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Frequently Asked Questions About Compliance With the Parental Access to Library Records Law

(The answers to these questions are informal interpretations of Wisconsin law—libraries may wish to seek an attorney’s opinion when applying the law to particular circumstances.)

A bill regarding parental access to library records (AB 169) passed the legislature and was signed by the governor. The new law was officially published as Wisconsin 2003 Act 207 on April 22, 2004. (See http://www.legis.state.wi.us/2003/data/acts/03Act207.pdf for the text of Act 207.) Act 207 became law effective April 23, 2004.

Generally, Wisconsin law prohibits the release of records that identify an individual who uses a publicly funded library (Wisconsin Statutes Section 43.30). Under current law, this information can be released only with the consent of the individual or by court order or (under certain circumstances) to other libraries for interlibrary loan purposes.

Act 207 amends Wisconsin Statutes Section 43.30 to require that a library that is in whole or part supported by public funds must disclose to a custodial parent or guardian of a child under the age of 16 any records relating to that child’s use of the library’s documents, or other materials, resources or services.

Below are answers to questions we have received about this law:

Which libraries must comply with this new law?

All libraries that receive public funds. At a minimum, this includes all public libraries, all public school libraries, and the libraries of all public colleges and universities.

What records must be supplied to a custodial parent or guardian of a child under age 16?

Any records relating to that child’s use of the library’s documents, or other materials, resources or services. This includes any library records of items currently checked out, due dates for those items, overdue items, and any fines owed. This also includes any records of the use of library computers, such as computer sign-up records.

We believe that records indicating the address, phone number, age, etc. of the child are not records that fall within this definition. In addition, there is no reason a custodial parent or guardian should require these records. From a child safety perspective, it is advisable that these records not be routinely disclosed.

Any record that contains information about any other library users, in addition to the information which must be disclosed, must first be edited to remove any information which could identify those other library patrons, such as a patron’s name, address, or phone number.

How do we know the requester of records is the custodial parent or guardian of the child?

A "custodial parent" is defined in this law as any parent other than a parent who has been denied periods of physical placement with a child under s. 767.24 (4). In situations involving separation or divorce, the courts will generally order periods of physical placement to both parents. However, in some cases, the courts will issue an order denying periods of physical placement to one or both parents.

The essential issues for the library to determine are: (1) whether the person requesting the records is who they say they are, (2) whether they are indeed a parent or guardian of the particular child, and (3) whether they have been denied periods of physical placement with the child under s. 767.24 (4). Libraries should have a written board-approved policy addressing what will be acceptable documentation for determining these issues.

The fact that an individual has possession of a child's library card may be evidence supporting the conclusion that the individual is a custodial parent or guardian of the child. However, to protect against the possibility that the child’s library card was improperly obtained, it may be advisable to request additional identification and/or documentation. A photo ID showing that an individual currently lives at the same address as the child may also help support the conclusion that the individual is a custodial parent or guardian of the child. Of course, a parent who has joint custody of a child may or may not have the same address as the child.

For proof of identity, alternative methods or documentation should be allowed. One method of identification may be linked to whether the adult already is registered at the library with his or her own library card. However, the process must provide alternatives for verifying identification even if the person is not a library cardholder. An acceptable example may be any government agency-issued photo ID.

As to whether a person is indeed the custodial parent of the child whose library records are at issue, it is recommended that libraries strike a balance between having requirements that are so lax that they are easily sidestepped, perhaps creating child safety and/or liability issues, and those that may be so demanding that they defeat of the purposes of the new law. Many people will readily have access to such proof as a birth certificate. Others, including some immigrants, may not. A court order of divorce which names the children may assist in this determination, and the court papers should also indicate whether, (at least at the time of divorce) the parent was denied periods of physical custody. You may also be able to locate relevant court orders with the help of the Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) Case Management system (available at http://wcca.wicourts.gov/).

A library policy may conclude with a type of "catchall" provision that provides that the library will accept “any other set of documents that demonstrates to the library’s satisfaction that the requester is the custodial parent or guardian of the child whose records have been requested”. It is also recommended that the policy allow for an appeal of library staff decisions to the director and board.

How quickly must we respond to parental requests to view their child's library records?

The law does not specify a definite period of time within which a library must respond to requests. We believe a good guideline is the standard for responses to requests for public records, which must be acted upon "as soon as practicable and without delay." The most common requests: requests to obtain records of the items currently checked out and/or overdue, should probably be responded to immediately, as long as the requester has demonstrated to the library’s satisfaction that he or she is the custodial parent or guardian of the child whose records have been requested.

Are there any penalties for denying a request or taking too long to respond to a request?

The law does not specify penalties, but it is possible that a parent or guardian could bring a court action if a request had been improperly delayed or denied. A court would have the authority to compel disclosure and could fine and impose attorney fees on a library that unreasonably denied or unreasonably delayed responding to a request.

Our library has a policy that applicants for a library card who are under the age of 14 must include the signature of a parent or guardian. Does Act 207 require that we change this policy to require a signature of a parent or guardian for card applicants under the age of 16?

No. The decision to require parental sign-off on library card applications is a policy decision for the local library. Act 207 does not require that any particular policy be adopted for the library card application of a child.