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Freedom to Read and Public Libraries Post 9/11 1


Freedom to Read and Public Libraries Post 9/11

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Freedom to Read and Public Libraries Post 9/11


132 pager the USA PATRIOT Act got signed into a law, on October 26, 2001, by

President Bush. The act had passed votes in the House (357-66) and Senate (98-1) rather

swiftly in the preceding two days. The overwhelming margins of victory for the bill reflected

more Congress’ political need to act resolutely and expeditiously against the global threat of

terrorism than harmony of opinion about the merits of the legislation. Several members of

Congress have later confessed that they were totally ignorant about the contents of the act

when they voted for it. (Dlouhy, J. A. (July 26, 2003). House Moves to Eliminate Search and

Seizure Portion of Anti-Terrorism Law. CQ Weekly.)

A number of articles have been published about the ideal responses

a library should have to deal with the provisions of the USA Patriot Act and

the ever-increasing concerns about privacy. Libraries are facing multiple

challenges to respond terrorism. Question like what policies should

libraries review, revise and/or implement, what should they be doing in

practice, what should libraries do as public facilities to protect themselves

from future terrorism while at the same time upholding core values and

services, what can libraries do to support the information needs of their

users in a time such as this, what are librarians' responsibilities and roles

in a changing political climate, have become a hot topic in these articles.

We have tried to provide the answers of few of these questions below:

Response from libraries after PATRIOT Act

Libraries have devised a system of responses to the apparent threats posed to their

business by this law. They have developed guidelines like all requests for information must
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be submitted in writing, not answering to the oral requests for information from a law

enforcement officer who says he/she is seeking information under the PATRIOT ACT and if

the presenting officer indicates that the investigation can not be revealed, most of the libraries

have made it a practice to consult with their attorney.

The American Library Association (ALA) Council has passed a resolution that

declares that the ALA “considers sections of the USA PATRIOT Act . . . a present danger to

the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users and urges the United States

Congress to: 1. provide active oversight to the implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act

and other related measures . . . and 3. amend or change the sections of these laws and the

guidelines that threaten or abridge the rights of inquiry and free expression. . . .” (Doyle, C.

(2005). Libraries and the USA PATRIOT Act. Congressional Research Service. The Library

of Congress.)

Every state (with the exception of only Kentucky and Hawaii) has laws declaring

library records confidential, and the Attorneys General of the states have accepted that library

records are confidential and can not be disclosed under the laws dealing with open records.

But the confusion is still there as the news articles and guidelines are often contradictory.

Some report that federal laws (like the USA PATRIOT Act) supercede state confidentiality

laws others disagree with it.

The libraries are becoming increasingly aware of their constitutional rights and their

lengths and breadths. Like the New Jersey Confidentiality of Library Records Law (N.J.S.A.

18A:73-43.1) provides that:

“Library records which contain the names or other personally identifying details

regarding the users of libraries are confidential and shall not be disclosed except in the

following circumstances:
Freedom to Read and Public Libraries Post 9/11 4

a. The records are necessary for the proper operation of the library

b. Disclosure is requested by the user

c. Disclosure is required pursuant to a subpoena issued by a court or court order.

This means that library records can only be disclosed if the person making the request

presents a subpoena issued by a court or court order.

Training all staff (including volunteers) on the new procedures, and conducting audits

if necessary to ensure they are being followed is another precautionary measure the libraries

should employ.

Development of policies and procedures for handling law enforcement requests, and

training the staff in that shouldn’t be ignored. Anyone on the staff might be approached by a

law enforcer, so every individual should know what and how to react if the situation occurs.

It could be worthwhile to designate a person within the library to be responsible for dealing

with such queries, probably the library director.

Finally, it might be a good idea to educate the patrons, trustees and others involved in

the community on the clauses and their implications. This practice can both forestall

unnecessary worry and will also explain areas where caution may be advised. In case of

Internet service it is also necessary to look upstream i.e. at the source. For instance if the

public library is getting its Internet feed from a public ISP, law enforcers might easily install

tracking software there, and the library could never know that their patrons' usage is

consistently being monitored.


What now the libraries should do? Should they cease their efforts to restrain the

PATRIOT Act? I suggest not. It is the beauty of politics that any change can occur at once.

