Sunday, January 25, 2004

Signs and Portents

You can ask Trina Magi anything; she's ready to help you find the answer. Who, exactly, was on Richard Nixon's "enemies list"? How do you create a cranberry bog? Where do you find the marketing data you need to write a business plan? How can one find a photograph of Jesus Christ?

No question is foolish, she believes, though that last one -- which a student truly did ask -- still draws a smile. In fact, it's the very unpredictability of what's on people's minds that makes her daily stint on the reference desk at the University of Vermont's Bailey/Howe Library, in Burlington, so rewarding. "We want to nurture a love of inquiry in others," she says, "not squelch it or make people afraid to ask questions."

These days, it's not people fretting about what she might think of their questions that worries Magi; it's their unease about what the federal government might think. When the USA Patriot Act passed in October 2001, it contained language in Section 215 making it easier for federal agents to look into the business records of, among other places, libraries and bookstores. In particular, agents no longer need to show probable cause before getting a judge's approval to round up private records; the act also makes it illegal for the keeper of those records to tell any one else -- including the customer or patron involved -- about the investigation.

To Magi (whose last name is pronounced "Maggie") and other librarians, all of this strikes at the heart of free inquiry: the right to privacy. "It's one of the basics of librarianship, to respect privacy," says Gail Weymouth, chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Vermont Library Association, "to understand that what people read isn't necessarily what they believe, and to give them the ability to come in and find information without any chilling effect."

The fear of that chill -- the possibility that people will not explore questions because of how that might look to the authorities -- has turned Magi into an anti-Section 215 crusader.

~ Rob Gurwitt. "Defender of the Free Word: Librarian Trina Magi stands up to the Patriot Act." Mother Jones. January/February 2004.

Not only does provision 215 of the Patriot Act undermine this basic tenant of librarianshipñ the right to privacy, it instills a fear in people to read, at least on a subliminal level. The message is quite clear: ìUncle Sam doesnít want you reading anything dangerous, so play it safe kids and just donít read at all.î

Perhaps this is just a bit of unwarranted hyperbole on my part. Iím sure Attorney General John Ashcraft has our best interests at heart. After all, why would an Evangelical Christian who spends thousands of dollars to drape bare breasted statues, is deathly afraid of calico cats and anoints himself with oil in the manner of Old Testament Kings want to restrict our access to information?

Itís no surprise to anyone that people already have a hard enough time becoming motivated readers. The reasons, I think, begin with the flawed manner in which we look at literature and treat the written word in Junior High and High School. Itís merely something to be dissected and analyzed, like that fetal pig in biology class. Which is not to say that critical thinking of a work is not useful; it is, very much so. But we donít temper this analytical attitude by teaching also the basics of aesthetic appreciation or that some books, like some paintings exist as just Art for Arts sake, that not every novel is a moralizing stump speech by a closet politician. Instead, most children are taught that books are just a jumble of arcane symbols and if you donít have the marbles to decode them you arenít going to get into that ivy-league school (unless your daddy was a graduate and has friends on the board of trustees then you can just spend your youth blowing up frogs with firecrackers, without a care in the world).

Of course, not all children are taught to fear the inscrutability of the written word. I certainly wasnít. But my parents are teachers. Many of the kids I went to school with werenít. But it was a private school and many of them were the offspring of doctors and lawyers. Many were also Jewish and thus had a culturally fostered appreciation of knowledge and scholarship. But for those who werenít raised in an environment where book smarts were applaudedñ which would seem to be the vast majority of the population of the US, there exists already that gulf of mistrust and lack of understanding between them and that daunting volume of poetry by e.e. cummings, philosophy by Bertold Brecht or mathematical theorems of Sir Isaac Newton.

Provision 215 doesnít help matters any. It encourages mistrust of avid readers especially if they happen to like perusing almanacs.

In truth, librarians are hardly the only people alarmed by the Patriot Act, which has sparked a groundswell of ideologically diverse opposition. Yet it is the foursquare defiance found in libraries that seems to have nettled the Bush administration most, as suggested by John Ashcroft's rebuke last fall that the nation's librarians have fallen prey to "baseless hysteria."

Department of Justice spokesman Mark Corallo says that Section 215 simply allows investigators to do what they have been able to do all along -- gather evidence. Exempting libraries, he argues, "would create a terrorist safety zone." But librarians like Magi across the country have rejected this you're-with-us-or-you're-with-the-terrorists logic, buying paper shredders, purging borrowing records, and warning patrons that their records are no longer private.

Go looking for the earliest stirrings of this resistance, and you'll be led back to Magi. During the fall of 2002, she met over dinner with fellow UVM librarian Peter Spitzform, former state ACLU head Ben Scotch, and writer Judith Levine. They drafted a letter to Vermont's congressional delegation arguing that the Patriot Act threatens "the community of readers, researchers, and information-seekers." Magi had just stepped down as president of the Vermont Library Association; she took the letter to its executive board and persuaded them to sign on and become the first state library association to go on record opposing Section 215.

Laws that do not change the way we behave do not require resistance. They are just natural extensions of our existing behavior and are thus invisible (and some could argue, superfluous but thatís another essay). The Patriot Act is not one of these laws. Itís opponents arenít simply a bunch of high strung, hysterical librarians (a beast rarer than a unicorn or jackalope) or radical lefties with a soft spot for terror tactics (whom you are about as likely to meet as a leprechaun). Itís concerned citizens who oppose this law. Itís science fiction fans and Tolkeinites, professors, students, freethinkers, activists and liberal nuns. All the sorts of people who use libraries and bookstores, for all the right reasons: to stay informed. All the people John Ashcraft and George W. Bush donít want to stay informed, because an informed population doesnít just roll over and take proto-fascist, anti-intellectual legislation lightly. They fight it with whit, vigor and genuine patriotic fervor. In the end, this is what Shrub a Dub, Defib Dick and Crisco Johnny fear the most: pissed off librarians.

"We thought we'd get a nice response saying, 'Thanks for your letter, I share your concern,'" says Magi. Instead, the office of Vermont's lone representative, independent Bernie Sanders, called to say that Sanders planned to introduce a measure to exempt libraries and bookstores from Section 215. "I voted against the USA Patriot Act and knew it was not a good piece of legislation," he says. "But the truth is, I was not as familiar with all aspects as I should have been." The librarians' letter, he explains, along with a similar request from the New England Booksellers Association, persuaded him to act; so far, his measure has picked up more than 140 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.

Magi, in the meantime, is still talking to anyone who will listen about Section 215. Raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, she cut her teeth on protest when she agitated -- unsuccessfully -- for the church to ordain women as ministers." I don't feel uncomfortable about being out here," she says of her increasingly public role. "We need to have a conversation -- we need to have the debate that didn't happen before the law was passed."


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