Librarians at the Gates | The Nation


Librarians at the Gates

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Courage, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And in an era of increasing controls on the gathering and dissemination of information, many Americans are unaware of the courageous stands librarians take every day.

A librarian responds to the Cuba Library initiative included in this report.

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Joseph Huff-Hannon
Joseph Huff-Hannon is an independent writer and producer, and a 2008 finalist in the Livingston Awards for Young...

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The day-to-day challenges librarians face are inherent in the job description: defending access to controversial or banned books, staving off budget cuts, and creating and expanding programs to draw more citizens into one of the few remaining genuinely public commons in American life. While the ethic of secrecy often prevails in the gathering and dissemination of corporate and governmental information, the work of a librarian is imbued with just the opposite. Be it in the capacity of archivist, reference librarian or information technology professional, a common thread is the profession's dogged commitment to safeguarding books, research and information to make knowledge more widespread, not less.

In the past few years this dedication has become more important than ever. With the federal government ever more intent on spying on its own citizens, and on classifying, concealing and manipulating larger swaths of information and intelligence, librarians and library custodians are on the front lines protecting freedom of inquiry and our right to privacy. And where right-wing groups, both local and national, have campaigned for censorship, librarians have also stepped up to the plate to defend minority points of view in their collections. Anecdotes there are aplenty, too many to document here. The following are but a few profiles of courageous individuals in the field who exemplify the democratic values and the independent spirit of the profession.

Reforming Libraries From Within

"Libraries are not a government entity, and librarians are not the immigration police. Our mission is to serve the community, and we are getting organized," says Loida Garcia-Febo, assistant coordinator for special services of the Queens Library in New York City and president of the northeast chapter of Reforma, an organization of librarians focused on developing library services and programs that meet the needs of the Latino community.

With the recent passage by the House of Representatives of HR 4437 (the Sensenbrenner bill), which would make it a felony for a librarian to issue a library card to an undocumented immigrant, Garcia-Febo and members of Reforma around the country swung in to high gear. In Queens, Garcia-Febo directed a public relations campaign using bus and newspaper ads, to assure the local community that the library would keep its doors open to everybody. Garcia-Febo also helped develop a Librarian's Tool-Kit for responding to anti-immigrant sentiment.

"When I came over from Puerto Rico, I realized how important libraries are to immigrant communities here, for everything from literacy classes, job postings, readings or as a place for kids to do their homework," Garcia-Febo says. "That is why they need to continue to provide full, equal access, regardless of background or legal status."

Librarians 1, FBI 0

According to the Washington Post, since the passage of the USA Patriot Act in 2001, the FBI has issued more than 30,000 national security letters (NSL). These letters allow the Feds to require banks, Internet service providers, other companies--and libraries--to produce personal information on Americans, without a court order. To date, only one NSL has been challenged in court--by librarian Peter Chase and three of his colleagues in Connecticut.

"I really didn't understand, until my attorneys explained it to me, that the Patriot Act can be aimed indiscriminately at anyone," said Chase, director of the Plainville Public Library in Plainville, Connecticut.

Chase is one of four Connecticut librarians who, with the help of the ACLU, sued the Department of Justice last year after receiving an NSL demanding the forfeiture of library usage records for that state. This May the FBI withdrew its request and rescinded the gag order that had kept Chase and others from talking to the press. "What is important about this case is the precedent it set--that when the federal government issued us those NSLs and then dropped them, it lied about this being a matter of national security," Chase said.

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