Privacy vs. Security: Council debates merits of library video surveillance system

Some patrons at the Princeton Public Library may not realize it, but they are being recorded on video when they visit the library.

The library has a surveillance system on all three floors and is seeking funding from the Princeton Council as part of its $275,000 capital budget request to upgrade the security system.

Council members Jo Butler and Jenny Crumiller raise questions about privacy concerns at the council’s meeting Monday night when an ordinance was introduced to fund the upgrades.

Crumiller asked whether library patrons have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Councilwoman Heather Howard said they do not when in public spaces, and that the security cameras have been useful when items are stolen at the library.

Butler wanted to know who has access to the surveillance recordings once they are made. She said the library is known as a place that seeks to protect personal freedom and it keeps private what people view online there.  “They’ve been a staunch supporter of access to all sorts of materials people want to limit on public computers,” she said, adding that she wants more legal research done about the issue.

Councilman Lance Liverman said surveillance in the library has been standard for a long time, and has been for other public  buildings. The money would go to upgrading the cameras already on site, not installing a new system, he said.

“The more I think about it the more I think the opposite (about privacy),” Liverman said. “My kids go to the library all the time. I’m worried about safety. We live in a different country today than years ago. With child abductions and whatever else may be out three I’d rather have the safety of knowing my daughter is there.”

Library director Brett Bonfield told the council that while only a minuscule fraction of the 800 thousand-plus annual visitors to the library are victims of theft, even a nominal percentage could prove to be an issue. He said the cameras prove valuable to enforce codes of conduct and protect the safety of people’s items and children. The videos are only reviewed by staff and are not subject to public disclosure under the state’s Open Public Records Act, he said.

“The library is the most trafficked public place in Princeton and we want to make sure it’s physically secure,” he said. For us, it’s a matter of providing the greatest amount of security for the people in the building balanced against the right to intellectual freedom.”

Crumiller questioned whether the surveillance system is really improving safety and said it is a big expense. “I’ve never heard of any crime there,” she said.

Data from Princeton’s community crime map shows that there were three reported instances of theft in the library over the last year.

Bronfeld said there are petty thefts, and that  people will come into building who might have had a few drinks, and they will violate the code of conduct. “It doesn’t happen very often. I don’t want people to think it is highly representative…the important thing is for staff to be able to monitor activity.”

The capital funding in the ordinance would go toward replacing cameras on the first and third levels of the building.  The second floor received new cameras as part of the recent renovation project. Bonfield and some council members proposed putting up stickers at the front of the building to inform patrons they were under surveillance.

A vote on the introduction of the ordinance passed by 3-1, with Butler voting against the ordinance. A public hearing on the ordinance will be held on July 10.

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1 comment
  • There is a sign in the used book store stating there is video surveillance. A few years ago I remember a library staff member watching me once as I perused the books. What sort of a low-life would steal from a library?

    That scene in the Toms River Library, in the original Amityville Horror, always bothered me.

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