Dear Reader

Random musings on reading and books from a librarian in training.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A New Superhero: The librarian

Look beneath the covers and you may be surprised at all libraries do. For instance, libraries are currently the front lines in skirmishes over civil liberties. As part of the Patriot Act, the FBI can look at citizens’ library records such as books checked, etc. They don’t need probable cause to get a court order from a secret court.

Mother Jones has a tale of several librarians who fought the FBI and won (this short article is definitely worth reading).

The FBI presented Connecticut librarian George Christian with a National Security letter and told him that he had to turn over records on library patrons. According to Mother Jones, NSL are “…are a little-known FBI tool originally used in foreign intelligence surveillance to obtain phone, financial, and electronic records without court approval. Rarely employed until 2001, they exploded in number after the Patriot Act drastically eased restrictions on their use, allowing nsls to be served by FBI agents on anyone—whether or not they were the subject of a criminal investigation. In 2000, 8,500 nsls were issued; by contrast, between 2003 and 2005 the FBI issued more than 143,000 nsls, only one of which led to a conviction in a terrorism case.”

Christian and his fellow librarians decided to fight the order with the help of the ACLU.

"People say very confidential things to our reference librarians," explains (librarian Peter) Chase. "They have medical issues, personal matters. What people are borrowing at a public library is nobody's business."

The courts ended up siding with the librarians that the NSL was unconstitutional and lifted a gag order that prevented Christian and his fellow librarians from discussing the case in public.
Threats to libraries can also come from unlikely places. Take Maine resident JoAn Karkos. She looks like an unthreatening older woman.

Karkos, however, has taken upon herself to determine whether a book was fit for public consumption. Karkos checked out two copies of It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health and then refused to return them.

According to Boing Boing, Karkos wrote the library saying: “I have been sufficiently horrified of the illustrations and sexually graphic, amoral, abnormal contents. I will not be returning the books.”
NPR reports that the library took this seriously: “The librarians were not amused. "This has never happened before," Rick Speer, director of the Lewiston Public Library, told the Sun Journal. "It is clearly theft.”

Karkos was eventually charged a $100 fine (that a minister paid off.)
These stories while seemingly different both have my blood boiling.

If you think a library book is offense, it’s simple: DON’T CHECK IT OUT! To think that you have the right to dictate what other people read is offensive and arrogant.

The thought that the government wants to pry into what books/magazines you read or movies you watch or even what Web sites you visit, is a chilling one. Say I check out The Anarchists Cookbook, read about explosives or say serial killers, that does not mean I’m a terrorist in the making or a female Ted Bundy. If we turn a blind eye to the erosion of civil liberties, we start down a dangerous path. People should be able to go to the library and read without fear of prying eyes and be able to check out whatever book they want.

So, kudos to librarians for fighting challenges on every front. I’ve waxed poetically about libraries before, but I want to stress what an important role librarians play. They’re an incredible asset and are increasingly vocal in the fight to protect our unfettered access to information.

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Judge orders woman to return two library books or go to jail
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