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Personal Voices: A Hysterical Librarian

A librarian finds her job has changed drastically since the adoption of the Patriot Act.
 
 
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I am a librarian in a medium-sized public library in Washington state. I have always loved the subversive nature of public libraries. Without paying a dime, king and hobo mingle and obtain information on anything and everything. I saw public libraries as havens, places where we protected the rights of all citizens to have free access to information without interference from the government.

I'm not saying libraries are safe places. They aren't now, and they never have been. They are filled with all kinds of revolutionary – and wrong – information. Everyone can find something in a public library to offend and outrage them. At the same time, it was a unique public space where people could get information and view it at their leisure without anyone keeping track of what they were viewing, researching, or reading. That was before the Patriot Act, of course.

While not necessary the flashiest advocates, library workers stand at the forefront of the fight to protect our intellectual freedoms. Librarians live by the Library Bill of Rights, adopted by the American Library Association in 1948, a set of seven statements affirming that all libraries are "forums for information and ideas."

This Bill of Rights states the revolutionary idea that "materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval."

The most subversive statement, the one which makes my heart pitter patter with pride, says that "libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas." In other words, it is our duty as librarians and library workers to resist government interference in our duties.

In 1958, the ALA went further and adopted the Freedom to Read Statement. It says, among other things, that "what people read is deeply important; that ideas can be dangerous; but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours."

Isn't that cool? I loved working for an institution that upheld the Bill of Right, plus wrote its own! Every single day at the library we were protecting the rights of citizens to get the information they needed or wanted. And we were part of the government. That filled me with joy.

We also have a Code of Ethics which says we will "protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received, and materials consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted." Our interactions with patrons and what they read are considered private transactions, and we protect these transactions by not divulging what the patron is reading – to anyone. Unless, of course, we are handed a search warrant or subpoena.

John Ashcroft had other ideas, however. Section 215: Access to Records Under Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA) and Section 216 of the Patriot Act allow the FBI to obtain warrants (without probable cause) to search library records. The Patriot Act overrides any state laws protecting patron confidentiality.

What this essentially means is an FBI agent can have a feeling a patron is "up to something" and that agent can then get a search warrant to come into the library and find out what the patron is reading and what the patron has been looking up on the internet. The librarian is prohibited by law from revealing to the patron that his or her library records are being investigated. When John Ashcroft was stumping for the Patriot Act, he called librarians "hysterics" for objecting to the Patriot Act.

Think about what this means. Let's say you don't know much about Muslims, and you've decided you want to educate yourself, so you order materials from the library on Islam. At the same time, you're having trouble with moles in your backyard. You're desperate, so you ask the librarian to get you whatever information she can find. She sends you materials which include how to blow up the poor little buggers. You're also one of those people in town who's always protesting something. Using the authority of the Patriot Act, the FBI has obtained your name from a list of anti-war demonstrators. They decide to investigate you. They go to the library and find out you've been studying Islam and explosives. In their eyes, you are now a terrorist.

At first, I did not think the Patriot Act would affect our day to day work at the library. But one day a woman came in to get a library card. She said, "The government can't get any information about me from you, right?"

I started to happily explain that every transaction in the library was considered confidential, and we would never reveal any information except under torture – or a legal subpoena. Suddenly I realized my happy spiel was no longer true. The library was not a safe haven for those who wanted to obtain information without Uncle Sam looking over their shoulder.

For a moment, I was speechless. Then I did what any hysterical librarian would do: I explained to the patron what her rights were and how we could no longer protect them as we once could. Her eyes glazed over as I talked. I knew she was now seeing us as part of "them," one of the many government agencies she could no longer trust. It didn't matter to her that we didn't want to give out the information. All she knew was that her rights were no longer being protected in the way they once had been.

I take comfort in knowing that I am still obligated to "resist" these changes in any way I can. I know there are hysterics all over the country resisting, too. Maybe soon the Patriot Act will fall, and I can go back to feeling that revolutionary glee that comes when you are truly upholding our constitutional freedoms every day.