Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Patriot Act and the Library

The Library of Congress was created in July 1776 during the first meeting of the Continental Congress. The mission statement for this great institution states simply, that its goal is to “acquire, preserve and make accessible the world’s knowledge for the Congress and for America’s use and to maintain a universal collection for future generations.” Certainly, our founding fathers could not have predicted the terror attacks in the United States over two hundred years later; however, I believe that what they set out to accomplish is now in jeopardy. The mission statement of the Library of Congress establishes a tool for all American citizens – that we all have the right to equal access to public materials in order that no one would be deprived of learning new information.

A librarian is the gatekeeper to the materials in the library. Librarians that are responsible for a collection that are open to the public, such as an academic law libraries that are also a federal document depositories, are part a unique group that are dedicated to the preservation and providing access to multiple resources. On April 3, 2004, the American Association of Law Libraries released a “Resolution on the USA Patriot Act and Related Measures That Infringe on the Rights of Library Users.” They expressed the same opinion that many other organizations have by showing commitment to preserving and enhancing an American’s right to access information:
“Certain provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, the revised Attorney General Guidelines to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other measures increase the likelihood that the activities of library users, including their use of computers to browse the Web or access email, may be under government surveillance without their knowledge or consent; and… the American Association of Law Libraries opposes any legislation, regulations or guidelines that have the effect of suppressing the free and open exchange of ideas and information.”

I agree with AALL’s statement. Other organizations must come forward to help citizens become aware of the fine print in this law. Some public libraries are making patrons aware of what this law means and what it can do to an average citizen. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, one such place is the Santa Cruz (California) Public Library. The branches of this library have posted signs that state, “Although the Santa Cruz Library makes every effort to protect your privacy, under the federal USA Patriot Act (Public Law 107-56), records of the books and other materials you borrow from this library may be obtained by federal agents. That federal law prohibits library workers from informing you if federal agents have obtained records about you. Questions about this policy should be directed to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. 20530.” More institutions should be as courageous as the Santa Cruz public libraries in order to inform patrons of their rights, as well as warn them if those rights are endangered.

AALL has clearly stated that its support the effort to combat terrorism in the United States in any way that it can, provided that an American’s civil liberties, which include the right to certain privacies and free speech, are not violated. This is truly the intellectual argument – to open our libraries and federal depositories, or a patron’s history of viewing any collection of works, set back what our founding fathers intended to do in 1776. If the Library of Congress’ mission statement is accurate, an American citizen’s right to access information in libraries is unique from that of many less developed nations throughout the world. The USA Patriot Act threatens what those founding fathers created for us all.

Want to see a librarian's opinion? (Not to mention a spotlight on our beloved teacher, Michael Stephens). Check out Librarian's Rant!


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