LORAIN — Big Librarian is watching you. However, the recent installation of surveillance cameras at the Main Branch Library at 350 W. Sixth St. is not an Orwellian privacy invasion, according to Joanne Eldridge, Lorain Public Library System director. Eldridge said cameras are about increasing security and reducing theft, and were recommended by staff and auxiliary police officers who guard the library.
“We want people to feel safe when they come to the library. As safe as we possibly can make a public place,” she said. “It’s part of our welcoming environment concept.”
Eldridge said the cameras, which were installed last month, are also a proactive response to the library having about 20 DVDs stolen per week. Installation and maintenance cost about $9,000.
Eldridge said there are no plans to place cameras in other branches “at this time.” The cameras are not in places where patrons would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as bathrooms, and images of what materials a person is borrowing are not recorded.
The surveillance camera policy approved by the system Board of Trustees on April 18 complies with Ohio laws and the American Library Association policies on confidentiality and privacy and was modeled after the Shaker Heights Library System policy, according to Eldridge. The Lorain policy said images may be provided to police “for assessing the security risk of a specific individual or for investigating a crime on library property.”
However, if police request footage Eldridge said they would have to have a subpoena approved by the Lorain County prosecutor’s office — the system’s legal counsel — before images are turned over. “So it’s not like some kind of fishing expedition,” she said.
The policy said people requesting images of patrons must file a police complaint and only Eldridge, Assistant Director Toni Whitney and library managers can view images. Recordings are kept as long as “technically feasible.”
While cameras in Lorain are new, the Elyria Public Library System has had them at the Central Library, at 320 Washington Ave., and at the West River Branch at 1194 West River Road N., since 2009, according to Lyn Crouse, Elyria system director. Cameras were upgraded and motion detectors were installed at the West River Road branch after someone smashed a window and stole a television last fall.
The system has no policy for the cameras, but Crouse said one will be written within the next six months. She said images would not be turned over to police if the library believed the request was part of a “fishing expedition.”
The association said library leaders must avoid “function creep” and carefully balance security and privacy concerns and recommends regularly erasing footage.
“If the cameras create any records, the library must recognize its responsibility to protect their confidentiality like any other library record,” the association website said. “This is best accomplished by purging the records as soon as their purpose is served.”
While Crouse and Eldridge said the cameras are not an arm of law enforcement, the King County Library System in Washington state removed its cameras in 2011 because of those concerns, the Seattle Times reported. The removal was partially prompted by library officials requesting a court order for footage of an assault and robbery in a library parking lot.
A court order was obtained and a suspect was arrested within 15 minutes of police viewing the footage. Nonetheless, a library spokesman said that the removal was due to concerns that cameras could reveal what library materials patrons were borrowing.
Private security cameras have become ubiquitous in recent years. Footage from private cameras of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing suspects was turned over to police and helped lead to the capture of one suspect and the death of another.
However, public libraries traditionally have been reluctant to cooperate with government for fear of becoming part of a “surveillance state,” according to Nick Worner, a spokesman with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. In 2005 in Connecticut, the FBI sought library patron records without a court order under the USA Patriot Act. The law included a gag order forbidding librarians to alert anyone that records had been sought.
The ACLU dropped a lawsuit against the law in 2006 after Congress made changes allowing those who receive the FBI demands to fight them in court. However, the association website said portions of the Patriot Act, which include the right to spy on Internet use, are a “present danger” to the privacy rights of library patrons.
Worner said the library has a right to try to enhance security and prevent theft, but questioned whether cameras are justified given privacy concerns. Considering that the vast majority of library patrons are law-abiding, Worner said library officials need to weigh whether the amount of crime the cameras are seeking to deter justifies their presence.
“In the past, the library has been one of the chief organizations saying privacy matters. It’s very important for us to protect our patrons,” he said. “This appears to be somewhat of a different take on that. So that’s a little bit concerning.”
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.