Fall 2002

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Librarians Willing To Protect Terrorists

by Dr. William Taber, NYSALB Trustee

Fall 2002 issue of Trustee

Libraries must face the need to communicate continuously with the public; for, if we don't, others will define what we are seen to be.

The following letter was printed in the Oneonta Daily Star under the title, Librarians Willing To Protect Terrorists:

"The al-Qaida murderers now know that the Patriot Act means nothing to some librarians. Maybe these terrorists will now start targeting libraries. If they learned how to make bombs from library books, their rights will be protected by folks such as Elaine Downing of the Milne Library at the State University College of Oneonta, Marie Bruni, director of Oneonta's Huntington Memorial Library, David Kent, director of the Cooperstown Village Library; and Judith Krug, the American Library Association director for intellectual freedom.

"The feelings of the lefties at the libraries can be summed up in Elaine Downing's statement in the Daily Star. 'These are very serious times, and it's a very serious matter. But we are still a democracy, and we still have to protect our patrons.' Apparently not serious enough, huh, Elaine? When will it get serious enough for you not to protect terrorist patrons? ---Robert Ross, Hobart"

This letter was sufficient provocation for me to reply, and the newspaper was kind enough to print my reaction under a title (which the editors created) Librarians Standing Up For Our Freedom: "In a letter entitled 'Librarians Willing to Protect Terrorists', Robert Ross denounces four librarians, three of them local) by claiming that they will protect 'terrorist patrons'. The accusation is made because most libraries oppose the hasty empowerment of law enforcement last fall to gather information secretly from public libraries about library patrons and to threaten librarians with Federal criminal prosecution if they resist or even reveal it.

"No handful of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists can kill America liberty and democracy (for which Americans have already died throughout our history) unless we destroy it ourselves by failing to protect our own freedoms, including the freedom of Americans to read and to learn in public libraries without fear that they will be secretly dossiered and that their every choice of book to read may be examined someday by unnamed and suspicious investigative officials with their own agendas.

"When I was a child, the feared force in this world was fascism: ideas that empowered and sanctified unlimited government control, investigations, intrusions into individual lives and thoughts, and the elimination of opposition by claiming that those who tried to defend freedom were somehow enemies of the people.

"Perhaps my generation, like the explosives-trained dogs that are used nowadays, is more likely to detect the odors of fascist tendencies before they blow up in our faces; for they contrast violently with American ideals.

"Librarians are protecting millions of Americans from another little razor cut into the freedoms that define the best aspects of our way of life. Each cut weakens our core and corrodes our future. In fact, the handful of terrorists who may be in this country probably welcome the support given -- albeit unwittingly -- by Americans who are willing to throw your freedoms away with ease. Fortunately, there are few librarians in that crowd. --- Dr. William Taber, Richfield Springs"

Unanticipated consequences are always to be expected in general although they are unknowable in particular. To my surprise, a day or two later (July 13 & 14), the managing editor of the newspaper, Cary Brunswick, wrote and signed a full-column editorial entitled Stand Up Against the Patriot Act.

In a strong denunciation of those aspects of the Patriot Act that threaten American civil liberties, he identified a number of communities who already have passed resolutions opposing the Act and declaring that "...local authorities will not cooperate with the feds in enforcement of it against local citizens." Specifically referring to libraries, he writes:

"... the 342 pages of fine print really get into what the FBI and other authorities can now do, a d we recently learned of one specific result that affects privacy at your local library. Under the Patriot Act, the FBI has authority to obtain library circulation records of people suspected of terrorist involvement. That's right, and with the FBI history of abuses of its power, basically agents could say anything they want to justify getting a peek at the kinds of books people are reading.

Fortunately, many librarians in this area, including Oneonta's Marie Bruni, are appalled and say that they would fight such intrusions."

In a curious way, libraries are a small but real part of the front lines of defense of our individual freedoms and of the survival of our nation's democracy. It is worth the trouble for trustees and others to engage in public discussion of libraries, i.e. to support the libraries directly as valuable institutions, to provide the occasions through which the support that already exists out there among the public can reveal itself publicly, and to reaffirm the basic values of citizenship and liberty to which public libraries contribute so much.

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