Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Librarians are dangerous people

Posted by metaphorical on 10 January 2007

Addendums appended

What do these two books have in common?

  • The Ezekiel Option by Joel C. Rosenberg
  • The Last Jihad by Joel C. Rosenberg

Obviously, they have the same author. And when ordered together via interlibrary loan, they place you on a government “Watch List,” according to Jane Ellen, a blogger in south central Montana.

A post of hers yesterday, “Libraries are dangerous places,” is getting a fair amount of attention. According to Ellen, who is apparently an Episcopal priest, the librarian in Joliet, Montana, received the books, “but they came with a letter informing her that because she had ordered them, she had been placed on a ‘Watch List.’ Pursuant to recent policy, with due respect for concerns with the requirements of the Patriot Act, she will have to appear in person in Billings before she will be permitted to order any more books.”

Joliet is northeast of Yellowstone; if you’re leaving the park, it’s about a half hour past Red Lodge, one of my favorite towns on Earth. For the last 50 years or so, Red Lodge has held an annual Festival of Nations, celebrating the seven diverse nations whose immigrants most of the local white population descends from. Clearly the whole area is a hotbed of ethnic and religious intolerance.

The idea that ordering any book in the world makes you a dangerous person not only insane, it’s probably backwards. Book readers, by and large, aren’t violent extremists. But to watch out for the librarians would be lunacy of two or three more orders of magnitude.

On Dave Farber’s interesting-people list, Rich Kulawiec suggests “every librarian in every library in the United States request a copy of these books (even if they already have one).” Good idea.

Added 11 January 2007: Andrew, in his comment, is right to note a bit of skepticism is in order. Generally, this isn’t how the Patriot Act is supposed to work. Moreover, the librarian isn’t supposed to tell anyone other than supervisors, colleagues, and their lawyer about an FBI demand for patron records—the Patriot Act specifically enjoins them from any other disclosure.

Still, we know generally that library records are in fact being turned over to law enforcement in accord with the Patriot Act. Back in June 2005, the NY Times reported:

Law enforcement officials have made at least 200 formal and informal inquiries to libraries for information on reading material and other internal matters since October 2001, according to a new study that adds grist to the growing debate in Congress over the government’s counterterrorism powers.

It’s quite possible we won’t know any more about this case, even if the facts are as stated in Jane Ellen’s post. The librarian in question may clam up, particularly if the note was a forbidden one, a courtesy of one librarian to another. I hate to say the facts of the case don’t matter—the facts do matter, always. But another fact that matters is that we’re invading the private space of libraries, librarians, and library patrons, we need to insist that that space be sacrosanct for the free exchange of ideas between writers and readers.

Added 13 January 2007: The librarian in Billings has confessed that her story wasn’t true.

Turns out, after some… awkward conversation, that the story was, as my grandmother would have said, “not stitched out of whole cloth.” The paper she had been holding was something else entirely. No letter, no trip to Billings necessary, no upset husband (well, there is a husband– yes, I have seen him– but he is not upset about the letter because there is no letter to be upset about).

Why she felt the need to spin this tale to us (there were 3 people near the circulation desk, counting me, participating in this conversation) I do not know.

When I was young, nothing like this could have been true.


2 Responses to “Librarians are dangerous people”

  1. I’m torn on this one.

    Several of the blog comments expressed some skepticism, even from some librarians.

    Even if you discount the generic “anybody can claim anything on the Internet” argument, it doesn’t seem entirely credible. Official letters? Appearing before the proper authorities? Seems dubious to me.

  2. Question: How is the reporting done? Are actual librarians reporting such things to the government or there some sort of united-library-bigbrother-computer monitoring system that does all of this automated?

    Whatever the case, I have heard of such watch lists before…and we must investigate every report as this is truly scary to imagine a world where such lists actually exist.

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