Are We Lawyers or Librarians?: Bibliographical Defenders of Information

Katelyn Angell
St. John's University
Jamaica, New York, U.S.

Library Student Journal,
January 2010


Since the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, numerous librarians have stepped forward and boldly voiced their opposition to this legislation. In particular, librarians are concerned that the Act has the potential to grossly violate the privacy of library patrons. This paper seeks to corroborate this argument by providing a historical analysis of limits placed upon information seekers under Soviet Communist rule. The Soviet Union is used as an object lesson to raise awareness of the potential of the USA PATRIOT Act to similarly interfere with privacy rights, and should inspire American librarians to unwaveringly defend their patrons' confidentiality.


In the words of former Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher, "There is a sacred realm of privacy for every man and woman where he makes his choices and decisions - a realm of his own essential rights and liberties into which the law, generally speaking, must not include." One particular realm in which governments should refrain from interfering is a patron's relationship with the public library. As citizens of a free society and tax payers of public institutions, we are entitled to gather and acquire information without having to worry about enduring persecution for our beliefs. Such an imperious atmosphere is incompatible with a democratic society; rather, the latter ideology perfectly substantiates tenets of a totalitarian state, such as the former Soviet Union.

Defined as the practice in which an autocratic conglomeration of individuals attempts to dictate the beliefs and behaviors of others, totalitarianism works to suppress individuality, privacy, and forms of creative expression which do not conform to the leaders' socio-political agenda. Historically, libraries are prime targets of restriction under totalitarianism, with the state both carefully regulating disseminated materials and policing citizens' access to information. Earlier this century, the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act gave the government power to obtain library patrons' records. Such a legal provision, which undermines the privacy of individual information acquisition, indeed recalls the fate of libraries under Communist rule in the former Soviet Union. In order to further this proposition, it is beneficial to explore the history of information distribution and retrieval with regard to Soviet libraries, and then compare it with the Patriot Act. If the adage is true and history does repeat itself, governmental interference with the ebb and flow of library-related information has no need for an encore performance.

Without a doubt, the political climate of the 21st century demands that in order to uphold justice in their profession, librarians must double as de facto defense attorneys. Instead of representing violators of the public law in court, they must stand up for patrons whose information seeking behaviors have the potential to be criminalized by present day society. According to Pinhey (1996), "Libraries in the United States of America have long cultivated democratic environments... libraries, microcosms of democracy, are integral to a truly democratic society" (pp. 1-2). Thus, it is not a far stretch to envision librarians as defenders of democratic values and principles. In addition to defending a patron's right to access information no matter the content, it is vitally important to protect people from a government claiming the right to track its citizens' personal information retrieval.

As mentioned earlier, the government's meddling with a library patron's access to and records of information contradicts the freedoms promised by democracy. A system that does not adhere to these basic principles is operating on totalitarianism, and will result only in self-destruction, as the general populace possesses limits on how long it will tolerate such oppression. In this case, the former Soviet Union serves as a prime object lesson.

During its existence, the Soviet government strictly regulated its constituents' acquisition of knowledge, revamping libraries to accommodate its own political agenda. Knutson (2007) wrote, "Under the Soviets, the library was not free to collect and disseminate any information they wished. Partiinost, propagating the ideology of the party, was the order of the day, and collection decisions had to be made by the government" (p. 716). Thus, despite their position as keepers of the library, librarians were not permitted to select materials for inclusion on their own; they had to be overseen by the state.

As a result, library patrons were given access to a limited collection of books, many of which had been recently published by supporters of the Communist regime and were intended to educate citizens on the party's background. In an article on the fate of Romanian libraries under Communism, Anghelescu (2001) wrote about the creation of a special publishing company which produced pro-Soviet texts that were then distributed to Romanian libraries. "The mission of the political publishing house (Editura Politica) was to translate into Romanian and to publish the works of the three fathers of Socialism: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Ilich Lenin. It is obvious that their words, documented in multiple volumes and copies, were to occupy the many shelves of any Romanian library" (p. 240). Thus, libraries were transformed from centers of higher learning into propaganda tools, leaving both the providers and seekers of knowledge deviating from the prescribed Soviet norms with their backs up against an authoritarian wall.

