PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.
It has been 35 years since I first worked in a public library. The first couple of years involved pushing book trucks and shelving books, following by some time at the circulation desk working with the public. I quickly learned that people like and respect their local library, a fact that has not changed over the years. Libraries are considered to be an important institution to the community.
Early on, I observed that people feel that the inclusion of a book in the library collection is meaningful to that information, giving it credibility. Actually, a library collection tries to provide a balance of information on many topics for the public to use. The access to the holdings of multiple library collections through automated databases has enhanced this balance as years have passed.
I have also learned the diversity of the public's thoughts and reading interests in 35 years. I have overheard people discussing a book that both have read, with one person finding it to be a "great book," and the other person commenting that it is just "awful." This is why librarians turn pale when you ask them to recommend a "good book."
The Internet has added a whole new ingredient to the mix of information, now the individual must select and evaluate the information on their own. And so, the public library serves its function in a democracy; providing the electorate with information on topics of interest to the individual. And with that function comes the right of each individual to read books and use the library without that information being revealed to the world.
In the 1950s, libraries came under scrutiny for who was reading the books on Communism. Some people in government felt that it was necessary for the security of the nation to know who checked out the books about Communism. In those days, library checkouts were achieved with a card in the book with your name, a practice that was switching to a library card number so everyone couldn't see who had checked out the book.
The "Red Scare" passed and library automation provided some protection from investigating the reading habits of the public. Library computers automatically delete information connecting a book to a borrower when the item is returned. Therefore the "history" of a person's use of a library does not exist. Library records are protected by state law, and require a subpoena to be released to law enforcement officials. Many times, the need for the information is not related to what the book is, but who has the book checked out due to where the book was found.
Today, the United States is addressing the issue of terrorism and again library records are being identified as a source of information. The required subpoena is being by-passed with the Patriot Act, poorly named federal legislation providing authority to agencies to obtain information about the public. Terrorism in the world today is a difficult issue, requiring investigation beyond anything that we have encountered before. Access to library records will not solve the problem.
I cannot discuss the specific issues of library records and the Patriot Act; librarians are not permitted by the Act itself. As a librarian, I am probably the subject of a file in some federal agency. Only time will tell how we perceive the Patriot Act. In 2040, how will the 2000s be viewed?