librarians would shelve patriot act

web posted: 01/25/2006 12:00 am cst

amy dorsett
express-news staff writer

they're militant radicals -- not at all your stereotypical librarians.

incensed by the usa patriot act and irate over a memo between fbi agents, the american library association debuted a button at its annual midwinter meeting, which winds up here today at the convention center. boasting that its wearers are "radical militant librarians," the button was one of the convention's biggest sellers.

the button is the brainchild of judith krug, director of the ala's office for intellectual freedom, who wanted to raise awareness of the patriot act's impact on libraries across the country.

the patriot act was adopted by congress in the weeks following 9-11 and includes provisions allowing government agents to inspect reading lists and reference materials at libraries and bookstores of patrons they consider suspicious.

booksellers and librarians are under a gag order that prevents them from telling patrons that material about them has been requested.

krug said librarians have bristled at the thought they'd be compelled to divulge such information.

"what's happened in the past several years, in particular with the usa patriot act which directly affects our ability to do our job, is our core values are being challenged," she said. "if anything can ignite librarians, it is an attack on our core values."

inspiration for the button came from documents obtained from the fbi by the electronic privacy information center through a freedom of information act request. the request revealed a series of e-mails between fbi agents that complained about the "radical, militant librarians" while criticizing the reluctance of fbi management to use the secret warrants authorized by the patriot act.

"i saw it and i couldn't resist," krug said of the librarian-slam-turned-money-making button. "the head of our store said it was the fastest-selling button he's ever seen. they were flying off the shelves."

proceeds from the buttons, which cost between $1.25 and $2, depending on the number purchased, go to the ala's office for intellectual freedom.

krug acknowledged the buttons fly in the face of conventional stereotypes of librarians.

"we're not meek and mild," she said. "we feel strongly that you have the information available when you want it. what you do in the library -- what you read, what you access, what you research -- is nobody's business but yours."

the button isn't the only thing making waves at the meeting of more than 11,000 librarians, exhibitors and publishers. on sunday, andrei codrescu, a high profile romanian exile, author and national public radio commentator, addressed the conference.

in his speech, codrescu challenged the leadership of the ala for refusing to protest the persecution of people in cuba who have opened a network of independent libraries in a challenge to the government's control of information. the speech will be televised soon on c-span.

ala president michael gorman said the group has taken a stance against the arrests and imprisonments of the cuban librarians.

back to access controversies in this country, june pinell-stephens, a librarian from fairbanks, alaska, wore one of the sassy radical, militant buttons tuesday.

"i want to register my concerns about the continuing encroachments on our right to privacy and the intimidation against free speech," she said.

peg oettinger, a retired librarian from new york, said she was happy to pay $2 for the button.

"the buttons were made as a reply to a less than charitable remark made about librarians," she said. "if you go to the library and you decide you want to learn about osama bin laden, does that make a person a terrorist? i don't think so."

today, ala leadership is encouraging the public to phone their congressional representatives, asking that safeguards be put in place to prevent the fbi from sifting through library patron records without a statement of fact linking persons whose records are sought to a terrorism investigation.

because of the gag order, it's not known how often the patriot act has been used to gain access to library records.

"it might have been as many as hundreds of times," krug said. "there's no way to know."

krug knows that taking a position against a government act may be seen as unpatriotic.

"i know there are many people who are appalled that we're challenging the patriot act; they believe it's keeping us safe," she said. "but this is the united states of america. we are a nation of laws, we are governed by a constitution that includes a bill of rights, and we can remain safe and still adhere to our constitutional guarantees, which have carried us over many rough spots for the past 230 years.

"we can't give up the rights and liberties that have made us the greatest nation the world has ever seen. if we do, the terrorists have won."

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