Conditions and their repercussions may change quickly, enabling the libraries to get pass HR
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1157 or any other alternatives. The new change in government is another flicker of hope, as it

is not only a change of personalities but a change of mindset as well (as not only the president

has changed but the ruling party has also changed). It was the suddenness of the mournful

event of 9/11 that has changed the course of politics in the United States dramatically and

prompted the legislation of new counter-terrorism law(s). In the same way, any inevitable

event(s) in the coming future may have its impact on the determination of whether the

Congress will curtail or augment the State’s authorities in the PATRIOT Act. These incidents

need not be as enormous as 9/11 to stir up the libraries’ cause. All they need is to have ample

reverberation in the American society to maintain the equilibrium between liberty and


Attorney General John Ashcroft tried to dismiss the misconceptions about the act as

hearsay and also tried to muster up public support for federal counter-terrorism efforts. But

the hush-hush with law enforcement agencies and sarcastic proclamations about libraries

ensured that the peoples’ suspicions about the Act got confirmed and their faith in the

government gets undermined once again. Considering the present political hindrances in

amending or annulling the Act hope appears to be the only hope.

Benjamin Franklin once said "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little

temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." In my humble opinion, I find many

facets of the USA PATRIOT Act detestable and to some extent opportunistic. Unfortunately,

we are losing various precious essential liberties without any guarantee that these changes

may improve public safety. I think the time has come that people stood up against State’s too

much intervention in their private lives, as we haven’t seen any attacks since 9/11 in US I

think this whole exercise is a façade to drive the whole nation paranoid.
Freedom to Read and Public Libraries Post 9/11 6


American Library Association. Washington Office. (2002). Guidelines for Librarians on the

U.S.A. PATRIOT Act. What to do before, during and after a “knock at the door?”

Retrieved December 14, 2008 from


Barber, G. (2002). Protecting Patron Records: Confidentiality, Search Warrants, Subpoenas,

and the USA PATRIOT Act. Memo. Retrieved December 14, 2008 from

Dlouhy, J. A. (July 26, 2003). House Moves to Eliminate Search and Seizure Portion of Anti-

Terrorism Law. CQ Weekly.

Doyle, C. (2005). Libraries and the USA PATRIOT Act. Congressional Research Service.

The Library of Congress. Retrieved December 14, 2008 from

Essex, D. (November/December 2004). Opposing the USA PATRIOT Act: The Best

Alternative for American Librarians. Public Libraries. Volume 43, Number 6, p. 331-


Estabrook, L. S. (Winter 2002). Response of Public Libraries to the Events of September 11,

2001. Illinois Libraries. Volume 84, Number 1, p. 1-7.

Hudson, M. (summer 2004). U.S. Libraries and the "War on Terrorism". New Politics.

Volume 10, Number 1, Whole no. 37. Retrieved December 14, 2008 from
Freedom to Read and Public Libraries Post 9/11 7

Matthews, J.; Wiggins, R. (December 2001). Libraries, the Internet and September 11. First

Monday. Volume 6, Number 12. Retrieved December 14, 2008 from

Riba, E. (July 2002). The USA PATRIOT Act: the response and responsibility of library

management. Retrieved December 14, 2008 from www.osmond-

Smith, M. S.; Seifert, J. W.; McLoughlin, G. J.; Moteff J. D. (March 4, 2002). The Internet

and the USA PATRIOT Act: Potential Implications for Electronic Privacy, Security,

Commerce, and Government. Congressional Research Service. The Library of

Congress. Retrieved December 14, 2008 from

Strickland, L. S.; Minow, M.; Lipinski, T. Patriot in the Library: Management Approaches

When Demands for Information are Received from Law Enforcement and Intelligence

Agents. Journal of College and University Law. Volume 30, Number 2, p. 363-415.

Retrieved December 14, 2008 from

USA PATRIOT Act (Full Text). Retrieved December 14, 2008 from

Vroom, C. (2003). The PATRIOT Act and Academic Freedom. Academic Freedom Forum.

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Wronkiewicz S. (2002). The USA PATRIOT Act: What Librarians Should Know to Protect

the Privacy and Confidentiality of Their Patrons. School of Library and Information

Science. San Jose State University. Retrieved December 14, 2008 from
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