LTA 101
March 8, 2003

Big Brother in the Library


    As everyone knows, Sept. 11, 2001 was the day everything changed. Terrorists struck under the direction of a religious extremist, and since then, there have been heightened efforts to snare such terrorists and put a stop to their plans before anything can happen. After that fateful day, one of the first things the Bush administration did was suggest a new anti-terrorism act to Congress. According to an article titled “Safeguarding Patrons’ Privacy” printed in Information Today, the law was passed on October 26, just six weeks after the 9/11 events (3). The new law was titled “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001,” or as most people commonly refer to it, the USA PATRIOT Act. An online reprint of a panel discussion summarizes, “The Act expands the government’s powers to conduct electronic surveillance, obtain business and medical records and detain immigrants without charges” (7). Only certain parts of the Act deal with libraries, but it is enough to make many people concerned. Does this new anti-terrorism measure come at the price of people’s privacy? The USA PATRIOT Act was signed into law to help combat terrorism by providing the government more access to individuals’ personal information, but it has sparked controversy with many—including librarians—who call it a breach of privacy.

Intellectual Freedom

    One of the most important concepts to libraries everywhere is the notion of intellectual freedom. In fact, the American Library Association has a subdivision called the Office for Intellectual Freedom, which exists mainly to uphold the basic rights supported by the theory—and to fight for the sake of library users everywhere. The site has come up with a clear, concise explanation: “Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored. Intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive and disseminate ideas” (4). The “theory” of intellectual freedom, which has essentially been around for a few decades now, has undergone a number of challenges, tests and trials over the years. One of the most significant examples of this is, obviously, the USA PATRIOT Act, whose powers override state library confidentiality laws regarding the privacy of library records. The ALA holds that certain sections of the law violate not only certain constitutional rights but also many of the basic principles on which the Library Bill of Rights was written. Existing ALA policies state that confidentiality is vital to freedom of inquiry, which more or less means that library patrons have the right to have their records kept private (2). The Intellectual Freedom Manual cites part of a policy statement, the Resolution on Challenged Materials, which probably best exemplifies the very foundation of the concept of intellectual freedom: “Intellectual freedom, in its purest sense, promotes no causes, furthers no movements and favors no viewpoints. It only provides for free access to all ideas through which any and all sides of causes and movements may be expressed, discussed and argued. The librarian cannot let his own preferences limit his degree of tolerance, for freedom is indivisible. Toleration is meaningless without toleration for the detestable” (5).

Information About the USA PATRIOT Act
    An article titled “On My Mind: The Patriot Act's Threat to Libraries,” published in American Libraries, talks about some of the powers that the law grants to the government. Bernie Sanders, a member of the House of Representatives, penned the one-page article. He tells us that the Act allows the FBI not only to access library patrons' records but allows them to set up surveillance and wiretapping equipment in a library as well. He argues, “The right to read without the fear of government surveillance is a cornerstone of our democracy. Freedom of the press means nothing without a correlative freedom to read” (8). The article goes over a handful of other questionable powers as provided by the Act, including that FBI agents now do not have to provide specific evidence (to prove probable cause) to justify a search warrant. Rather, they simply have to explain why the information they request may be correlated with an investigation.

    The Act is a few hundred pages long in length, but just a few sections have to do with libraries, primarily Sections 214 through 216. Information regarding each of these sections is courtesy of the ALA'S Office for Intellectual Freedom. To begin with, Section 215 is titled “Access to Records and Other Items Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” and it gives power to FBI officials to demand “any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities” (9). This includes library records.

    Section 216, “Relating to the Use of Pen Register and Trap and Trace Devices,” extends telephone monitoring laws to include information related to Internet traffic, including e-mail addresses, IP addresses and URLs for Web pages. This makes it possible for law enforcement officials to cooperate in monitoring someone's computer and Internet usage. It also allows federal agents to get permission to use wiretapping (4).

    Finally, Section 214, “Pen Register and Trap and Trace Authority Under FISA,” mainly serves to broaden the power the FBI has in telephone monitoring. This is specifically meant for FISA investigations. It provides for access to more information with regard to most any kind of Internet usage, such as e-mail addresses and Web sites visited. Specifically, it is similar to Section 215 in that officials are not required to provide specific proof or evidence regarding why they require the information (4).

