The Hidden Virtues of Card Catalogs

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Last month, when four Republican senators who had criticized the PATRIOT Act withdrew their opposition to the law's reauthorization, the White House concessions they said had allayed their civil liberties concerns seemed pretty lame. They seem even lamer now.

Consider the change that was supposed to shield library records from national security letters, administrative subpoenas that do not require judicial approval and that are supposed to be limited to credit, financial, and communication records. "The agreement clarifies current law to make clear that libraries functioning in their traditional role are not subject to National Security Letters," the four senators said. "These traditional services include making books available in digital format, and offering patrons access to the Internet." But according to a story in yesterday's New York Times, the final version of the law does not do what the senators promised:

The section of the new law that addresses "privacy protection for library patrons" states that library records are beyond the reach of national security letters so long as the library is not operating as an "electronic communication service." Elsewhere, that term is defined as "any service which provides to users thereof the ability to send or receive wire or electronic communications."

But much of what a modern library does courses through its computers. Patrons can research topics on the Web. They can even reserve books from home. "A national security letter can be used to get any library record that is maintained via an electronic communication service," Ms. Beeson said. "That definitely includes Internet access and e-mail records and can also include patron borrowing records."

The Times also notes that the FBI can still get library records (indeed "any tangible thing") via Section 215 orders approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court upon the FBI's assertion of "relevance."

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  1. Oh, goodie. I do all of my library transactions (other than picking up books, tapes, CDs, and DVDs) on-line. And I’m a known libertarian. Egad.

  2. To allow the government to dominate a “free goodies” system (public libraries) and then expect them to keep their nose out of your business is unrealistic. I look at this as being “buyer beware”.

    However, when they start poking around private businesses (Borders’ Books), then that is real cause for concern.

  3. If you are going to borrow books from the government, you should not be surprised that the government knows which books you borrow.

    It’s too bad that the Feds aren’t quite smart enough to stock every library with “How to blow up the Pentagon” and then arrest every one who checks it out. At least that might be useful.

    Dear God, man. If you’re going to be a terrorist, buy used and pay cash.

    I had a roommate in grad school. A Canadian. He would beg for change before resorting to using a credit card. He didn’t want the government to know that he bought groceries. WTF?

  4. So card catalogs can save us! Hmm. I just read that we’re heading for a severe librarian shortage in coming years. We should all head to school for MLSes and preserve our liberty! The pay isn’t awful, either, I hear.

  5. “…the final version of the law does not do what the senators promised”

    What an utterly absurd and impossible notion.

  6. Both I and my state legislature wrote to our Senators, Boxer and Feinstein, to urge them to resist the enhancement or extension of USA PATRIOT — to no avail. I received responses from both Senators. Boxer said reauthorizing USA PATRIOT was hard for her to do, but she thought that by going along to get along, she would remain in a better position to moderate the Bill’s effects in the future. Feinstein had no doubt that the reauthorization bill would pass, and seemed worried only about maintaining congressional harmony throughout the process: it seemed more important to her that members of Congress and Senators be able to share drinks together afterward, than that they uphold their oaths to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. Yes, I am paraphrasing, but I stand by my interpretation of the replies I received. If you want to see their words for yourself, send me some email.

    I’m recommending a “no” vote when each comes up for re-election. We don’t need gutless appeasement of authoritarianism. We need people who will live up to their oaths of office, and who 1) respect their constituents enough to require that the case be made for ANY proposed legislation; 2) are willing and capable of explaining that compelling, persuasive case to their constituents.

  7. Dewey Decimal, Defender of Liberty!

    nice ring to it, dontcha think?

  8. Gasp! You mean, they’ll STILL be able to read my library borrowing records!? That’s the last straw, I’m killing myself. Better to die on my feet than live on my knees in this fascist Bushitlerburton dystopia we used to call America!

  9. “I just read that we’re heading for a severe librarian shortage in coming years. We should all head to school for MLSes and preserve our liberty! The pay isn’t awful, either, I hear.”

    We are always headed for a severe librarian shortage because most people become librarians as a second career. This leads to having a large but steady stock of “about to retire” librarians. Also, librarians can hold on as long as professors do. The job is not physically demanding.

    The pay, however, is usually pretty awful. Most library jobs are part-time, so even if the hourly wage is good, getting full time employment and/or benefits can be hard in many areas. With benefits providing about half of your net compensation in many jobs, that hurts.

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