Read and React #2 by Susan Lee

“The Amazing Adventures of the Man of Steel and the Psychiatric Censor – Superman vs. Doctor Wertham” by Joe Sergi

The article link:

The fight for and against censorship both start and end with a voice.

Fredric Wertham, German psychiatrist and “Seduction of the Innocent” author, made a name for himself as a critic of comic books as a form in the 1940s and 1950s when characters such as Superman and Wonder Woman were at their most popular. Wertham argued that popular comic books were contributing to youthful delinquency and that children should be reading fine literature instead. His moral outrage galvanized parents, religious groups, and politicians who led an attack on the comic book industry, which took years to recover.

In his article, ““The Amazing Adventures of the Man of Steel and the Psychiatric Censor – Superman vs. Doctor Wertham,” Joe Sergi relates a brief history of DC Comic’s famed superhero in blue tights and how he eventually defeated the censors by altering his reputation through discourse.

Sergi describes how Superman changed from an anti-establishment social crusader for the poor and disenfranchised into a more patriotic American ideal. The change was in large part to Superman being licensed to sell “everything from gasoline to cereal,” and the new moral code instituted by DC editor Whitney Ellsworth.

Superman stood for “Truth, Justice and the American way,” a perfect symbol and wholesome statement during World War II. Few hated Superman aside from the Nazis and Wertham, Subsequent criticism against the comic book industry resulted in several publishers shutting down and the creation of the Comics Code Authority.

Wertham had singled out Superman as one of the main problems, calling him an “un-American fascist.” The Superman creators smartly refused to engage Wertham. Instead, they put Superman on television, producing the popular show “Adventures of Superman” starring George Reeves.   Superman had become big enough to survive Wertham’s continued attacks. The rest of the comic book industry eventually followed. Wertham turned his eye onto attacking the morals of television entertainment but soon faded away from visibility.

Of all the popular superheroes of the time, it is interesting that Superman is the one that not only survived but excelled after Wertham’s attacks.

“I Love Lucy” was described as a turning point. It was another popularly rated comedy that gave Superman a boost with its stamp of approval. There is something about Superman that speaks to people. Wertham and others describe him as non-human and Nazi-like because he is “superior” and of a different race. Like Wertham argued, Superman makes children “do good deeds” but like Superman, they don’t necessarily do it to get fame or riches. That isn’t why Superman does it. He has an alter-ego Clark Kent for a reason; to disguise who he is and be normal. He isn’t running around on a reality TV show, filming himself saving lives and catching criminals.

Wertham put too much value on censorship as a catch-all in his witch hunt instead of advocating personal responsibility, freedom of speech, free will, values, and education. Literature including comic books can be teachable and educational. People were restricted from reading comic books for a time since they were not available in their usual form. The titles available were watered down and made ‘child-friendly.’

I don’t believe that Superman is perfect or free from criticism or debate unless the criticism is not valid like it is in this case. I think Wertham went really overboard in his attacks and cries for complete and total censorship. I feel his argument may have been new and scary then but it is entirely stale and repetitive today, reminding me of the McCarthy trials. He reminds me of the people who blame violence in the media for ruining children. While it may be a factor in some cases, I don’t feel it is the cause, merely a symptom of a larger societal problem.

The comic book industry and readers really suffered from Wertham’s attack since there weren’t any dissenting voices to advocate against censorship. Even the comic book industry folded. They wouldn’t do so today with organizations such as the Comic Book League Defense Fund and the American Library Association advocating against censorship

Assessment of the San Francisco Public Library Privacy Policy


Susan Lee



This paper will review the San Francisco Public Library’s privacy policy and compare it against the American Library Association (ALA) standards for privacy policies aimed at protecting the confidentiality of library users. This paper will also review what makes a good library privacy policy, why it is important to have one, and some of the issues concerning intellectual freedom facing libraries today.

Privacy Assessment

Privacy is always a hot button issue but when you are a government-funded organization that is intended to service the public, you have to be especially careful when preserving that public’s privacy. Patrons go to libraries to learn, to research, ask questions, and more importantly, to read. Sometimes what they check out may be controversial or embarrassing. If all library records were open to the public or freely requested, it would likely discourage patrons’ intellectual pursuits (Rubin, 2010). Inevitably, this would lead to censorship as items not checked out or used would be dropped from circulation. One of the best things for a library to have is a clear privacy policy concerning patrons’ rights for staff and public use, especially since there are ethical and legal issues involved. Librarians should remember that “a fundamental value of the profession [is] to protect an individual’s privacy” (Rubin, 2010, pp5) yet even as technology, law and social attitudes progress at an astonishing pace, one’s privacy is increasingly threatened by outside sources (Rubin, 2010, pp312).

