Why I love librarians

One group of people whose struggle against the intrusions of the government into our privacy should be recognized a lot more than they are currently are, are our librarians. For centuries, libraries have been the gateway to the world of knowledge for people and since librarians are the ones who assist us and are aware of our reading habits, it should not be surprising that governments have targeted them when they want to get information about what we are seeking knowledge about.

But librarians have strongly resisted being co-opted by the government as surrogate spies and have long been in the forefront of protecting the privacy of their patrons, and I have written before about their efforts to resist such government spying. Right from the beginning, they protested those provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, rushed through Congress following the 9/11 attacks, that they felt were unwarranted intrusions of people’s rights to privacy

On July 11, 2013, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of government spying on everyone, Barbara Stripling, president of the American Libraries Association, sent out the following letter to members. (Thanks to reader Gary C. for forwarding this letter to me.)

In early June, reports of the National Security Agency’s secret practices rang loudly around the world. News reports detailed PRISM, the US government surveillance program that obtains the internet records from 10 US companies: Verizon, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. It appears that phone records, emails, photos, and social networking activities have been collected and cataloged by the FBI and the NSA over the last seven years.

ALA is saddened by recent news that the government has obtained vast amounts of personal information and electronic communications of millions of innocent people. The extent of the personal information received by the government is very troubling. Those of you who have been long-time members of ALA know that we have always argued that provisions in the USA Patriot Act encroach on the privacy expectations of library users. Worse, the surveillance law erodes our basic First Amendment rights, all while undermining the very fabric of our democracy.

When we spoke out in 2001 against the passage of the Patriot Act, we were concerned about Section 215, a provision of the law that allowed the government powers to obtain “business records and other tangible things” from suspected terrorists. We were fearful that the government would come into libraries without warning and take library records of individual patrons without reasonable suspicion. Libraries were one of the first groups to publicly oppose the bill, and many legislators and privacy experts have noted that Congress would not have understood the chilling impact on privacy if librarians had not brought it to the nation’s attention. Librarians were so vocal in their opposition to the law that Section 215 was called the “library provision.” We could not have imagined then what is happening today. Today, in spite of the leak allegations, the government continues to use the “library provision” to vacuum up private communication records of Americans on a massive scale.

Even the most cynical among us could not have predicted that the Obama Administration—an administration that campaigned on the promise of greater government transparency and openness—would allow a massive surveillance program to infringe upon the basic civil liberties of innocent, unsuspecting people. We understand the responsibility of the government to investigate terrorism and other harmful acts. But the need to protect the public does not mean that Americans have to relinquish their Fourth Amendment privacy rights in the process. ALA has already joined other civil liberties groups to call for more legal review, judicial oversight, transparency, and public accountability. Our country needs to find the right balance.

We need to restore the balance between individual rights and terrorism prevention, and libraries are one of the few trusted American institutions that can lead true public engagement on our nation’s surveillance laws and procedures. Libraries have the tools, resources, and leaders that can teach Americans about their First Amendment privacy rights and help our communities discuss ways to improve the balance between First Amendment rights and government surveillance activities. And patrons are ready to learn about their privacy rights from their libraries.

She calls upon libraries to be even more active in informing the public about their privacy rights and provides a set of resources for doing so.

The Section 215 that is referred to is the basis by which the government issues the infamous ‘national security letters’ that, without a warrant from a judge, can demand that you hand over any information they ask for and not reveal even the receipt of that letter to anyone. The ACLU explains what it does:

  • Section 215 vastly expands the FBI’s power to spy on ordinary people living in the United States, including United States citizens and permanent residents.
  • The FBI need not show probable cause, nor even reasonable grounds to believe, that the person whose records it seeks is engaged in criminal activity.
  • The FBI need not have any suspicion that the subject of the investigation is a foreign power or agent of a foreign power.
  • The FBI can investigate United States persons based in part on their exercise of First Amendment rights, and it can investigate non-United States persons based solely on their exercise of First Amendment rights.
  • For example, the FBI could spy on a person because they don’t like the books she reads, or because they don’t like the web sites she visits. They could spy on her because she wrote a letter to the editor that criticized government policy.
  • Those served with Section 215 orders are prohibited from disclosing the fact to anyone else. Those who are the subjects of the surveillance are never notified that their privacy has been compromised.
  • If the government had been keeping track of what books a person had been reading, or what web sites she had been visiting, the person would never know.

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive that essentially makes him the librarian of possibly the greatest digital archive, is one of the few people who received such a national security letter and yet can talk about it. This is because he decided to immediately challenge the letter in court demanding that the gag order be lifted and eventually the government backed down and withdrew the letter. Now he, along with others, have prepared a manual for others about how to deal with them.

In a New Yorker profile of him by Maria Bustillos, he describes what it is like to receive such a letter and feel suddenly at the mercy of a powerful government apparatus that demands your silence in acts of complicity, somewhat like the Mafia. Her article concludes:

Kahle’s experience has new purchase in light of recent stories of secret courts and mass surveillance; the machinery of our government seems to have taken on an irrational life of its own. We live in a surreal world in which a “transparent” government insists on the need for secret courts; our President prosecutes whistle-blowers and maintains a secret “kill list”; and private information is collected in secret and stored indefinitely by intelligence agencies.

Support local libraries and librarians. They are some of the best friends of civil liberties.


  1. says

    Why I love librarians?

    They’re librarians. Dude, that’s the most awesomely important job in civilization. Books are the technology whereby we make knowledge permanently available, instead of having to rely on the memory and recitation skills of a select few individuals. If civilization collapsed tomorrow, the first thing I’d look to after securing temporary food and shelter arrangements would be books! The place we store skills against future need.

    Also, anti-censorship, privacy advocates, and all the other awesome things librarians do. Librarians are like superheroes to me.

  2. machintelligence says

    I guess since the bookstore owners told them to pound salt, they had to go after librarians.

    The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, Colorado fought a subpoena for a couple of years. The Denver police sought purchase records from the store after finding two how-to books on making illegal drugs -and ‘a mailing envelope from the Tattered Cover at the scene of a methamphetamine lab. Joyce Meskis, the owner of Tattered Cover, refused to comply with the subpoena and fought the case to the state Supreme Court, with the support of many other booksellers, authors and publishers. This month, on April 8, the bookstore won an important victory in the Colorado Supreme Court, The court ruled that the state constitution protects the privacy of both bookstore owners and their customers

  3. says

    Librarians may be the last place for a true liberal arts education, where a person who knows a little about everything is still valued. They are one group of people who seem able to separate their personal views from their jobs and the public good (book selection excepted, then they sometimes show bias).

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