{ Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism }
Amy Swackhamer
photos by Dawn C. Bisi

quiet pleaseLibraries exemplify the most magically gratuitous and successfully utilitarian kind of institution in our country. In addition to a safe physical environment, libraries provide a safe intellectual environment where free and non-judgmental circulation of information can occur. Great peace of mind may be found in the opportunity to conduct unreserved research. A person may approach a reference desk with any manner of question and, unconditionally, expect the librarian not only to refrain from laughing at him, lecturing him, or something worse, but also to try to answer his query to the best of the librarian's abilities.
   To the naked eye, no discernible difference may exist between the library atmosphere of a year ago and the library atmosphere of today. However, behind the scenes, librarians are vying more rigorously for the patron's peace of mind than was necessary in the past. Librarians and libertarians have been especially concerned about intellectual freedom since last fall when President Bush signed a piece of anti-terrorism legislation into law.
   The USA Patriot Act is a sweeping and intricate measure impacting libraries, financial institutions, universities, trucking companies, internet service providers, and sundry other organizations. Fittingly complex, the Act's full title is Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, crafted to produce a catchy nationalistic acronym. As it relates to libraries, the Patriot Act expands the capacity of law enforcement to demand circulation, Internet use, and patron data records about library users.
   The USA Patriot Act was drafted and legalized less than six weeks after last September 11th. Russ Feingold (D-Wi.) voted as the Act's sole opponent in the Senate, which passed by the bill with a ninety-six to one vote on October 25, 2001.
   As a physical entity, the Act constitutes some three and forty-two pages. Libraries are not specifically mentioned in the document, although they are clearly included in its scope. The Act overrides laws in forty-eight states that have kept library records private. Under the USA Patriot Act, the FBI may obtain information with a search warrant, saving them from having to contend with the hindrances of subpoenas. Furthermore, the Act does not require agents to demonstrate probable cause, i.e. specific facts to defend the belief that a crime has been committed; rather, agents must only claim that they believe the requested records or items are relevant to a current investigation. The USA Patriot Act's extension of power applies only to federal law enforcement officials, although purportedly some attempts have been made by state and local officers to gather information by right of the Act.
   The most unnerving thing about the Patriot Act is its inclusion of a gag order; libraries are forbidden from telling anyone aside from their legal counsel any details about investigations into patron records or even that an investigation took place at all. As I was searching for data about this piece of legislation, I was more aware than ever before that the user authentication I provided in order to be able to access information created a record of my accessing said information, and that the record of my research behavior, while seeming to disappear innocuously into an electronic vacuum, is susceptible to retrieval and review. Most libraries use software systems that dump data in order to maintain the privacy of patrons. Often, once a book is checked back into the library's collection, its link with a patron's record disappears, keeping the bulk of an individual's circulation history beyond the reach of investigation. As a result of the USA Patriot Act, libraries are reevaluating their policies on preserving and destroying data.
   The American Library Association is continually attempting to determine and distribute to its members the answers to many questions regarding the Patriot Act. For instance, how are library employees to differentiate between inquiries from law enforcement that are permissible under the Patriot Act and those that are not? May a library's legal counsel be contacted prior to releasing any information? Does the Patriot Act oblige libraries to retain circulation records for longer durations than they previously had done? Will the Patriot Act impact authorized user policies?
   The ALA has adopted a pretty definitive oppositional stance toward the Patriot Act, not surprising for this long-time proponent of intellectual freedom. Posted on the ALA's Web site are answers the organization has deduced and useful guidance for how to deal with what the field seems to call "a knock at the door." Clearly, the ALA considers the Patriot Act to be a serious threat to intellectual freedom and has decided to lobby ardently against many of the components of the law. But how do librarians working day-to-day in the trenches, dealing with the practical rather than the ideal, respond to the new rules?
   I encountered considerable difficulty in finding library professionals to talk with me about their thoughts on the USA Patriot Act; what I heard most from librarians brushing me off was that they don't feel comfortable discussing a topic of which they feel they haven't really been kept abreast. Does a lack of urgency on the part of librarians to keep up with the Patriot Act's effects indicate that the law's effects are trifling?
    "So far, overall, no, but I probably do on a personal level at moments feel some hint of intrusion or caution, even if only on a conceptual level," said an academic librarian who eventually did respond and requested to remain anonymous when asked whether the Patriot Act has significantly changed the way she carries out her duties.
   Regarding her concerns about the Act, the librarian continued, "I am concerned because of the potential far-reaching effects of this legislation, what it can require with no clear language explained as to 'probable cause' and other issues. There can possibly be many misleading and erroneous assumptions made about an individual associated with what that person may read, for example."
   When asked about whether she thought most people are aware of the newfound jeopardy of their reading records, the librarian didn't answer directly; she just emphasized the need for citizens to stay informed. Asking around to my friends and acquaintances corroborated my readings that the public-at-large isn't aware of what the Patriot Act does. One of my housemates described the Act as born out of "evil serendipity" lubricated by the public's heightened desire for security and slipped past a populous with its attention focused on other issues.
   Another librarian sent me a USA Patriot Act presentation given September 25, 2002, by Steve LaBash, Assistant Director and Head of Reference at the University of Baltimore's Langsdale Library. The presentation was distributed through the ALA's Social Responsibilities Round Table. LaBash pointed out that, although 9/11 did provide additional legislative impetus for expanding surveillance in libraries, governmental agencies trying to encroach on patron privacy is nothing new. He referenced a book one of his colleagues wrote in 1991 about the discovery that the FBI was trying to gather information on users at the University of Maryland's Engineering Library and the library's subsequent attempts to thwart such efforts.
   In library school, students learn many things that enable them to succeed in their profession, but many skills need to be developed through practical experience, and nothing new has been added to the curriculum to address the USA Patriot Act and its ramifications. Outside of academic coursework, however, many library organizations are organizing conferences, workshops, and listservs to educate participants about appropriate post-Patriot Act behavior. Librarians have been on guard and opposing patron intimidation for years. During the heyday of McCarthyism, the ALA released its "Freedom to Read" statement. During the Cold War, libraries faced the Library Awareness Program, a surveillance measure analogous to the Patriot Act, but used to target library users of Soviet and Eastern European origin. Laws are somewhat subjective in that the attitudes of the powers-that-be ultimately shape how laws are interpreted and enforced. Consequently, it's difficult to predict the long-term effects of the Patriot Act. Protection of intellectual freedom is an issue that will forever demand the vigilant attention of librarians, information industry professionals, and citizens concerned about liberty and privacy regardless of the prevailing political tone.

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