Watching What We Read: Implications of Law Enforcement Activity in Libraries since 9/11

Watching What We Read: Implications of Law Enforcement Activity in Libraries since 9/11

Abby A. Goodrum (School of Journalism at Ryerson University, Canada)
Copyright: © 2008 |Pages: 37
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-594-8.ch005


Libraries in the U.S. have long been places of interest to government law enforcement agencies, and academic and public librarians have long sought to balance their commitment to the protection of privacy and intellectual freedom, with their desire to support legitimate requests for assistance from the government (Foerstel, 1991; Starr, 2004). In some instances, librarians have even gone to jail to protect the privacy of their patron’s records (Horn, 1994). To better understand the nature of this contact and its impact on the public’s privacy and access to information, the American Library Association’s Office of Information Technology Policy (ALA OITP) funded a study which included a nationwide survey of public and academic libraries and structured interviews with librarians and library leaders. The study confirms that federal, state, and local law enforcement have been visiting libraries as part of their investigations and that law enforcement activity has precipitated change in the policies and practices of public and academic libraries. Finally, the data from this study suggest that overall, the Patriot Act and similar legislation passed as a result of the September 11 terrorists attacks have had limited or very limited direct impact on academic and public library activities. Most libraries have not changed policies related to the retention of patron information, use of library materials including government information, or removed material from the library, nor has there been any significant change in library material usage. In those instances when changes did occur, reasons appear to be due to budget and financial matters rather than concern over requirements of the Patriot Act or other similar legislation. Another issue central to this discussion has been the degree to which the ALA should engage in significant lobbying efforts to change or modify the Patriot Act and related terrorist laws. The general sense that one receives is that the Patriot Act is “awful” from an abstract perspective, but “it doesn’t really affect my library or patrons as directly as budget cuts and other day to day concerns.” Librarians can’t afford to lose local support, so they do not become politicized over legal issues that may be quite abstract in the minds of their patrons or staff.

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