Without a doubt, one of the distinguishing characteristics of totalitarianism in the Soviet era was its fierce desire to eradicate peoples' private lives. To quote Arendt (1951), "totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capabilities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well" (p. 173). Thus, no separation was to be made between the private and the public; every facet of a person's being was to be on display for all to see. Privacy was a relic of the past; the new Soviet was meant to be an open book. If people failed to appear obedient to party ideals, serious consequences were to be suffered.

In the words of Lubonja (2001), "The party had to know everything about the life of the individual; no secrets were to be kept from the party. Confession was termed self-criticism. As the teacher of that ideology, the party knew no bounds. Its duty was to penetrate the life of the individual" (p. 242). Thus, to reiterate, the notion of privacy was at odds against Communist mentality, as the party staunchly opposed all aspects of individualism. Not only did the government more or less have complete control over a resident's personal access to information, but it also boasted unfiltered access to information about the person, and could use it against him/her at random. These duties were relegated to various secret police forces throughout the Communist era, most famously the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). Similar to American intelligence agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the KGB had complete authority to obtain information on people suspected of subversion, with no regard for an individual's right to privacy (Strayer, 2001).

As residents of the democratic United States in the 21st century, the majority of us would assume that our government draws a much thicker line between public and private life. We are raised to feel secure in the knowledge that our information exchanges with institutions such as the library are stored safely in the computer system. To echo the San José Public Library system, "All patron records are confidential. No library employee shall reveal the identity of a borrower to any requester or make known in any manner any information contained in patron records" (2008). Exceptions of this rule typically have taken shape in written requests by the patron and court orders, the latter being quite rare. Thus, a gesture as simple as the checking out of books automatically demonstrates the trust we tacitly place in our country's librarians, assuming that they will both protect our right to access information and will keep our findings confidential.

However, following the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the FBI learned that suspects of the crimes had used library computers in Florida to communicate with each other. As a result, the FBI demanded release of computer sign-in lists from these libraries. These requests helped spur the creation and passage of the federal government's USA PATRIOT Act, which in part gives the federal government the right to increase its parameters of electronic surveillance, including roving wiretaps. In the words of Minow (2002), the wiretap may "rove wherever the target goes, which may include library computers. The new law allows a court to issue an order that is valid anywhere in the U.S. This greatly increases a library's exposure to court orders" (para. 3). Because of this Act, the government will have an easier time issuing surveillance orders, successfully obtaining library patron checkout and Internet use records.

Such a law is reminiscent of totalitarianism's blatant disregard for an individual's right to privacy, which punished people for obtaining or exchanging information contradicting the philosophies set by the governing body in place. Enforcers have the freedom to monitor individuals without telling them that they are under governmental observation. Non-governmental human rights groups such as Amnesty International oppose the USA PATRIOT Act and what it perceives as its violation of basic privacy rights clarified in bills passed before the Act's ratification. The Act "permits the government to scrutinize people's reading habits by monitoring public library and bookstore records, without notifying the suspect... These activities contradict the right to be free from arbitrary interference with individuals' privacy, as protected in the US Constitution" ("Civil Rights," 2008, para. 6). For example, it can be claimed that the section of the USA PATRIOT Act allowing for allocation of patron information without his or her consent conflicts with the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects people against "unreasonable searches and seizures" unless a "probable cause" is suspected. In the recent political climate, which instills fear of terrorism in US residents, it is plausible to suppose that the government does not always have a "probable cause" to trespass upon an individual's privacy. Up to this point, there is simply not enough evidence to deem libraries a terrorist stronghold, hence the failure of justification for such strict and intrusive permissions granted by the government to itself under the USA PATRIOT Act.

In 2005, the FBI requested patron records from a Connecticut library, claiming that their release was needed in order to resolve an intelligence investigation. According to a survey released by the American Library Association in 2005, the federal government had contacted libraries around 200 times since the USA PATRIOT Act's passage (Lichtblau, 2005). However, until the start of the case in CT, the FBI had not made an actual demand for record release. As a result of the demand, the CT library employed the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to bring a lawsuit against the FBI, Doe vs. Gonzales, claiming that the FBI's request did not allow for judicial oversight.

