“Young Sheldon” and Library User Privacy @YoungSheldon


I treated myself to a set of the first season DVDs of Young Sheldon and was watching the episodes the other day. I really like this show, particularly for the continuing development of the characters, and for the absence of a laugh track (the bane of late 20th-21st century television).[1]

Young Sheldon dramatizes the back story of Sheldon Cooper, one of the main characters in the hit CBS situation comedy The Big Bang Theory (TBBT).[2] Sheldon, his twin sister Missy, and his older brother George Junior, grew up in the small Texas town of Medford, and the show explains much of the mystery behind Sheldon’s social awkwardness and eccentricity, as well as his development into a brilliant scientist. It also introduces us to his friends and family, all of whom are interesting in their own right, even if they are not as dazzlingly intelligent as is Sheldon. The episodes are clever and many are heartwarming, although some have some logical problems. One of them is “Rockets, Communists, and the Dewey Decimal System.”

In this episode, Sheldon decides to go out to acquire some friends in order to alleviate his mother’s concerns that he is lonely.  He asks the school librarian to help him, because he has discovered that she is very helpful when he needs assistance in locating information. I would note that in the pre-Google era librarians were very helpful in locating relevant information, as they continue to be, although many people (mistakenly) believe that everything they find through a Google search is useful and that they no longer need the assistance of an information professional. Librarians could politely but firmly disabuse them of this notion if library users asked them.

The librarian suggests he check out (pun intended) Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People (published 1936),[3] which he does. Sheldon attempts to apply the principles Carnegie suggests but makes no headway. But Sheldon’s street-wise twin sister Missy (Raegan Revord) suggests he look at the checkout card in the back of the book, noting that the people who checked out the book before him must also have been interested in the book’s contents. Thus, they must also have been interested in finding friends. Sheldon is amazed at Missy’s insight, as is their mother. As an aside, Missy is really very smart. She is just gifted in areas other than in physics and mathematics.

At this point, the plot reveals a crack. The purpose of library book checkout cards is to provide a record of who has borrowed the book, so that the library staff know who currently has the book checked out.  It is not to make this information generally available so that those of us who are interested may easily keep track of what our neighbors read, or to provide law enforcement with a convenient method of surveillance.

Leaving the checkout card in the back of the book (the pocket) defeats the purpose of using these cards. Checkout records/circulation records should be confidential (particularly when we are discussing publicly funded libraries, including school libraries). No competent librarian would leave the checkout card in the back of the book, and from her prior behavior on the show (although we’ve only seen one episode), we have no reason to believe Medford High School’s librarian, Ms. Hutchins (Sarah Baker), is incompetent.   Nor do we have any reason to believe that Sheldon would have taken the book without checking the book out (and leaving the card with library staff). If we know anything about Sheldon, it is that he loves rules and follows them assiduously.[4]

What’s very odd is that Missy assumes that the card is in the back of the book. It shouldn’t be but she assumes that it is.[5] Missy’s reaction suggests to me that perhaps the show’s writers, not Sheldon or Missy, don’t quite understand how library checkout rules work.

Following up on Missy’s suggestion that he use the names on the check-out card to find some kindred spirits, Sheldon asks each of the people whose names he finds on the card why they checked out the book. Not one of them asked how he knew that he or she checked out the book. Instead, they answer his question, giving him both private information about their lives and insight into their feelings about loneliness and their own ambitions. Sheldon eventually does find a friend, Tam, but not through his use of this private information.

As I mentioned previously, librarians consider circulation information confidential.  The American Library Association notes,

Libraries should limit the degree to which personally identifiable information is collected, monitored, disclosed, retained, and transmitted while fulfilling their duty to comply with their state’s library confidentiality statute. Libraries involved in training volunteers, new employees, student assistants, or trustees should inform them of the requirements that they not abuse confidentiality and that they protect library users’ rights of privacy. [6]



While this episode takes place in the late 1980s, when many libraries had not yet fully automated their systems, and it’s possible that the Medford High School Library hadn’t automated its system, the commitment to confidentiality and privacy would still have been strong. It is possible that the Medford H.S. library staff actually had converted the library to an online circulation system and left old checkout cards in the backs of books and no longer used them at the time of the episode, but that would also have been a breach of user confidentiality and privacy. In today’ online circulation systems, once a user returns materials, the staff member notes the return and the system automatically deletes the record. Thus, there is no longer any indication that the user had ever checked out the item.

The confidentiality of library user records is one that librarians and their supervisory institutions take very seriously, and have for some time.[7] State statutes also provide for the protection of library user records. The Hartland (Wisconsin) Public Library webpage notes that library user information, including information “sought and received,” is confidential as provided for by state law.[8] In addition, law enforcement who visit the library to obtain such information must see the library director and/or legal counsel in order to fulfill these requests.[9] Demands for library user circulation records and other information rose after Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, pursuant to which the F.B.I. issued National Security Letters, which not only demanded such information but gagged library personnel who received them.[10]

Law enforcement seeking such records should show a legitimately-issued order requiring the release of the records and an interest sufficient to overcome the library users’ countervailing interest in such private records. In Brown v. Johnston, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a subpoena duces tecum issued against the Des Moines Public Library and one of its users.

Brown and the library board also claimed constitutional protection of their right of privacy, based primarily on the first and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution….The effect of forced disclosure of library records would be to chill citizens’ reading of unpopular or controversial books because others might learn of it, according to them, any such inquiry would invade their fourth amendment zone of privacy.

Constitutional privileges against forced disclosure have been recognized in analogous circumstances. The Supreme Court recognized a qualified reporter’s privilege based upon the first amendment in Branzburg…and the president’s executive privilege was recognized in …. Similarly, this court acknowledged a first-amendment privilege against forced disclosure in Lamberto v. Bown, 326 N.W.2d 305 (Iowa 1982) and in Winegard v. Oxberger, 258 N.W.2d 847 (Iowa 1977).

