Madame Librarian

Posted: 2/16/2006 10:20:00 PM
Author: Review and Outlook editorial


Madame Librarian
Defending terrorists' privacy while ignoring real repression.

Friday, February 10, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST
On March 10, parts of the Patriot Act expire again. A key provision is Section 215, most famous for the alleged threat it poses to library patrons. Among all the horror scenarios raised by critics of the act, the specter of feds bursting into public libraries and bookstores to paw through the checkout-counter slips and emails of ordinary Americans has loomed large.

For the record, Section 215 doesn't single out libraries but relates to official requests for "tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents and other items)." The provision is not known to have been invoked yet against a library; and Congress plans to add additional privacy and due-process safeguards.

Still, we don't see the controversy going away. So this may be a good time to review the credentials of some of the loudest worriers about Patriot Act and privacy predations, including the American Library Association. To hear the ALA talk, librarians are the last bulwark defending our most cherished civil liberties against government assault. Yet two recent examples show again that self-anointed guardians of the public good can be very selective about the people, and rights, they choose to protect.

One example came from Newton, Mass., on Jan. 18, after someone used a public-library computer to email a terrorist-attack threat to Brandeis University. Many school buildings were evacuated, and FBI agents rushed to the library hoping to track down the email sender in time to prevent an attack. Once there, however, they were held off for some nine hours by library director Kathy Glick-Weil--because they didn't have a warrant. Newton's mayor later praised Ms. Glick-Weil for "protecting the sense of privacy of many, many innocent users of the computers." More important, it seems, than protecting the lives of many, many innocent people who could have died if the threat had turned out to be imminent.

More revealing than a single librarian's awful judgment is the ALA's forked tongue when it claims to defend all library freedoms. Since 1998, Cuban authorities have arrested and imprisoned citizens who operate "independent libraries," and destroyed their collections. Often based in houses, these libraries provide books and other information, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, considered criminal by the Communist dictatorship.

Human-rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have condemned the repression and called for the librarians' release. Yet the ALA refuses to even acknowledge their suffering Cuban counterparts. It apparently accepts the Cuban government's assertion that "the dissidents" don't qualify as librarians and that freedom of information flourishes on the island.

A cat jumped out of the bag at the ALA's January meeting in San Antonio, though, when keynote speaker and Romanian-born author Andrei Codrescu blasted the organization for abandoning the independent librarians. "Is this the same American Library Association that stands against censorship and for freedom of expression everywhere?" To add insult to injury for apoplectic ALA leaders, a subsequent informal poll of the rank-and-file in an electronic newsletter suggested that 75% want the organization to stand up for the Cubans.

On Sunday, ALA President Michael Gorman emailed the newsletter's editor to say that "we would be better off without these polls." That smells like censorship--from the very same people who bring us "Banned Books Week." An organization that roars about the chilling effect of Section 215 on library users also looks pretty hypocritical when its own member-readers are discouraged from circulating their opinions openly.

All something to remember in March, or any time the ALA next tells us that, on issues of freedom, librarians know best.