One of the earliest complaints about the Patriot Act was that it allowed Federal Authorities to snoop into what people check out from libraries, without any notice to the people and that it prohibits the library from telling the people the government has been snooping. Every time this prospect is raised, the defenders of the Patriot Act are quick to say that the provision has never been used.. But they don’t go so far as to say it should be removed from the law, only that when it comes up for review maybe it should be changed a little - without saying exactly how.
I remember when my local library switched from the old card catalog to computer records. I asked once after that if they could access a record of what I had read, because I was trying to remember the name of a particular book. They told me the system could not do that, in order to protect my privacy. That was before 911, and I suppose the system has been changed since then.
In the days of the card catalog, many libraries had checkout cards that were kept in the book on the shelves. You could look at the card and see who had checked the book out, because each person had signed the card next to the date stamp for when the book was due. In those days, I liked to look at the card to see how many people had been checking out the book and whether anyone I knew had read it. Adding my name to the card made me feel a kinship with the other readers, like having my name engraved on a revolving trophy. The closest thing to that nowadays is at checkout when a librarian you know acknowledges having read a book you are checking out and shares a brief comment about it. Even those opportunities are fading now as more libraries shift to self-checkout.
What books would a snoop consider a significant sign of a security risk - books on Islam and Arabic, books critical of the Bush Administration, books about explosives? What nonsense. Books are in libraries for anyone to be able to read them. That is what makes libraries so wonderful. One of my less sexy fantasies is that some right winger reports me to Homeland Security which orders a snoop of my library record and is astounded to find I have read every single book in the library.
A terrorist does not need to check a book out from a library in order to read it. He could read it at the library or copy the relevant information without checking it out, or he could steal it from the library or a book store. He also could just buy it at a store or on the Internet. If one terrorist has the book he could scan it and e-mail copies to others.
In fairness, the Patriot Act does not specifically talk about libraries. There is a very general snoop provision of the Act that can be applied to books in general which causes the concern. The simplest thing for Congress to do is to clarify by amendment that the Act does not include the right to snoop at library records without notice to the patron and an opportunity to contest. An interesting case occurred here in Washington State
when the FBI tried to obtain a record of all patrons who had read a particular book, without using the Patriot Act, and the library resisted because it said the FBI was engaged in an unconstitutionally broad fishing expedition. The FBI backed down.
In his lengthy published manifesto, the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski
, mentioned several “esoteric”books. The authorities had figured he was living in rural Montana and thought if they could find a library there which had a patron who had checked all those books out, he might be the Unabomber. A Grand Jury authorized a subpoena for records from five universities and one city library, a fact which is often cited in support of the “value” of the Patriot Act provision. But it was actually Kaczynski’s brother who recognized Ted’s writing in the Manifesto and reported him to the authorities that led to his apprehension.