Librarians as FBI Extension Agents

The FBI is back in our libraries, and librarians and their professional associations are doing nothing to directly obstruct their access to private records of what we read. As American librarians’ choose to not resist the FBI’s intrusion into our private lives this choice necessarily transforms their functional position from that of ally to suspect FBI minion.

The Patriot Act’s Section 215 requires American bookstores and public libraries to surrender to the FBI lists of books or other materials that customers or patrons have accessed. As with past FBI library watch campaigns, libraries are instructed under order of law to not disclose the FBI’s presence or interest in the reading habits of particular patrons. Alerting patrons, or the public of the occurrence of an FBI library visit brings threats of arrest. Some library’s have adopted a policy of hanging signs in library entry ways declaring “The FBI has not visited here today,” with community understandings that these signs will be removed upon an FBI visit.

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Code of Ethics explicitly calls for the protection of intellectual freedom and instructs librarians to “resist all efforts to censor library resources,” and to “protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted”. Over a year ago governmental repository libraries quietly began complying with censorial governmental demands to remove specific materials that were thought to be of possible use to terrorists. Today we find the FBI resurrecting its old discredited Library Watch Program in the name of fighting terrorism with only words of complain, not acts of defiance from American librarians.

In my Research Methods courses I teach anthropology, sociology and psychology students about the importance of professional codes of ethical conduct. Fundamental to understanding the difference between ethical and legal codes is the principle that ethical and legal considerations are by necessity independent undertakings. Ethical codes of conduct in the social sciences trace their roots to the declarations at the Nuremberg Tribunals that human beings have inalienable human rights and they must give their voluntary, informed consent before becoming subjects of (medical) research-the importance of the codes deriving from this and other sources is that these are fundamental rights that must be protected by scientists regardless of a given regime’s political practices. If ethical codes were meant to be tied to legal processes, there would be no need for ethical codes of conduct: we could simply just be instructed to comply with the laws we encounter in our professional lives. Ethical codes must therefore function independently from legal codes.

While the legal issues involved in the FBI’s latest invasion of patrons’ privacy may be complex, the ethical issues are quite simple. My interpretation of the ethical dilemma faced by librarians when given the obvious contradictions between the American Library Association’s ethical commitment to protecting the privacy of patrons and the FBI’s reckless quest for information on the reading preferences and thought processes of American citizens is that the ALA code of ethics demands that librarians refuse to comply with FBI request for patron records. Ethical librarians have no choice but to engage in civil disobedience and thus must refuse to comply with the FBI’s (temporally) legal, but unethical request. Librarians have an ethical duty to protect their patrons that trumps the legal issues confronting them. Period. If they are not prepared to uphold their own basic ethical principles of patron advocacy then they should be prepared to reap the scorn and suspicions of scholars and other patrons.

While American Library Association President, Mitch Freedman and the ALA have consistently protested these developments, they have stopped far short of using their ethical code as a moral justification for refusing to cooperate with the FBI. While some librarians and some members of the American Library Association have expressed discomfort in assisting the FBI’s invasion of our privacy-as yet there is no articulated public voice advocating librarians to undertake acts of civil disobedience when the FBI comes to call.

There is a rapidly growing movement of scholars (very rapid indeed: five minutes ago there was only one person in it, but I just called three friends and now the movement has quadrupled in size) calling for the resignation of ALA President Mitch Freedman because he has not advised American librarians of their ethical duty to refuse to comply with FBI efforts to access patron library records. I personally call for Mitch Freedman’s resignation not as a member of the ALA (I’m not a member), but as a library patron who might be victimized by overly aggressive law enforcement officials. If he and his organization won’t protect my rights, he should resign and let someone take over who will.

Mitch Freedman is by most reports a nice guy. He is a hipster who has done some great things (Amy Goodman was his choice for the ALA’s President’s Program Speaker) who took office by storm as a write in candidate seizing power to address librarian compensation inequities. But in the post 9-11 world –with new levels of budget cuts, and revitalized domestic surveillance campaigns–Freedman has been forced to all but abandon his key issue, and instead has scrambled to weakly “oppose” the principles (but not the practices) of the Patriot Act’s invasion of libraries while telling librarians how to comply with the demands of these new secret library police. The ALA’s recommendations to librarians is fundamentally that they need to be informed of the laws and policies in play when the FBI flashes badges and asks to see records. Freedman clearly understands that, “the attack on the World Trade Center is now resulting in attacks on basic American values of liberty, privacy, and fairness,” but he is unwilling to use his clout to lead an opposition to the FBI’s library invasion.

There is some small hope coming from Congress with Representative Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) planning to introduce the “Freedom to Read Protection Act of 2003” that would specifically negate Patriot Act Section 215. But the fate of such a bill is less than certain without a vocal outcry from citizens-or acts of civil disobedience from librarians.

We may be entering an age where we will view librarians as the equivalent of FBI extension agents, serving at the beck and call of John Ashcroft and other intellectual descendants of J. Edgar Hoover. It may well be that there are hordes of dissident librarians who are even now lying to the FBI, or secretly contacting patrons on the QT after being visited by the FBI. Perhaps. But I wouldn’t count on it with such weak ALA ethical leadership. At an international conference a few months ago I heard a group of senior scholars bemoaning the ALA’s decision to comply with FBI requests. One well-known scholar at a major research university admitted that he had caught himself engaging in doublethink as he rephrased a query made to a reference librarian who might report something suspicious in the nature of the data he was seeking. Another scholar working on a large scale ecological project said that over the years he had accessed numerous documents relating to urban water supplies that were now unavailable due to security concerns-he added that if the FBI had been to his campus his librarians would have surely informed the FBI of his reading habits. When I asked if the FBI’s current intrusions on campuses had altered his current library behaviors and he replied that in the last few months he had “removed several maps and other documents from the library without checking them out.” The group of us laughed about this and then moved on to other topics, but his anecdote revealed how librarians are grudgingly embracing their new role of FBI informer.

Whimpering about FBI intrusions is not enough, if librarians want patrons’ trust they need to evolve ethical backbones that will support them in protecting what has been an assumed trust between patrons and libraries-if they cannot do this, then they should resign their posts and find (better paying from my understanding) work as records administrators or librarians within the NSA, FBI, CIA or local police agencies.

DAVID H. PRICE is an anthropologist at St. Martin’s College (where some of his best friends are librarians), who works in the Middle East and studies interactions between anthropologists and the intelligence community. His latest book Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists, will be published by Duke University Press this fall. He can be reached at:


David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.