Watch the Libraries


Vital surveillance of dangerous subversives:

A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called "The Little Red Book."

Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library's interlibrary loan program.

The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand's class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents' home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a "watch list," and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further.

"I tell my students to go to the direct source, and so he asked for the official Peking version of the book," Professor Pontbriand said. "Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring inter-library loans, because that's what triggered the visit, as I understand it."

Update: Several people have pointed out that this story is poorly sourced, which of course is correct. If you need a disclaimer, here you go: I don't know if this report is true.

There have been efforts to make more detailed criticisms, most of which miss the mark. One commenter asserts as established fact that "the kid was giving this as an excuse as why they couldn't finish their research paper," but while that could be true, the article—the only source we have—says nothing of the kind. Some people find it unlikely that the student would need to use an interlibrary loan to get a copy of Mao's Little Red Book. But the article says he wanted a specific official edition from the Chinese government. (Are there any substantial differences between that and the versions he'd find at home? Maybe not, but that's what research is for. Also, I notice that while the university library includes several books by Mao, it does not seem to carry a copy of Quotations. Sure, you can buy it at any decent bookstore, but college kids tend to be cheap.) Over at bOING bOING, Michael Benveniste points out that "UMass Dartmouth does not use SSN's for student ID's." And, sure enough, the interlibrary loan request form asks for a university-issued ID, not a Social Security number. But that seems to be exactly the sort of detail that would get garbled in a third-hand account, so I don't think it casts much doubt on the larger allegation.

There is one part of the story that sounds fishy, though:

The student told Professor Pontbriand and Dr. Williams that the Homeland Security agents told him the book was on a "watch list." They brought the book with them, but did not leave it with the student, the professors said.

I know the Department of Homeland Security has a lot of duties, but I don't think they include the delivery of library books.

So is that a sign that the student's tale is untrue, or just another example of the inaccuracies introduced when a journalist plays telephone-tag? Beats me. Ya'll are welcome to contact the reporter and the professors to ask more questions. As for me, until the student himself talks on the record, I'm going to judge this not proven, but not disproven either.

Update #2: Whether or not the Dartmouth story began as an urban legend, it seems to have become one: There's at least one more version circulating. That one changes the setting to UC-Santa Cruz and adds the name of a professor who, contacted subsequently, has denied the account. We'll know the story has hit the big time when it gets attributed to George Carlin.

Update #3: Professor Williams weighs in, along with the local librarians.