    There are a handful of other provisions in the Act that could be related to libraries but that are not specifically targeted to them. The abovementioned three, however, are the ones most directly targeted to libraries of any kind, and Sections 214 through 216 obviously have very specific details about what new powers are granted.

One Librarian's Thoughts

    On Wednesday, March 5, I had the opportunity to speak with Daniel Blewett, one of the reference librarians at the College of DuPage Library. I decided to interview a librarian because clearly they are the most directly affected by parts of the PATRIOT Act (along with library patrons). To begin, I asked what seemed the most obvious question: “What do you, as a librarian, think is the biggest problem brought about by this new law?” Dan's response was to-the-point: His biggest concern was the invasion of privacy. Here was this all-new act that essentially gives the government full access to whatever information they deem important, he pointed out. He described the Act as “long, convoluted and [appearing to need] some fine-tuning” (1).

    I also asked Dan what steps would be involved if someone from the government were to come to the library and request information. He outlined the major steps: Ask for the official's identification, refer them to the library director or administrator, follow all specific procedures as outlined to the library staff, and do not hesitate to seek legal counsel once the official has departed. Dan mentioned, however, that it did not seem likely that the COD Library would be approached for such information. He added, “I think they need to have a search warrant or court order for the library to be required to give them the information” (1).

    Dan mentioned some other thoughts on the law as well. In his opinion, librarians would have objected less to the law if they had been more involved in its creation. “They would have liked to have had more of a say in the bill, certainly… but it was just ramrodded through, instead” (1). Blewett doesn't object to the “gag order” built into the law—which stipulates that the person who is investigated is not to be informed of what happened—but he says that the law seems hastily written. He added that it seems like a waste of time and effort to a lot of librarians.

    However, he commented, it seems like the Act will actually work as a “psychological deterrent” in the sense that, if criminals think they are going to be investigated, then they may be less motivated to attempt the crime. Dan feels that the Act would best be used to corroborate evidence when trying someone in court, essentially by presenting the solid proof, and tying that in with facts on what sort of materials that person had used. If a person had set off a bomb, for example, the government could support their evidence if they had library records verifying that a book on explosives had been checked out.

    Overall, Dan didn’t seem too concerned about the new law. He agreed that there are some controversial topics relating to privacy, though he said there wasn't much to worry about. The government isn't going to investigate you unless they have good reason to believe you're plotting something, he remarked (1).

How Some Other People Feel
Obviously, opinions are quite varied on the topic. Some people could basically care less, knowing they're not likely to be investigated unless the government either makes an error (such as mistakenly investigating an innocent person with the same name as the suspect—a “same name, wrong person” scenario) or if officials do in fact have reason to believe that the individual has something planned. For a few of examples, I cite three College of DuPage students who were polled at random. The school newspaper, the Courier, printed an article about the PATRIOT Act on February 14, 2003 with the accompanying poll. Each person was posed the question: “Would the government's ability to monitor materials you check out of the library affect what you check out?” One student, Michelle Nwakudu, replied, “Definitely not! Because whether they know it or not it can only help if they know what students need” (6).

    Bonnie Kirchner, a woman in her 40s, gave a reply that probably exemplifies how most feel: “No it would not affect my choices, but I would want to know why they are monitoring” (6). And lastly, Matthew Idicula, a political science major, gave a straight answer of “No, because terrorists need to be monitored, not college students” (6).

    While three people hardly make up a majority, it is impossible to give an accurate representation of how “the average American” feels, because feeling are so divided. Some people, especially many librarians, are much more opposed to the government's newfound Big Brother-like power, but the general mindset of most people could be summarized as: “I probably wouldn't be affected—after all, I have nothing to hide—but why are they doing it? Do they think they have something on everyone?”

    Referring back to Bemie Sanders, his article sees things a little differently, at least for librarians: “Today, many librarians fear that their patrons have already begun to self-censor their library use due to fear of government surveillance” (8). Sanders plans on introducing legislation that would essentially give an exemption to libraries, shielding them from the sections of the Act that violate constitutional rights.


