Protecting freedom of thought and the right to privacy by destroying records that could be demanded by the government


Tactical Aim: 
Country or Region: 

In the United States, a national professional organization is increasing its efforts to prevent potential infringements of privacy rights and intellectual freedom by making sure that as few records as possible are kept.

Traditionally, librarians throughout the United States have prevented restrictions on intellectual freedom by destroying unnecessary library records as soon as possible. The American Library Association (ALA) — the largest library association in the world, with over 64,000 members — has used its influence with members to oppose changes to federal law that reduce protection of library records.

Forty-eight states have laws on the books that make library patron records confidential. The ALA code of ethics and its confidentiality policy also protect patron privacy. The 2001 USA Patriot Act, however, specifically authorizes federal law enforcement agents to search library records and public computer terminals to see what books patrons are reading and what websites they are accessing as a way of preventing terrorism. In response to the Patriot Act, libraries are reviewing their record retention policies to ensure that unnecessary records are purged as soon as possible. The ALA has developed guidelines that include recommendations for reducing unnecessary library patron records and eliminating all records as soon as they are no longer useful.

Librarians across the country have the support of a powerful national organization behind them when they choose to eliminate patron records, which is fully within the bounds of the law.

The ALA, a powerful national organization, is using a fairly simple act of resistance and, when done across the country, one that is relatively safe for individual librarians. In more repressive contexts, such resistance, even though perfectly legal, may lead to reprisals.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Being familiar with national laws and organizational policies is an important tool for the protection of rights. Knowing how to resist government policies while working within the law can be an effective way to protest while also protecting individuals from infringement of their rights.  It is important to consider additional risks and how this tactic could be met with severe backlash if used in more authoritarian contexts.

See also these examples from Paraguay and Cambodia where tactics to preserve records in spite of government efforts to destroy them and utilized to hold governments accountable.