Signs of the Times
Jessmyn West is a 36-year-old librarian living in central Vermont. But she's not your stereotypical bespectacled research maven toiling behind a reference desk and offering expert advice on microfiche.
She's a "radical librarian" who has embraced the hacker credo that "information wants to be free." As a result, West and many of her colleagues are on the front lines in battling the USA Patriot Act, which a harried Congress passed a month after 9/11 even though most representatives hadn't even read the 300-page bill. It gave the government sweeping powers to pursue the "war on terror" but at a price: the loss of certain types of privacy we have long taken for granted.
West, for her part, has created a series of popular, quasi-legal signs to warn users. One -- "The FBI has not been here. (Watch closely for the removal of this sign)" -- was provided to every library in the state by the Vermont Library Association.
- "We're sorry! Due to national security concerns we are unable to tell you if your internet surfing habits, passwords and e-mail content are being monitored by federal agents; please act appropriately."
- "Q. How can you tell when the FBI has been in your library? A. You can't."
- "The Patriot Act makes it illegal for us to tell you if our computers are monitored; be aware."
Still another lists organizations like the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, Rotary Club, United Way and FBI that have not stopped by this week, except FBI is crossed out.
After the American Library Association, or ALA, came out against the Patriot Act, Attorney General John Ashcroft called librarians' resistance "baseless hysteria." He ridiculed the organization, claiming that "some have convinced (it) ... that the FBI is not fighting terrorism; instead, agents are checking how far you've gotten in the latest Tom Clancy novel."
The ALA challenged Ashcroft to reveal the number of times law enforcement had requested library records. In response, the Department of Justice released a declassified memo that claimed the number was zero, which was contradicted by a University of Illinois Library Research Center study that found more than a dozen libraries had received visits and requests for information from law enforcement.
"That's the problem," West said. "The government wants us to trust them, but how can we without greater transparency?"
She believes that you have to be somewhat radical to become a librarian in the first place. In addition to a good education, you need to devote yourself to low-to-middle-paying jobs where even your friends make jokes about you, and fear that one day you will be replaced by a computer.
This is the new stereotype for Librarians: that we're all radical partisans for truth and freedom of access. And I wholeheartedly embrace this stereotype.