As a group, librarians are not known for being overly emotional or prone to hyperbole. So when a regional association of librarians gathers to voice its concerns over the erosion of civil liberties and the destruction of historical documents, it might be wise for the rest of us to sit up and take notice.
There was certainly no lack of fodder for discussion at this year’s meeting of the Pacific Northwest Library Association (PNLA), held Aug. 7 at the Holiday Inn–Parkside in Missoula. Among the most pressing business they addressed is the role of librarians in the wake of the USA Patriot Act, a sweeping piece of national security legislation passed by Congress last year in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Deborah Schlesinger, director of Lewis and Clark Library in Helena, said that she is deeply concerned with her role as a librarian under the USA Patriot Act, specifically, about being an accomplice in the violation of Americans’ civil liberties.
“The Patriot Act is so broad of breadth and has so few of the traditional checks and balances that we have come to expect with civil liberties in this country,” Schlesinger said. “The FBI had to get a subpoena before. We have a Montana Confidentiality of Library Records statute which says we may give up library records based upon a duly constituted subpoena, which would have to be signed by a judge and which is public information. This new Patriot Act does not require subpoenas. It requires search warrants, and there’s no disputing the search warrant. They just come in and search.”
Schlesinger said that she is also uneasy about the gag order that accompanies such search warrants under the new federal law.
“With the gag order, if I’m served with a search warrant, I can’t tell anybody about it,” she said. “If we’re not allowed to talk about what has been requested of us, there’s no chance for people to get enraged by what has been done.”
Many librarians in attendance said that they can appreciate the need for heightened security after Sept. 11. However, their concern lies in the fact that the government now has the power to not only search and seize records and documents, but also destroy them.
“I could understand having them [sensitive documents] moved to a secure location for a period of time, but not to destroy them,” said one librarian in the audience following the conference’s keynote address. “In 50 years, when historians want to conduct research, they may find that a lot of the original materials have been destroyed by our own government.”
Others raised concerns that the USA Patriot Act also gives the FBI authority to check the reading records of specific individuals suspected of terrorist activities. Sandy Carlson, president of the PNLA, is deeply troubled by this new measure, and points to an historical example that she contends is not as farfetched as it might sound.
“This is right back to the McCarthy situation and the witch hunts over people’s ideological freedoms,” Carlson said. “We can’t forget about our freedoms in the name of security, because our security comes from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. If we start infringing on those freedoms, then we don’t have any freedoms.”
Keynote speaker Dr. Pauline Maier, a professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that, as a historian, she believes it is important for people’s reading records to be kept “a private thing.”
“And for the state to interfere and destroy documents is a horrendous thing,” Maier added.
Thus far no librarian attending the PNLA conference reported having been asked to turn over records or documents to the FBI.
However, as Schlesinger put it, “If I had been asked [to turn information over], I would not be able to tell you.” The prevailing sentiment of the librarians in attendance was one of deep concern.
“I’m very concerned, as a person whose whole life is devoted to providing access to information, that the response to a terrible and horrible act has brought so many changes to our civil liberties,” Schlesinger said. “I hope when Congress reviews the USA Patriot Act, that all of the constitutional protections and civil liberties are restored.”