According to the library's defense, as a member of the American Library Association (ALA), it "strictly guards the confidentiality and privacy of its library and information records, and believes it should not be forced to disclose such records without showing of compelling need and approval by a judge" (Lichtblau, 2005). Thus, the USA PATRIOT Act appears to consider itself above judicial review, acting again in a manner consistent with the absolute authority inherent in totalitarianism. Much to the delight of the library's supporters, the FBI ended up dropping the record request, and the ACLU led the library to victory. In this case, intellectual freedom prevailed over governmental surveillance, and the chief individuals responsible for this outcome were none other than librarians. These individuals demonstrated their commitment to a professional philosophy which places allegiance to the privacy of their patrons over attempts made by intelligence agencies to transform the personal into the public.

As librarians, we must follow the examples of courageous individuals like those affiliated with this Connecticut library, and stand up for our patrons' rights to privacy, even if it means challenging USA PATRIOT Act enforcers in the court system. It is our primary responsibility to provide individuals with information, and if our culture begins to carefully monitor this process, people will become frightened and stop looking to public institutions to satisfy their information needs. If this were to occur, we would not only fail in our professional duties to serve as the liaison between customers and information, but we would also fail in our quest to support intellectual freedom. In other words, by refusing to raise our voices against the white noise sounded by the USA PATRIOT Act, we as librarians are aiding and abetting a government which does not respect the right to privacy inherent in the library profession.

Upon becoming a librarian, it is imperative to strive to uphold the various codes of ethics associated with the profession and spelled out by the American Library Association. When faced with making decisions, it is the librarian's duty to stick with what he/she determines to be the option most consistent with justice, even if it different from his/her own personal opinion. For example, the third tenet of the ALA Code of Ethics delineates that "We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired, or transmitted" (2008, principle III). Thus, the premier library advocacy group in the nation calls for librarians to fight for intellectual freedom and rights to privacy for all.


In conclusion, a paramount aspect of librarianship is the staunch defense of an individual's right to unmonitored and unrestricted information. The stipulations of the USA PATRIOT Act are reminiscent of Soviet era methods and goals. Thus, as librarians, as distributors and protectors of information, it is our specific task to oppose legislation which would opt to undermine the foundations of a library system that has run successfully and ethically since 1876 (History of the American Library Association, 2009).


Anghelescu, H. G. B. (2001). Romanian libraries recover after the Cold War: The communist legacy and the road ahead. Libraries & Culture, 36(1), 233.

Arendt, H. (1951). The origins of totalitarianism. Fort Washington, PA: Harvest Books.

Civil rights and the "War on Terror." (2008). Retrieved May 6, 2008, from Amnesty International Online:;=3&n2;=821&n3;=838

Code of ethics of the American Library Association. (2008). Retrieved April 21, 2009, from the American Library Association Web site:

History of the American Library Association. (2009). Retrieved August 3, 2009, from the American Library Association Web site:

Knutson, E. (2007). New realities: Libraries in post-Soviet Russia. Library Trends, 55(3), 716-729.

Lichtblau, E. (2005, August 25). F.B.I., Using Patriot Act, Demands Library's Records. New York Times. Retrieved May 6, 2008 from;=slogin

Lubonja, F. (2001). Privacy in a totalitarian regime. Social Research, 68(1), 237-254.

Minow, M. (2002). The USA PATRIOT Act and patron privacy on library information terminals. California Libraries, 11(11). Retrieved April 21, 2009, from

Pinhey, L. A. (1996). Libraries and Democracy. ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education. Retrieved August 3, 2009, from;_SearchValue_0=ED414211&ERICExtSearch;_SearchType_0=no&accno;=ED414211

San José Public Library. (2008). Confidentiality of patron records. Retrieved April 21, 2009, from San José Public Library Online:

Strayer, R. (2001). Decolonization, democratization, and Communist reform: The Soviet collapse in comparative perspective. Journal of World History, 12(2), 375.

Author's Bio

Katelyn Angell is a reference librarian at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. She received her Master of Library and Information Science from St. John's University in 2009. She has previously published in American Libraries and Progressive Librarian. Katelyn would like to dedicate this publication to her high school English teacher, Mary Curtiss, and thank her for all of the lessons on bravery, persistence, and justice.

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  1. Abstract
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