The right to privacy is a cornerstone of the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, protecting the right to free speech. It is also central to the American Library Association (ALA) Library Bill of Rights and the American Library Association Code of Ethics, which reinforce the organization’s belief that privacy of patrons should be important in a library setting and to every librarian. In keeping with the American Library Association mission, every library should promote intellectual freedom and combat censorship by providing free and uncensored access to information and resources to patrons (American Library Association, 2011).

Providing access is fundamental to intellectual freedom and democracy. This mission can be traced back to the 1930s, as the librarian code of ethics at the time reinforced the librarian’s “obligation to treat as confidential any private information obtained through contact with library patrons” (American Library Association 2005c). The American Library Association defined the right to privacy as the “right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others” (American Library Association, 2005a). The right to privacy includes “personally identifiable information” (American Library Association, 2005b). But this right has been threatened by technological developments and laws like the U.S. Patriot Act, as libraries have been increasingly pressured to abandon privacy rights over national security and censorship.

The American Library Association officially adopted a policy about the confidentiality of library records in 1971 and later when facing obstacles by law enforcement modified it in the 1980s. Most states enacted laws to protect the confidentiality of library records but with the advent of technology, this wasn’t enough (American Library Association, 2007). Joining forces with the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA), they adapted their privacy statements and policies to include electronic records, online library resources, and Internet use on library computers (American Library Association, 2000). The current code assures patrons that the library protects “each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired, or transmitted” (American Library Association, 2000).

Encouraging every library to possess a privacy and confidentiality policy, the American Library Association outlines the guidelines that a library should follow when developing said policy. A well-defined privacy policy outlines to library patrons “how their information is utilized and explains the circumstances under which personally identifiable information (Pii) might be disclosed” (American Library Association, 2011). Rubin references the balance between privacy and public records, and how it is routinely tested and redefined by the law (2010, pp315). People of course want their information kept confidential but the government or other organizations like library vendors often want or need access.

Personally identifiable information is generally used by advertisers to target customers or potential customers but in a library, it generally covers what item a patron has checked out, library database searches, reference interviews, and web pages they have perused on library computers. I admit I have never really read the fine print when signing up for a library card. I had always assumed that my information was safely tucked away in an invisible safe floating above the library walls, among the graying ceiling, shelves of materials waiting to be checked out, and fading murals. But I realize now it is best to be aware and monitor where your personal information is going. Another thing I found interesting is that there is no federal law concerning library patron privacy; it varies state by state. California has the strictest state laws, which is not too surprising. Hawaii and Kentucky are the two states that have no state laws concerning confidentiality in the library (American Library Association, 2011).

According to the American Library Association, library privacy policies must comply with the law; federal, state as well as local law. A library’s privacy policy should include a formal recognition that library records, including circulating material and the names of patrons checking them out, should be protected from public view, and a statement that a library user’s confidentiality should be protected. There should also be a statement to library employees that library records should not be relinquished to any government agency without a valid process, court order or subpoena showing just cause, in compliance with the law (American Library Association, 1986).

The basic guidelines outlined by the American Library Association are centered on the five major principles of Notice, Choice, Access, Security, and Enforcement, otherwise known as the “Fair Information Practice Principles” (American Library Association, 2011). A good guideline starts with a general introduction about privacy and an explanation of the user’s rights and a statement identifying the library institution by name.

The introduction should be followed by:

  1. Notice: A notice avowing that library users have the right to know how much personally identifiable information the library is collecting, what is it using it for, and how it is used for its services.

This helps acknowledge that the library is collecting some information but that the library keeps their information confidential. Unnecessary records are removed from library use (American Library Association, 2005a).

  1. Choice: Patrons choosing to use library services such as borrowing circulating material, online library services, and reference service opt to give their personal information to the library but their consent only lasts as long as the service itself.

The library user should be given the choice to “opt-in” or “opt-out” when receiving library privileges (American Library Association, 2005b).

  1. Access: The user has the right to access their respective personally identifiable information and should be advised of this right.

The user should be able to open their personal information and verify its accuracy. The user’s right to access should be made available via the Internet, with necessary security measures to verify their identity. The right to access rules, defined and upheld by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, vary for minors and this should be mentioned in the policy (American Library Association, 2005c).

  1. Security: Security measures should be taken by the library to protect data and data integrity, data supplied by or shared with a parent institution, and basic safeguarding measures for data stored by the library.

This means that data encryption, security programs, daily security practices like erasing caches and cookies from computers, and the use of electronic tracking systems that do not harvest personal information including surfing habits and e-mail addresses should be used by the library. Library users should be told of the limited protection offered when they access the Internet on the library computers and be asked to use their discretion on non-library related websites (American Library Association, 2005d).

  1. Enforcement: A library should not only have a privacy policy in place but they need to have a policy in place to enforce and maintain it, as well as address breaches or potential breaches.

