The independent news organization of Duke University

Patriot Act proves tough for libraries

As the federal government demands more information and reveals less, a surprising loser in the war on terrorism may turn out to be the library.

Among the anti-terrorism bills passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, the USA Patriot Act may present the biggest threat to the privacy of library users. The Patriot Act enables the government to more easily demand circulation records, Internet logs and lists of e-mail recipients from libraries.

"It raises the authority of the federal government to capture information that librarians would consider sacred and private," said David Ferriero, University librarian. "Where are we going with this Big Brother thing?"

Congress hastily debated and passed the Patriot Act over the course of six weeks in Oct. 2001, as a part of post-Sept. 11 efforts to curb terrorist activity. President George W. Bush called the act essential to the war on terror, and it received overwhelming support in both houses of Congress.

Both civil liberties groups and library associations have decried some of the provisions of the legislation. A joint statement released by three major library associations in Oct. 2001 expressed significant concern that the government's increased monitoring of communications and records would threaten the rights of library users.

Even so, Ferriero said the public did not fully appreciate the Patriot Act's potential threat to privacy. "I don't think a lot of people have paid attention," he said. "A public outcry will come, but only after an egregious incident."

Other governmental measures designed to thwart terrorism have raised questions about the public's right to access information in libraries.

Many universities, including Duke, participate in the Federal Government Depository Program, which means they receive documents from the government and house them in their library systems. After Sept. 11, certain publications were recalled from depository program participants because they contained what government agencies believed to be sensitive material.

The libraries are obliged to comply with any federal directive. "As we understand it, those documents still technically belong to the U.S. government, so if they wanted them back we would have no choice," said Sidney Verba, director of the Harvard University Library.

Last March, Duke was one of at least seven universities in the depository program forced to destroy a CD-ROM put out by the United States Geological Survey that contained information on water supplies, said Ann Miller, head of the library's public documents and maps department.

The government's recall of this CD-ROM and other documents is a continuation of a broader trend of withholding public information, said Joe Hewitt, associate provost for university libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "They've been reducing the number of documents we receive for the past few years," he said. "They've been relying on saying, 'It's on the web site.'"

Now, many government agencies have scrubbed sensitive material from their web sites, leaving the information inaccessible to the public.

Many librarians have voiced their displeasure regarding the government's growing secrecy. "The reason that they're public records is they need to be available to future generations," Ferriero said. "They can't be restricted."

Ferriero added that the library will continue to advocate privacy and free access for its patrons. "We're trying hard not to play Big Brother," he said. "That's not what libraries are all about."


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