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A chill in the library

Published Sep. 3, 2005

Under the USA-Patriot Act, passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, librarians have been made unwitting partners in the FBI's search for potential terrorists. Any records a library might retain on a patron's reading choices or Internet use are now retrievable by federal law enforcement with an easily obtainable court order. Librarians, traditionally defenders of intellectual freedom, are being pressed to become extensions of law enforcement, and many are balking at the new job description.

Judith Krug, the American Library Association's director for intellectual freedom, has been advising librarians who think this new use of library records is antithetical to their mission. She proposes establishing a system of regular record deletions to put information on patron's tastes and interests out of reach well before the FBI comes to call.

Krug notes that the Patriot Act eliminates the need to show probable cause before invading a patron's privacy. The new law allows the FBI to go to a secret foreign intelligence court, claim the information desired is part of a terrorism investigation and walk away with a court order allowing it to take a look at all the Internet traffic emanating from a library on a particular day. Moreover, librarians are prohibited from disclosing anything about law enforcement's visit.

Some library professionals may relish their new role. At the Lely campus of Edison Community College in Collier County, library staff recently contacted campus security about three Middle Eastern-looking men who were whispering while using library computers to look up Islamic newspapers. That call in turn prompted a call to the Collier County Sheriff's Office, which dispatched deputies to seize the library's computer hard drives for further investigation.

Mary Faulkner, library director, said her staff acted correctly in contacting security and refused to comment further. But the situation raises disturbing questions. What exactly was suspicious about the behavior of these men: Whispering in a library? Reading newspapers in their native language? Being Middle Eastern?

The Patriot Act is trying to remake librarians into citizen spies, and while some librarians have slipped happily into that role, many others are raising concerns. Do you suddenly feel a chill in our public libraries?