Librarians Split on Sharing Info 

By Julia Scheeres  |   Also by this reporter Page 1 of 1

02:35 PM Jan. 16, 2003 PT

In the year following the passage of the Patriot Act, librarians' response to law enforcement requests for patrons' records has been sharply divided, according to a nationwide survey.

The Patriot Act allows investigators to seize patrons' book-borrowing and Internet-surfing records to investigate terrorist leads; it also prohibits library staff from publicizing law enforcement requests for such materials.

The survey (PDF) of 906 libraries by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that in the year following the Sept. 11 attacks, federal and local law enforcement agents visited at least 545 libraries to inquire after patrons' records.

When asked to voluntarily forfeit patrons' records, roughly half the librarians cooperated with investigators without demanding a subpoena or court order, the study found.

"What surprised me most was real tension between personal beliefs and concern about what librarians are obligated to do under the law," said center director Leigh Estabrook.

Estabrook said librarians -- traditionally fierce guardians of free speech and information access -- have been forced to juggle conflicting obligations: protecting patrons' privacy as good librarians and collaborating with law enforcement requests as good citizens.

"There's so much emphasis in the media of needing to be fearful of terrorist activity," said Estabrook. "It's no wonder that some librarians have bought into those fears."

In the collaborative vein, some libraries have begun to ask patrons to show identification before using Internet terminals, while others have withdrawn materials that could be used to plan terrorist attacks, such as materials on bomb making or bio-terrorism.

Nevertheless, 60 percent of the librarians who responded said they believed the gag order precluding them from publicizing visits from investigators was an abridgement of their First Amendment rights. Indeed, Estabrook allows that the gag order may have skewed the survey results.

The American Library Association, a trade group representing the nation's libraries, has also denounced the Patriot Act.

"I think it's a serious issue that some people are voluntarily cooperating with law enforcement," said Emily Sheketoff, the executive director of the Washington, D.C., office of the ALA.

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