:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

Patriotism As If Our Constitution Matters


   You have probably thought about what you will do if the FBI comes to
   your library and requests your circulation records for the last few
   months. And you've no doubt thought about your web logs that keep track
   of every click a user makes.

   It all gets down to individual action or inaction. Is it OK to
   relinquish a principle if you might save one, or even hundreds, of
   innocent people? What if by releasing the reading habits of one of the
   9/11 hijackers you could have prevented the horror? If you knew what
   was at stake, you would have. But it is probably never that clear a

   This July 4th, did you think about what it is about America that makes
   you a patriot? If you're like me, it is that in this country you can
   say what you think, vote for whom you want, and read whatever you
   please. All without the government looking over your shoulder--at least
   until now.

   The Patriot Act
   The USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing
   Appropriate Tools Required To Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) cannot
   be quickly summarized, but the American Library Association (ALA)
   provides useful web sites on the law. Mary Minow's article "Library
   Records Post-Patriot Act" offers a valuable table summary.

   There are several crucial things the law specifically allows federal
   law enforcement to do to protect us from terrorists. As ALA Councilor
   and military veteran Karen Schneider says, "Under the Patriot Act,
   entire databases of library patron records can be taken by the FBI.
   There is no accountability, and the proceedings are all sealed...any
   court order issued under Section 215 of the Patriot Act prevents the
   recipient from saying anything to anyone other than the library's own
   legal counsel or the handful of staff required to retrieve the files
   requested by the court order."
   Signs of resistance

   Some libraries have found innovative ways to resist. As reported in
   "Librarians Try To Alter Patriot Act," the Santa Cruz Public Library,
   CA, posted signs stating that federal officials could seize information
   about book borrowing. Anyone wishing to complain is directed to U.S.
   Attorney General John Ashcroft. Director Anne Turner also found a
   subtle way around the gag order. "At each board meeting, I tell them we
   have not been served by any [search warrants]," Turner says. "In any
   months that I don't tell them that, they'll know."

   At the last Midwinter Meeting, ALA Council passed a resolution urging
   "librarians everywhere to defend and support user privacy and free and
   open access to knowledge and information." The resolution goes on to
   say "that sections of the USA PATRIOT ACT are a present danger to the
   constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users." Not a
   direct call for civil disobedience, but draw your own conclusions.
   Digital diligence

   We face particular problems with our public services delivered via web
   servers. Every time patrons click a link on our web site, their
   Internet address is recorded along with what they looked at. More
   insidiously, our web catalog systems often record this same information
   as well as the search terms used. Digital libraries, in other words,
   can be wonderful supports for spying. Many libraries are working to
   either purge such files or "anonymize" them by replacing the numeric
   Internet address, which can be traced to a particular machine, with an
   arbitrary value.

   The best thing would be to alter your web logging so that individual IP
   addresses are not recorded at all. If you need to know where your users
   come from, you should "wash" your logs of numeric IP addresses that
   could be traced to an individual. One way to do this is with a script
   that changes an IP address to something like "" For
   more information, see the web site Web Log Washing.
   Hope and despair

   In March, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the Freedom To Read
   Protection Act, which would reinstate the legal standards for libraries
   and bookstores that existed prior to the Patriot Act. The Senate's
   Library and Bookseller Protection Act has similar aims. Meanwhile, the
   Bush administration is preparing USA PATRIOT Act II. The fight is far
   from over.

   If you are visited by the FBI, I hope you know exactly what you will do
   and why you will do it. Meanwhile, there are things you can do to
   decrease the exposure of your users to searches and seizures. Keep only
   what you're willing to give up. Destroy everything else.

                                                                 Link List
                       ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom Patriot Act Site

                                         ALA Resolution on the Patriot ACT

                                    ALA Washington Office Patriot Act site

                                       Librarians Try To Alter Patriot Act

                             Minow, Mary: Library Records Post Patriot Act

                                                           USA PATRIOT Act

                                                           Web Log Washing