These privileges, however, are not absolute; each claim of privilege must be weighed against a societal need for the information and the availability of it from other sources. Even if we assume, as Brown and the library board urge, that a library patron’s privilege exists, based upon the patron’s right of privacy, it is only a qualified privilege. We must weight the effect of forced disclosure of these records against the societal need for the information….

The State’s interest in well-founded criminal charges and the fair administration of criminal justice must be held to override the claim of privilege here. Brown and the library board have cited no cases to us which have reached a contrary conclusion under similar facts, and we have found none.[11]


What is also interesting about the episode is the behavior of the characters. None of them, except Ms. Ingram, questions the fact that Sheldon has obtained this information about them. Ms. Ingram does ask him, “And why is that your business?” When Sheldon tells her that he wants to know whether she was looking for friends, she launches into a discussion of her reaction to the book and her subsequent romantic misadventures. Did the famous scene from All the President’s Men [12] condition these adults’ reactions? In that scene, Woodward and Bernstein ask a Library of Congress staff member about White House library user records, and the staff member informs them (correctly) that White House transactions are confidential. But another staff member later gives them access to all library circulation records.

The adults in the Young Sheldon episode freely share their opinions of the Dale Carnegie book, or rather, its failure to deliver the results they hoped for. Each character seems quite willing to explain his or her past to this nine-year-old, and willing to engage with him on at least some adult level. To that extent, they make him a confidant, if not a “friend.” But neither they nor Sheldon consider these discussions as creating any sort of continuing personal relationship, and if they knew Sheldon better, they would realize that he is unlikely to understand that he should keep their revelations private.[13]

What should we take away from Sheldon’s search for friends through the use of like-minded readers? It seems that the show is telling us that people who read the same kinds of materials don’t necessarily have the same goals. That could be true, although as Sheldon notes himself, Carnegie wrote the book for ambitious adults, not for nine-year-olds. However, if similar interests in reading materials meant nothing, book clubs would have no future and they seem to be very popular. Some cities even cultivate a sense of belonging by encouraging residents to read the same book (see for example the “One City One Book” programs popular in a number of towns). Perhaps a volunteered sense of sharing, a willingness to be friendly and to be friends, not the misplaced concern of another person or government surveillance, for whatever legitimate or illegitimate reasons, are among the true bases for friendship and real supports for individual privacy.

As an aside, I note that the Medford Public Schools are offering a workshop on how to make hedgehogs out of discarded books. [14] The workshop takes place on December 19th.  Below: a book hedgehog created by Estelle Divorne of broddgoltur. [15]

Book hedgehog


Hedgehog created from a book by Estelle Divorne, 2019. Private collection.

Christine A. Corcos


[1] On the history and the use of the laugh track, see K. Thor Jensen, The Mysterious Machine That Changed TV Sitcoms Forever, Thrillist, Feb. 5, 2018, at https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/laugh-tracks-sitcoms-history-laff-box.

[2] https://the-big-bang-theory.com/.

[3] The book has come back into the spotlight. Jessica Weisberg examines its relevance for today’s workplace in Jessica Weisberg, “What Dale Carnegie’s ‘How To Win Friends and Influence People’ Can Teach the Modern Worker,” The New Yorker, April 2, 2018, at https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-dale-carnegies-how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people-can-teach-the-modern-worker.

[4] In the pilot (first broadcast September 25, 2017), Sheldon learns from his father that sometimes it’s better not to point out when people are breaking the rules. In the episode “Spock, Kirk, and Testicular Hernia,” first broadcast Dec. 21, 2017, Sheldon learns that sometimes there might be a value in not following rules when Meemaw convinces him not to tell anyone that his brother cheated on a test. When Sheldon lies to avoid gym class, however, he finds that sometimes there are consequences to deception.

[5] Missy attends elementary school, so she must be extrapolating from library practice at her school library. Does this suggest a disturbing trend in the Medford School District’s libraries?

[6] American Library Association. Privacy and Confidentiality Q&A, at http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/privacyconfidentialityqa.

[7] A contemporaneous article explores the balance between upholding user privacy and confidentiality and maintaining access to essential library information. See Bruce M. Kennedy, Confidentiality of Library Records: A Survey of Problems, Policies, and Laws, 81 Law. Libr. J. 733 (1989). See also Anne Marie Falsone, Privacy of Circulation Files, 7(4) Journal of Library Administration 19 (1987). Falsone cites a Texas Attorney General opinion upholding the general confidentiality of library circulation records. Falsone, id. at 21.

[8] See https://www.villageofhartland.com/646/Confidentiality-of-Library-Records-And-L.

[9] Id.

[10] Eric Lichtblau, F.B.I., Using Patriot Act, Demands Library’s Records, N.Y.T., Aug. 26, 2005, at https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/26/politics/fbi-using-patriot-act-demands-librarys-records.html.

[11] Brown v. Johnston, 328 N. W. 2d 510, 512-513 (1983) (footnotes and citations omitted)

[12] All the President’s Men (1976).

[13] We soon learn that Sheldon has almost no filter. See for example “Gluons, Guacamole, and the Color Purple,” first aired April 19, 2018, in which Sheldon first begins to disclose to Dr. Sturgis what Meemaw thinks of him and seems not to understand that these two adults would like to spend some time alone (that is, without him accompanying them).

[14] https://www.medfordpublicschools.org/2019/12/06/steam-workshop-balloon-hovercrafts-register-by-10-9/.

[15] See https://www.etsy.com/shop/broddgoltur.