Librarians Wary of Patriot Act's Implications Michael Gorman, head of the American Library Association, and librarian Joan Airoldi offer Debbie Elliott their insights on what proposed Patriot Act changes would mean for their profession. Libraries don't like Patriot Act provisions that allow library records to be searched without recourse.

Librarians Wary of Patriot Act's Implications

Librarians Wary of Patriot Act's Implications

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Michael Gorman, head of the American Library Association, and librarian Joan Airoldi offer Debbie Elliott their insights on what proposed Patriot Act changes would mean for their profession. Libraries don't like Patriot Act provisions that allow library records to be searched without recourse.


Among those trying to sort through exactly what the language of the Senate compromise would mean are America's librarians. We turn now to Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association. Also joining us is Joan Airoldi. She's head of the Whatcom County Library System in Bellingham, Washington. Welcome to you both.

Mr. MICHAEL GORMAN (President, American Library Association): Thank you.

Ms. JOAN AIROLDI (Head, Whatcom County Library System): And thank you for inviting us.

ELLIOTT: Mr. Gorman, what's the American Library Association's position on this compromise? Senators say they've tried to address librarians' concerns.

Mr. GORMAN: Well, they can say that, but in fact we're very disappointed. There are two so-called improvements to this. One is that, at the moment, if you get a FISA warrant delivered to your library...

ELLIOTT: FISA being the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Mr. GORMAN: That's right. You can't even tell anybody about it. You can't tell the press, you can't tell anybody else in the library even. But now you can appeal against that gag order, but only after a year after the gag order was issued.

ELLIOTT: And the second provision that troubles you?

Mr. GORMAN: The second provision is that, as I understand it, they will no longer be able to issue national security letters, that is without any cause at all, just a pure fishing expedition, to individual libraries. But they will be able to issue them to consortia of libraries, that is when libraries get together and pool their records to make for more efficient service. So in any event, they will be able to get at the records of libraries that are in these consortia, which most libraries are.

ELLIOTT: Joan Airoldi, let's turn to you. Your library has actually had to deal with a request from the FBI for library records. Back in June of 2004, the FBI subpoenaed the names of people who had checked out a certain book about Osama bin Laden. How did you handle that?

Ms. AIROLDI: Well, we worked with the library board and with our attorney, Deborah Garrett(ph) on this and if this had been a Patriot Act subpoena, we would not have been able to go through a due process. The reason that we felt comfortable with the due process that we went through was that it worked. We did not have to give information to the FBI and the people involved did not have to be disclosed just for having read a book.

ELLIOTT: Let's review your case just a little bit. What happened was a library patron had seen something that alarmed them in the margin of this book, had called the FBI and said, this is troubling, you might wanna look into it, and the FBI wanted the list of everybody who had checked out this book. You challenged the subpoena. And...

Ms. AIROLDI: With a motion to crush.

ELLIOTT: In court. And when you did that, the FBI said never mind?

Ms. AIROLDI: Right, they withdrew.

ELLIOTT: How did your patrons respond to this case?

Ms. AIROLDI: It was really an interesting experience because not only did our patrons respond, but the whole country responded and overwhelmingly the people said thank you for standing up for my privacy. It seems that library patrons see themselves as patrons of a larger library than simply their own local library.

ELLIOTT: Mr. Gorman, how do you think the Patriot Act should be changed to protect libraries?

Mr. GORMAN: I think it should be changed to revert to traditional practice, whereas if the law enforcement feels they have a need for library records, they should go before a judge in a transparent process and get a subpoena and bring it to a library and we'll gladly surrender the records under that, under those provisions.

ELLIOTT: How do you balance the need for federal law enforcement officers to know if people are plotting a terrorist attack against protecting the average library patron's Constitutional rights?

Mr. GORMAN: Well, this is in a way a kind of a false dichotomy. How do you, even if you were to say, fine, let the government monitor all library use, how would they go about that? Is there gonna be somebody stationed, watching every computer in every library, is there gonna be, are we gonna send lists of the books that are borrowed to some legal authority?

ELLIOTT: Well, if you look at the Washington State case, though, it was actually a library patron who said this is alarming, I'm gonna call the FBI.

Mr. GORMAN: I mean just because somebody says something's alarming doesn't mean it is alarming. Because somebody reads a book about Osama Bin Laden doesn't make them a terrorist, it's an absurdity.

ELLIOTT: Will libraries cooperate with the law as it stands for the next four years?

Mr. GORMAN: We always obey the law.

ELLIOTT: Michael Gorman is president of the American Library Association. Joan Airoldi is head of Whatcom County Libraries System in Bellingham, Washington.

Mr. GORMAN: Well, thank you so much for talking to us.

Ms. AIROLDI: Bye bye.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.