Jessmyn West is a 36-year-old librarian living in central Vermont. But she’s not your stereotypical bespectacled research maven toiling behind a reference desk and offering expert advice on microfiche.
She’s a “radical librarian” who has embraced the hacker credo that “information wants to be free.” As a result, West and many of her colleagues are on the front lines in battling the USA Patriot Act, which a harried Congress passed a month after 9/11 even though most representatives hadn’t even read the 300-page bill. It gave the government sweeping powers to pursue the “war on terror” but at a price: the loss of certain types of privacy we have long taken for granted.
What got many librarians’ dander up was Section 215 of the law, which stipulates that government prosecutors and FBI agents can seek permission from a secret court created under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to access personal records — everything from medical histories to reading habits. They don’t need a subpoena. In fact, they don’t need to show that a crime has even been committed. And librarians, stymied by a gag order, are forbidden to tell anyone (except a lawyer).
Naturally, this hasn’t sat well with West, a self-described anti-capitalist blogger who was invited to the Democratic National Convention, and who has posted a page with links and photos that might best be described as library soft-core porn.
She worries that a researcher could check out a book on Islam and suddenly end up on the no-fly list, forced to take the Greyhound with Teddy Kennedy for the rest of her life. Or an HIV-positive teen living in a conservative community could be outed after reading about the disease. If this sounds far-fetched, two years ago, in Punta Gorda, Florida, a British man was arrested in a public library after visiting websites that posted material on mineral supplements and the world’s first chemical generator of electricity, the Baghdad Battery.
“In a democracy, citizens can access information they view as important,” West said, “and traditionally we as librarians have kept it private. We are in favor of free speech and against censorship, and believe in the right to research material without the government looking over your shoulder.”
While mainstream media have blandly stood by as the free flow of information is threatened, some librarians have been agitating. They have been collecting signatures — close to a million of them — to petition the government to amend portions of the Patriot Act. They have purged circulation records. They have pushed elected officials to propose legislation to exempt libraries from government snoops, and have worked with more than 300 cities across the country to adopt measures to weaken the most West, for her part, has created a series of popular, quasi-legal signs to warn users. One — “The FBI has not been here. (Watch closely for the removal of this sign)” — was provided to every library in the state by the Vermont Library Association.
• “We’re sorry! Due to national security concerns we are unable to tell you if your internet surfing habits, passwords and e-mail content are being monitored by federal agents; please act appropriately.”
• “Q. How can you tell when the FBI has been in your library? A. You can’t.”
• “The Patriot Act makes it illegal for us to tell you if our computers are monitored; be aware.”
Still another lists organizations like the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, Rotary Club, United Way and FBI that have not stopped by this week, except FBI is crossed out.
After the American Library Association, or ALA, came out against the Patriot Act, Attorney General John Ashcroft called librarians’ resistance “baseless hysteria.” He ridiculed the organization, claiming that “some have convinced (it) … that the FBI is not fighting terrorism; instead, agents are checking how far you’ve gotten in the latest Tom Clancy novel.”
The ALA challenged Ashcroft to reveal the number of times law enforcement had requested library records. In response, the Department of Justice released a declassified memo that claimed the number was zero, which was contradicted by a University of Illinois Library Research Center study that found more than a dozen libraries had received visits and requests for information from law enforcement.
“That’s the problem,” West said. “The government wants us to trust them, but how can we without greater transparency?”
She believes that you have to be somewhat radical to become a librarian in the first place. In addition to a good education, you need to devote yourself to low-to-middle-paying jobs where even your friends make jokes about you, and fear that one day you will be replaced by a computer.
And she’s not the only one trying to recast her profession’s image. For instance, at the Modified Librarian, users relate stories of their tattoos and piercings. The Anarchist Librarians Web posts links to radical book fairs and information on anti-filtering software. At the Librarian Avengers, the battle cry is “Thwart not the Librarian.”
What does the irascible West say to people who tease her by asking if she has taken classes on holding her finger up to her lips and saying shush?
“I’m pretty good with this finger already,” she replied.
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Adam L. Penenberg is an assistant professor at New York University and the assistant director of the business and economic reporting program in the department of journalism.
Adam L. Penenberg, Wired News