    I share a lot of the same feelings as Dan Blewett does; he is a calm, level-headed man who knows that there is a fine line between appropriate precautions and invasion of privacy. Some people seem to think that this is like the famous novel 1984, in which Big Brother is watching every person and their every move. Who wants an omniscient government?

    Maybe if this law had been thought out more thoroughly, there’d be less to argue about. But the fact of the matter is, it passed with hardly any discussion, changes or revisions. While we are doing what we can to keep the country safe from harm, the government seems to be a bit overzealous. As some people would tell you, it's like police officers: Most men in blue are good guys, but a few have an agenda of their own.

    I don't think that the law was passed with bad intentions. Nevertheless, since it was introduced immediately after September 11, it probably shot through Congress “in the heat of the moment,” right when all the action had just taken place. The flight attendant was serving the drinks in the middle of the turbulence, so to speak. Without even a second glance, the focus was on knowing everything about everybody whenever possible – finding as much information about terrorists as they could, when there should have been an equal concentration on making sure that people wouldn't feel like they were being put under a microscope. Metaphorically speaking, people want to look up at the sky and see the great, blue vastness and freedom of it all. In recent times, though, people feel more like the a great shadow is being cast down upon the city, brought about by the towering black clouds and the all-seeing eyes of Big Brother gazing back down at everyone. Certainly, freedom comes at a certain price, but it can't come at the price of another freedom.



1. Blewett, Daniel. Personal interview. 5 March 2003.

A brief interview with Dan Blewett, reference librarian at College of DuPage Library. Interview mainly consisted of questions regarding concerns about the Act, as well as personal opinions on the law's effectiveness.

2. Davis, G. Kevin. “Intellectual Freedom & Libraries: The Keys to a Democratic Society.”
           College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn. 8 February 2003.

In-class presentation on what intellectual freedom is all about. A lecture with the aid of a multimedia presentation.

3. Drake, Miriam A. “Safeguarding Patrons' Privacy. (Report From the Field).”
           Information Today. February 2003: 35. InfoTrac: Expanded Academic ASAP.
           Online. Gale Group. College of DuPage Library, Glen Ellyn, IL. 8 February 2003.

Talks about discussions that took place at a teleconference amid passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. Several panelists attended the event, including university librarians and directors of libraries. The event mainly discussed whether or not people felt that the Act was too infringing on the privacy of library patrons.

4. Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association. 30 October 2002.
           American Library Association. 7 March 2003. <>.

The online site for the Office for Intellectual Freedom. Most of the info used came from one particular page, but this is the address for the main site. No particular editor of the site.

5. Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association. Intellectual
           Freedom Manual, 5th Edition. Chicago: American Library Association, 1996.

Book talks about intellectual freedom and libraries; meant mainly for librarians. Covers the Library Bill of Rights, ALA policy guidelines and other information significant to defending intellectual freedom and the right to information. Not edited by any one particular person.

“Photopoll.” Courier 14 February 2003: 1.

Brief poll of three College of DuPage students asking their opinion on whether or not the government's power to potentially spy on what they check out of libraries would affect their choices. No author cited.

“Privacy Versus Security—What's At Stake: In the Wake of September 11, Librarians
           John Callahan (Right) and Sam Morrison Discuss Issues Facing America's
           Libraries.” American Libraries December 2001: 54. InfoTrac: Expanded
           Academic ASAP. Online. Gale Group. College of DuPage Library. Glen Ellyn,
           IL. 8 February 2003.

An interview of two librarians on their thoughts about significant topics facing American libraries after 9/11. Discussion of confidentiality; the PATRIOT Act. No author cited.

8. Sanders, Bernie. “On My Mind: The Patriot Act's Threat to Libraries.” American
           Libraries February 2003: 32.

Sanders talks about some of his opinions regarding the Act. He talks about the new powers it gives the government, and why some of them violate the First Amendment.


9. U.S. House and Senate. 107th Congress, 1st Session. H.R. 3162,Uniting and Strengthening
America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001
Online. 7 March 2003.

Online PDF file containing the entire USA PATRIOT Act. Printed by the U.S. Government Printing Office Web site; bibliographic format came from <>.