditions can be questionable and are being used against people on both sides of the political spectrum.

Parents want to have control over their minor-aged children’s education. What they may not know is that they always had access to their child’s current library records. FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, says parents have the right to review their child’s educational records, and nearly identical language is in the NC Parent’s Bill of Rights

Privacy is a vital part of American life, and the freedoms we enjoy are protected by law. Libraries respect these rights to preserve trust in our institution, to encourage reading and education, to protect our patrons from discrimination, and to follow the law. As librarians, it is our duty to protect people’s privacy and to resist those who would force us to act against our ethical standards and the American way of life.