Should state law require libraries to grant access to children’s records?
State law protects the privacy of library records, which means even the police need a court order to see what you’re reading. It also means that if a minor has their own library card, a parent does not have automatic access to their child’s checkouts. This year a state representative introduced a bill to open children’s records for parents, but questions remain about liability and the legal role of libraries.
A proposal to open children’s library records
The bill adds the following sentence to state law: “All library records related to a minor's use of library materials or services shall be available to the parent or guardian of the minor.”
Given the current debate around books such as Gender Queer, many parents want to know what their children are reading.
Former state representative Daniel Itse submitted testimony in favor of HB 1308. He wrote, “Allowing parental access to their children's library records is necessary for them to execute their parental duties in protecting the health, education and welfare of their children.”
Rep. Quaratiello, a library employee, also shared stories about the difficulty of dealing with a child’s overdue books when she is unable to tell the parent the titles on the record.
“As a public library employee myself, I can attest to the fact that being unable to tell parents what books their kids have checked out leads to some very awkward situations,” she said. “That is why I initially thought this bill would be a good idea. A lot of these situations involve overdue books.”
Legal challenge for libraries
First, the bill does not specify how a librarian would determine if the person requesting a child’s library records is the legal parent or guardian. Even if a parent presents a birth certificate for a child, that does not reflect any recent court rulings about custody and access. Releasing children’s library records – including home address – to the wrong adult could create serious safety and liability issues.
Second, librarians testified that it was unclear whether the bill might require them to track children’s internet browsing history, the books they flip through without checking out, what programs they attend, and so on. This wouldn’t just be time-consuming; it could require expensive system upgrades. Right now many library software systems simply delete checkout records after a book is returned. Many opponents of HB 1308 also submitted testimony about children’s right to access information in private, particularly if they feel unsafe at home.
Pediatrician Ryan Ratts submitted written testimony that compared children’s privacy at libraries to their privacy with a doctor. In most cases parents have access to their children’s medical records, but their access is not absolute. Sensitive issues from sexually transmitted diseases to mental health may be a private conversation between a doctor and a child, depending on the age and circumstances. He argued similar protections are appropriate for children in libraries.
Work-arounds for both sides
Supporters and opponents of HB 1308 both pointed out various work-arounds that already exist for parents and children that want to share library records or keep them secret. At the bill hearing, Rep. Quaratiello pointed out that a teen can read a book in the library stacks without a parent or librarian knowing.
Other librarians testified that if a parent only allows a child to check out books through their own card, that parent will have access to a list of any checked-out materials.
Each library in New Hampshire has its own policy on when a child can get their own library card and whether or not a parent must consent.
The House Children and Family Law Committee will vote on a recommendation for HB 1308 on February 13. After that, the bill heads to the full House for a vote. If you have an opinion on HB 1308, reach out to members of the Children and Family Law Committee or to your own town’s representatives.