Libraries must inform users that their library records could be released through a court order from law enforcement. In such cases, the library should have a procedure in place already to deal with legal requests (American Library Association, 2011e).

The American Library Association outlines a separate privacy policy that should be applicable to minors only, which vary by state and type of library. Basically minors should be given the maximum amount of protection available. They credit the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) as a model, citing two specific policies. One requires library staff to explain to children 12 and under that they need parental permission to access certain sites on public library computers. The other applying added security measures for library webpages and services geared towards children yet at the same time refraining from invading a minor’s privacy. The library should not breach a minor’s privacy but the key issue is promoting parental responsibility over their own children rather than assuming library staff will babysit or monitor the children as they use the library (American Library Association, 2011f).

So how does the San Francisco Public Library privacy policy stand up?

I will compare the above ALA guidelines for a good library privacy policy to the privacy policy of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), a library system consisting of one main library, 27 branches as well as a bookmobile. Although the San Francisco Public Library system primarily serves the city of San Francisco and the general Bay Area, its reach is much further geographically due to its extensive online catalog and ILL services (San Francisco Public Library, 2002b). Its stated mission as a library “championing intellectual freedom” is “dedicated to free and equal access to information, knowledge, independent learning and the joys of reading for our diverse community” (San Francisco Public Library, 2002a).

The SFPL privacy policy is pretty thorough. Calling itself a defender of personal privacy, the SFPL explains and reassures its library users that their privacy is an “integral principle” to them (San Francisco Public Library, 2011). The aforementioned library’s website opens with the recommended general ALA policy, explaining its “commitment to privacy…the (type of) information that the Library collects, and … users of remotely accessed Library services to privacy choices they face” (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para1). Their privacy policy does assure its users that their information they collect is kept confidential, to the “fullest extent” of the law, as permitted by the California Public Records Act, the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, and the US Patriot Act (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para1). The footnotes given don’t add live links to the specific acts or information on where to find them though. Records are only released to law enforcement by court order or subpoena, in accordance with federal, state and/or local law (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para 29). The website then goes as far as to add footnotes to the three legislative acts, implying that they have reviewed existing legislation on privacy policy and that their policy follows said guidelines (American Library Association, 2011g).

The San Francisco Public Library systems’ policy does explain to patrons what sort of information the library keeps on them and how it is used by the library. The policy is posted publically on the library website, and everywhere the library may ask for personal information from the user, including when you log-in to use the databases and sign up for a library card. The library assures its users that their privacy protection covers “information sought or received, and materials consulted, borrowed, and received” (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para5) as well as “database search records, circulation records, interlibrary loan records, and other personally identifiable uses of library materials, facilities or services “ (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para4). This ‘notice’ list is both comprehensive in its explanation, and reassuring.

The next statement in the library privacy policy covers the ‘choice’ section effectively, stating that “the user has the option to participate or not participate” (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para6) when using library services, offering the recommended “opt-out” option. Any information that the library users opts to provide is protected on a secure server and only used when the user accesses library services, or to help improve library services. There is standard information about library cards and circulation records. What is worth mentioning is that the library states that it “does not maintain a history of what a library user has previously checked out once books and materials have been returned on time” (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para10 & 11).

But if the user fails to return a book, has a fine, or has materials overdue, the library retains the record(s) in their system until the item is returned and/or the fine is paid. There is also a paragraph stating that the library does not use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. They do use RFID tags but they assures library patrons that the RFID tags on library materials do not contain more than a barcode number and security tag that is deactivated if the item is checked out (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para12 & 13). There has been concern about what information can be ascertained from the RFID tags or the self-checkout machines libraries are turning to. RFID has been described as a disruptive technology and as a threat to privacy, stemming from the belief that tags contain personally identifiable information (Rubin, 2010, pp 251). It is interesting and good that they put that in there.

The San Francisco Public Library’s section on public computer use is succinct but comprehensive, following the recommended American Library Association standards. Library users must log-in to use public computers. The log-in history is erased at the end of each day (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para15). The library does have a policy to delete the search history after each user’s Internet session (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para15) though it doesn’t explain how this is done or the security measures.

The library user can access their personal information on their own by logging into the library’s online system. Their library searches and “information gathered and stored using this feature is only accessible to the library user,” not the library staff (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para 17). The user has the ability to delete their catalog and database search histories. Information given to the library by library users via email or web forms will only be used for its intended purpose. The statement reads “such as to send information or provide library services to the library user, update information on the library user’s record, or respond to a library user’s questions or comments” (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para 19). This fulfills the access section requirement by the American Library Association guidelines. It doesn’t specifically mention what security measures or practices the library undertakes to protect user confidentiality. It just says the library staff doesn’t have access to it, which may be hard to believe. They need the information to fill library hold orders for one, bill overdue items, or bill for damaged or missing upon return materials.

