Libraries: The War on Terror's New Front?

Officials from libraries across the nation report that the FBI is visiting libraries and checking the reading records of people suspected of plotting terrorist attacks or having links to terrorists, according to the Associated Press.

The FBI effort, authorized by the antiterrorism law enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks, is the first broad government check of library records since the 1970s when prosecutors reined in the practice for fear of abuses. A Justice Department official in the civil rights division and FBI officials declined to comment Monday, except to note that such searches are now legal under the Patriot Act that President Bush signed last October.

Libraries across the nation were reluctant to discuss their dealings with the FBI. The same law that makes the searches legal also makes it a criminal offense for librarians to reveal the details or extent. 

"Patron information is sacrosanct here. It's nobody's business what you read," said Kari Hanson, director of the Bridgeview Public Library in suburban Chicago.

Here's another take on the FBI checking out Americans' reading habits, from the San Francisco Gate:

For the first time since the Cold War, the FBI is visiting public libraries to keep tabs on the reading habits of people the government considers dangerous. The searches of some records kept by libraries and bookstores were authorized in an obscure provision of the USA Patriot Act, quietly approved by Congress six weeks after Sept. 11. The act, passed virtually without hearings or debate, allowed a variety of new federal surveillance measures, including clandestine searches of homes and expanded monitoring of telephones and the Internet.

Section 215 gave the FBI authority to obtain library and bookstore records and a wide range of other documents during investigations of international terrorism or secret intelligence activities. Unlike other search warrants, the FBI need not show that evidence of wrongdoing is likely to be found or that the target of its investigation is actually involved is terrorism or spying. Targets can include U.S. citizens.

This is very, very scary! I wonder if library patrons will begin to think twice about checking out any "questionable" materials from their public library for fear of being investigated by the FBI. This is the sort of thing that Jews had to deal with in World War II-era Germany. Sends shivers down my spine.

Meanwhile, the nation's universities are becoming concerned that FBI anti-terror laws will curb research, the London Times reports.

New laws designed to keep sensitive scientific information out of the hands of terrorists will entangle universities in red tape and force researchers abroad, leading scientists and academics said yesterday. The Export Control Bill, which returns to the House of Commons today, would jeopardise academic freedom and international collaborations involving British scientists by forcing thousands of them to be vetted before publishing research.

The proposed legislation is designed to curb the spread of data that could help terrorists or hostile states to develop weapons of mass destruction, by requiring export licences for any studies that might help them. At present, while exports of physical goods require a license if they have a potential military application, there are no such restrictions on ideas or information.

Librarian Turf Wars

School officials in Duxbury, Mass., rejected a town librarian's reading list, reports the Boston Globe.

School officials have prevented a town librarian from distributing a summer reading list in schools. Ellen Snoeyenbos, the young adult librarian, says she was invited by school officials to give "book talks" to promote interest in summer reading. She gave students in two classes the library's list of suggested reading before the school intervened.

"We can only give out our own lists," said School Superintendent Eileen Williams. Duxbury secondary students are required to read one book every summer from a required summer reading list. 

Williams acknowledged that some parents complained about selections on the library list, but she said distribution was stopped before complaints were received. "It was taken care of before [parents] came to us," she said.

Highlands Hysteria 

In Scotland, plans among school librarians to introduce a novel about teenage homosexuality is causing an uproar, reports The Scotsman

Scottish schools are set to introduce a controversial novel about the homosexual experiences of a young boy, even though the book is likely to be banned in classrooms south of the Border. 

School librarians are being urged by their professional body to stock Strange Boy, the story of a 10-year-old who realises he is gay and has his first sexual experience with a teenage boy. Librarians want to take advantage of the abolition in Scotland of Clause 28, which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools. But the sexually-explicit children’s novel is highly unlikely to be introduced in English schools, where Clause 28 still applies. 

Christian groups have condemned Strange Boy, by Paul Magrs, as "almost pornographic" and urged Scottish schools not to give it library space.

Steven M. Cohen is assistant librarian at the law firm of Rivkin Radler, LLP, in Uniondale, New York, and the creator of Library Stuff, a library and information science weblog. He is a contributing editor for The Internet Spotlight column for Public Libraries Magazine. Steven dreams of a perfect library world where there is an infinite amount of funding for our nations public libraries. 

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