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Privacy, Censorship, and Good Records Management: Brooklyn Public Library in the Crosshairs

Over at, Jessamyn West has a brief write up about a post on the New York Times' City Room blog about placing access restrictions on offensive material (in this case, one of Hergé's early Tintin books at the Brooklyn Public Library). More interestingly, she notes, is that the Times was given access and accordingly republished challenges from BPL patrons and other community members. Quite astutely, Jessamyn recognizes that

the patrons' addresses are removed but their names and City/State information are published. If your name is, for example, [name redacted], redacting your address doesn't really protect your anonymity. I'm curious what the balance is between patron privacy and making municipal records available.

It's a good question that doesn't have an incredibly straightforward answer. My first concern was about whether BPL had kept the challenge correspondence beyond the mandated dates in the New York State records schedules. After doing some digging, on the New York State Archives' website, I came across Schedule MI-1 ("for use by miscellaneous local governments"), which seemed to be the best fit for the type of entity BPL is. Looking at the records schedule for libraries and library systems, I found the following:

Library material censorship and complaint records, including evaluations by staff, patrons' complaints and record of final decision: 6 years after last entry

NOTE: Appraise these records for historical significance prior to disposition. Some library censorship records deal with serious constitutional issues and may have value for future research.

For what it's worth, the scheduling for libraries and library systems that form part of other governmental bodies seems to be the same for this type of record. Accordingly, it seems that BPL was well in the scope of state policy to retain the earliest of the records they shared with the Times, which dated from 2005.

However, whether they should have shared them without redacting them is entirely another issue. Under "Public Access to Records" in the Introduction to Schedule MI-1, there can be restrictions placed on certain records based on § 87(2) of the Public Officers Law (POL), one of which being privacy concerns raised in POL § 89(2). In my mind, BPL didn't quite meet the requirements, of POL § 89(2), but IANAL; nonetheless, it was probably in poor taste and possibly ethically improper to not redact all personally identifying information from the records shared with the New York Times.



  • 💬 Janon Fisher at August 20, 2009, 19:50 UTC:

    The law does not protect anonymity. It protects privacy in certain circumstances.
    What's going to happen to [name redacted - ed.] if her name appears on a website?

  • 💬 Keep Reading at August 24, 2009, 20:56 UTC:

    Another interesting story about Brooklyn Public Library is in Library Journal:


    Evidently, Brooklyn Public Library thought it would be a GOOD idea to PUBLICIZE its layoffs and invited the Washington Post to view employees getting laid off. The Washington Post recorded intimate details and printed them in "The Art of Letting Employees go" on August 9, 2009. It was just like one of those cheap reality TV shows.


  • 💬 MARY JOE at August 26, 2009, 12:36 UTC:

    I wonder if you can empathize with [name redacted].
    Her privacy is lost. Is it possible you can remove her name from your blog post and start a new post. The issue is major and you raise important privacy concerns. But in so doing you are also hurting someone else.

    Forever grateful

  • 💬 MARY JOE at August 27, 2009, 02:24 UTC:

    Thank you for redacting out the name above.

    Best regards,