Reference questions sent to the library via email, telephone, fax, online through chat or instant messaging, or in person are kept confidential (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para 21). Paragraph 21 actually reads “Personal identifying information related to these questions is purged on an ongoing basis” (San Francisco Public Library, 2004). The last part of that sentence seems too vague. Do they mean deleted, erased, or moved to a different location by purge? And what does ongoing basis mean, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly? Is there a specific routine or procedure? On the next paragraph, the library states “Email is not necessarily secure against interception and may be subject to disclosure requirements of the Public Records Act or other legal disclosure requirements” (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para22). It is adding the warning again that any e-mails sent on public library computers may be “intercepted” and the library may have to disclose them if they are served with a court order regarding the account user. The library’s use of the word intercepted may not be clear enough; intercepted by who and how? It doesn’t give the user any inkling that there are security programs or measures in use.

And email addresses and password should be kept private i.e. the library shouldn’t have access to them according to American Library Association guidelines. Usually law enforcement can access the information on their own from the service provider. There is also no warning about logging into personal accounts on public computers, remembering to log-out and no warning about not giving out personal information over e-mail. These things are good to have as reminders. The American Library Association mentions that educating library users about safe Internet use is important. This could have been a good place to do so.

The library addresses what information about the user is collected and stored automatically when they access the library website, for statistical purposes and to help improve library services. The information includes the “internet domain and IP address from which access…is gained,” browser type and the user’s computer operating system, date and time, the web pages they used but does not collect information about the user or who they are (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para 23-25). The next few paragraphs are disclaimers about using links to other sites on the library website, including links to subscribed online database services which often have different privacy policies than the library itself. There is a paragraph which “encourages library users to become familiar with privacy policies of other sites visited, including linked sites” (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para 27). This fulfills the recommended notice section according to American Library Association guidelines.

There is also a linked PDF document entitled “Library Patron Inventory” (San Francisco Public Library, 2008) that gives a rundown of what information the library records for each library service, in what format, where the information is kept, who has access, and how long the information is kept. For example, when someone applies for a library card, they can submit their information electronically or via paper. The user provides their name, mailing address, telephone number, driver’s license or student ID card, date of birth, pin number, email address, and signature [or parent/guardian signature if they are a minor]. The information is kept at the circulation desk. Only circulation staff has access to it. The information is kept for a week and then shredded.

If you look over the document, it states under patron database that overdue and fine records are kept in their system until the fine is paid and/or the item is returned, matching what is said earlier but it also adds however that the records are kept in the finance department for three additional years. There are other bits of information missing from the main privacy notice web page, and that seem to contradict or highlight holes in security or confidentiality. Holds are kept in public view, with receipts that contain the patron library card barcode number, the patron’s last name and the first four letters of their first name, and the item barcode number. The public can view the receipt as it is taped to the library item and the public can view the item itself, although the public can request that reserves item be kept behind the staff desk (San Francisco Public Library, 2008).

Overall, the notice, choice and action areas are acceptable but the security sections are somewhat lacking. The suggested “reasonable steps to ensure integrity” (American Library Association, 2005d) of library users personal information are not highlighted or shown. The paragraph under network security is merely an advisory that the library “uses software programs that monitor network traffic to identify unauthorized attempts to upload or change information or otherwise cause damage” (San Francisco Public Library, 2004, para 28), and that using the website is consent enough to it. The San Francisco Public Library has a privacy policy FAQ page that does a good job of explaining the basics to library users. It also contains some information about minors using the library and what their parents’ or guardians’ role is (San Francisco Public Library, 2004).

The Internet use policy consists primarily of disclaimers, relieving the library of responsibility or liability from damages when users access content from other websites. There is a brief part explaining to users that the library “does not monitor an individual’s use of the Internet; nor does the Library employ filtering software” (San Francisco Public Library, 1998). There is no explanation of cookies, adware or things to be on the watch for when the user is surfing the Internet.

The majority of information that the American Library Association recommends as guidelines is there though it is hard to find some of it since it is spread across several different web pages. The enforcement section can be found on the Guidelines for Library Use web page. It basically lists the general library rules i.e. no eating or drinking, no smoking, and no rollerblading. The punishments for breaking the rules are listed as the loss of library privileges and removal from library facilities, and/or police arrest. There is no real mention of policies or procedures in place if a user’s information is leaked or there is a breach in user privacy or confidentiality (San Francisco Public Library, 2001). It is interesting that the library did include CALIFORNIA PENAL CODE SECTION 490.5 which allows library staff to search bags and packages belonging to users suspected of theft of library property. The same law allows the detention of persons suspected of theft (San Francisco Public Library, 2001).

While the privacy policy for the San Francisco Public Library system is effective in general, the areas that are lacking the most are the security and enforcement sections.



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