or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 6/3/12

   June 9th, 2012

shredded paperOne afternoon, an older female patron called the reference desk and asked:

Do you have a shredder there that I can use?

This has always been kind of a gray area for us. Yes, we do have a shredder in the office for library staff. We have no official policy on the public using it, other than our general yes-based policy. And in the past, if a patron had just a few sheets that needed to be shredded, I would take the pages and do the shredding for the patron. So, I asked:

Me: How many pages do you have to shred?
Patron: Oh, I'd say hundreds.

Arrgh - "hundreds" sounded like more than we could accommodate* (besides, we have just a standard office shredder, not a heavy-duty one). So, reluctantly, all I could suggest to this patron is to contact her bank, as I know a few local banks will shred their customers' documents for free.

I get asked this a few times a year, but the more I thought about it this time, the more I thought this is a perfect service for libraries to offer. A heavy-duty shredder is something not everyone can afford, but something the community could purchase and share (just like other library materials). Plus, with libraries' strong commitment to protecting patron privacy, this seems like a nice way to promote "privacy literacy."

There are questions though - in fact, to find out if there are already best-practices for public shredding, I posted this question on the library stack exchange:

  1. how heavy-duty of a shredder is necessary?
  2. should it be a free-access shredder in a public area, or staff-mediated behind a desk or in an office?
  3. would noise or safety a factor?
  4. should patrons need to sign a waiver since they're probably leaving personal/private data behind? (shredded, but still, there's always potential)
  5. should there be a limit on how much patrons can shred? (since it all becomes waste the library needs to pay to remove)

If you've got any suggestions, please feel free to answer on stack exchange or in the comments below - thanks.


*There are a few off-the-books things in the library people can do, if they don't it too much. Shredding is one, using a desk phone to make a call is another.

The most common is probably bringing in magazines - we have a basket into which we put our weeded magazines for people to take (and keep), and patrons always ask if they can bring in their own magazines to leave there for others. Officially the basket is just for library magazines (because we don't want to deal with someone dumping a load of junk there for us to deal with), but we routinely tell patrons that if they just have a few magazines, it's okay.

So far, everyone has been totally fine with this, and no one abuses it. I like these sort of open-ended practices, where you trust people not to be idiots, and it works.

Tags: , , , , ,

8 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 6/3/12”

  1. Didi Says:

    In Texas, lots of communities have “Shred Days” where a giant shredder truck from Solid Waste department parks in a mall parking lot, the news stations cover it, and the public can bring any volume of shred material in. The truck has a clear side so you can watch your stuff getting shredded.

    You could try and partner with Solid Waste or even office supply stores to try something like that in your community. I actually never thought of having the library participate or help promote the Shred Days (they’re normal here), but I love your phrase “privacy literacy”. Thanks for the ideas 🙂

  2. ChiLibrarian Says:

    We partner with a local bank, usually during Money Smart Week. The big shred truck comes and we set them up on library property and promote it ahead of time. These events have been very popular. People are limited to bringing two boxes of paper.

    I work at another library were we provide a shredder next to the recycle bin in the computer room. It’s a standard office model, but top-of-the line. Hardly anyone ever uses it (no one wants to spend the time to shred their own stuff, even at 20 or so papers thick at a time), but it’s handy for those who print something sensitive and for whatever reason decide they don’t need the copy.

  3. John Says:

    I would consult an attorney about potential liability isues. You might also check with any government entity that your institution is affiliated with to see if they already contact with a data management company. If they do, you might be able to piggy back on any arrangement that they have. The university where I am employed uses one and they leave locked containers at various spots for data destruction. This also has the advantage of being able to accomodate floppy disks and CDs.

    If you do get a shredder, another thing to consider is maintenance of the unit. Who is going to be responsible when it inevitable jams from someone trying to stuff too many pages in it. This swill happen no matter what size unit you get. Who is going to keep an eye on the receptacle to make sure that it is not overflowing and who is going to empty it?

  4. Anonymous Librarian Says:

    I second what John says re:potential liability issues. Massachusetts has extremely tough data privacy regulations.

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    Thanks for input everyone. @John’s idea of consulting Town Council is a good one, but it seems like anyone using a public shredder must be willing to assume the risks of that. Well, one would think, anyway. I do know that our Town’s recycling office has a drop-off box for things like CDs and disks, which could just as easily have private information, so they might know the legalities of it.

    As for maintenance, it’ll be library staff, just like it is for our public copiers, printers, fax, and other equipment. Desk staff can to the tech support (clearing jams etc), and the maintenance guys can empty it at the end of the night with the rest of our trash cans and recycling bins.

    At least, it sounds so easy in principle. I might also call around to banks and other places to keep a list of options at the reference desk too. I’d prefer to have something people could use any time, but I’m sure people would be willing to wait for a scheduled day.

    Oh, speaking of which: I also had the idea of having our local conservation group, which often has big bonfires to dispose of brush and limbs they clean up from the Town’s open spaces, have a “burn day” for documents like this people might want to shred. The end result is the same, but a bonfire might be more fun. Of course, I think it’s more likely that we’d just get a shredder, but a guy can dream.

  6. Renée Lowery Says:

    Interesting idea, but we are in a small city (less than 30,000) and off the top of my head, I can think of 2 local nonprofits that hold regular shredding fundraisers. They bring in a shred truck, park it in a local grocery store lot, and take free-will donations. So personally, I would hesitate to start offering this service and be seen as taking away a source of fundraising from the locals.

  7. Jessica (@gardenJess) Says:

    Regarding your magazine basket – we accept any magazines our patrons want to bring in, but our magazines that have been weeded or donated are for sale. 10 cents each, and they really do seem to turn over pretty quickly.

  8. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jessica: that’s not a bad idea. People here certainly like “free,” but they’re so popular I bet it would make a nice little fundraiser. Interesting.