Confidentially speaking: American Libraries and the USA Patriot Act.

Author:Gilbert, Ellen D.
 
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Oxford Round Table, March 20-25, 2005

"As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness."--Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

The U.S.A. Patriot Act (the "United Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act") was passed in 2001 within weeks of 9/11. Americans' negative reactions to particular aspects of the restrictions established by this legislation was swift and widespread. This reaction was, perhaps, nowhere better exemplified than among librarians across the country (Laura Bush, the librarian-wife of the President, notwithstanding), who were now bound by law to "provide appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism."

Library responses came at the local level: "Some Librarians Use Shredder to Show Opposition to New F.B.I. Powers," declared a New York Times article describing how librarians in the Santa Cruz, California public library had begun to routinely shred documents related to patrons' reference questions and requests for books. At the state level, librarians sought to determine whether state laws, like New Jersey's Library Records Confidentiality Statute, could be used to override the new federal law (it is believed that they can, though this has not yet, to my knowledge, been put to the test.)

The reaction of librarians nationwide was powerfully reflected in a Resolution adopted by the American Library Association (ALA, one of the largest organizations of professional librarians in the world) at its midwinter meeting in 2003. In response to legislation that has been described as "one of the more dramatic and far-reaching pieces of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress," the ALA Resolution declared that the Association "opposes any use of governmental power to suppress the free and open exchange of knowledge and information or to intimidate individuals exercising free inquiry ..." (1)

It is important to point out, however, that the Patriot Act is in no way the first (nor, undoubtedly, will it be the last) threat to American libraries and intellectual freedom. At the height of what has become known as "the McCarthy Era" in America, for example, legislative efforts, intended to protect America from Communist infiltration, attempted to restrict what individual Americans could read. In 1953, the Westchester (New York) Conference of ALA, along with the American Book Publishers Council, issued a response to these attempts to control the availability of books. "The Freedom to Read," document, as it was named, noted that "[m]ost such attempts [to restrict access to particular books] rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary citizen, by exercising his critical judgment, will accept the good and reject the bad." (2)

It is also worth remembering that libraries' championship of intellectual freedom is in no way limited to threatened government intervention. As long as there have been libraries, there have been private individuals and groups who object to certain books that may be in library collections. The top three reasons, by the way, for challenging access to certain publications (including, today, non-print media) are that the material is a) sexually explicit, b) that it contains offensive language, and c) that it is unsuited to a particular age group. These efforts to keep certain materials from making their way to library shelves occur at every level, most notably, perhaps, at the local one, where parents and church groups may find certain material (often remarkably tame, by most standards) objectionable. One response to these attempts to control library selections was the creation by ALA of "Banned Books Week" in 1982. This annual event is observed during the last week of September each year. It "celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one's opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring...

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