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Librarians are on front lines against easier access to records

BOULDER, Colo. -- Librarians are not keeping quiet about the USA Patriot Act.

The antiterrorism legislation, passed a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, allows federal agents to obtain from public libraries the records of books and other materials circulated to individual patrons if a special federal court in Washington grants permission as part of a terrorism or foreign spying investigation.

"Librarians can't be quiet about this because it's so fundamental to what we do," said Carla Hayden, president of the American Library Association. "As librarians we are in a position of trust. People know they can come to us and ask for information, and we won't judge them."

To protect patrons' privacy, at least four public libraries across the country -- three of them in college towns -- are destroying records so that if federal agents do come calling there will be few to see.

The public library in Boulder, the home of the University of Colorado, has adopted one of the country's most aggressive policies to keep circulation records private. The library keeps a bare minimum of information on books that are checked out and, when books are returned, any record of who checked them out is purged from the library's computer.

"In light of the fact that there might be a request for records, we looked at everything we were doing and asked, `Do we really need this information?' " said Priscilla Hudson, manager of the main branch of the Boulder Public Library. "Given that we believe people have a right to read and check out what they want without supervision, we made the decision to tighten up our recordkeeping."

Library patrons have said they appreciate the new policy.

"I support the library's efforts to protect our privacy," said Elaine Amond, 53, a therapist. "If checking reading lists can be used to investigate possible terrorists, I fear that it can also be used to investigate community organizers or anyone else who disagrees with the powers that be."

Also troubling to critics is a clause in the Patriot Act that forbids librarians from telling patrons when federal agents have obtained their records.

At the suggestion of the American Library Association, libraries across the country have put up signs letting patrons know that their records could be looked at without their knowledge. A sign in Santa Cruz, Calif., informs patrons of the policy and says questions should be directed to US Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Federal agents are unlikely to find many library records in Santa Cruz because they are shredded every day. Also shredding on a daily basis are the libraries in Berkeley, Calif., and Arlington Heights, Ill. The University of California has campuses in Santa Cruz and Berkeley. Librarians have also taken the legislative route, with several bills pending in Congress that would set stricter standards for access to library records.

"We've been working on legislation to limit access to library records since before the Patriot Act passed," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the Washington office of the library association. "Right after Sept. 11 [2001], lawmakers didn't even want to talk to us because if they did their patriotism was questioned. Now their constituencies, by pursuing this issue, have given them permission to look at legal remedies."

The Justice Department says concern about government access to library records is unwarranted.

"It is a ruse being used by critics to scare the public," said Mark Corallo, a department spokesman. "The idea of the FBI snooping around the library to see what John Q. Public is reading is absurd. The FBI is too busy protecting American life and liberty to have time to waste on fishing expeditions."

To dispel what Corallo called misunderstandings about the Patriot Act, the Justice Department recently set up www.lifeandliberty.gov, which has a summary and text of the law, as well as sections labeled "Dispelling the Myths" and "Support of the People."

"Most Americans agree that terrorists should not find safe haven in our libraries," Corallo said. "Several of the 9/11 hijackers did just that, using our libraries to communicate with each other [via e-mail] to research, plot, and plan the most horrific act ever to occur on American soil." But the possibility of the government having access to library records, however slight, makes library patrons like Daniel Raphael, a Boulder author, uneasy.

"Consider the process of action: thought, speaking-writing, decision on choices, and action. When are laws violated?" Raphael said. "When we think?"

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