Monthly Archives: August 2008

Free Speech and Patron Privacy are Corequisites for Intellectual Freedom

The book

So you’ve probably heard about this library assistant (Sally Stern-Hamilton, aka Ann Miketa) in small-town Michigan (Luddington) who wrote a fiction book (“Library Diaries”) based upon her accounts of library patrons, and published it under her maiden surname at a vanity press. The book doesn’t sound all that original or like it’s anything that should garner international attention. However, the scandal that has ensured over the book has brought the book, author, and little town in the Midwestern US, into the spotlight.

n.b. I was hesitant to write about this kerfuffle at first, as I think the attention only serves the author’s book sales and it’s not a book I personally care to promote, but on balance I decided that discussion of the issues of free speech and privacy that underlie the news are worth it.

The disciplinary action

After the book came out, the author was suspended from her job, with a letter that stated, (presumably among other things):

“The cover of your book includes a picture of the Ludington Library. Each chapter is devoted to a specific library patron or patrons. Your book portrays these people in a very unflattering manner. You describe individual patrons as mentally ill, mentally incompetent, unintelligent, and unattractive. You label several as ‘perverts.’ While you stop short of naming the individuals you targeted in your book, your detailed descriptions of their unique characteristics and mannerisms make them easily identifiable in our small community.”

The author response

The author has gone public, with such statements as,

The absolute irony is that the public library is a pillar of free speech and leads me to wonder why the administration is so upset.”

It should be noted that at the same time, this author is railing against

instances of known sex offenders using library computers to view pornography.

indicating that she perhaps disagrees with the notion that the library should be “a pillar of free speech” at all. Or maybe she thinks intellectual freedom can be a one-way street, push-only, and not inclusive of access to informationHold that thought.

The public response

Varies greatly.

Local newspaper comments calling the author a “loose cannon” and saying that the book’s characters are easily identifiable community members, are mixed in with someone who thinks there is a Muslim running for President of the US.

Conservative viewpoints are defending the author’s whistleblowing about libraries giving sex offenders access to the Internet, in the name of protecting our children.

The Annoyed Librarian theorized that the author was fired not for betraying patron privacy but for criticizing her superiors.

The issues

Leaving aside questions of literary merit, this situation highlights some oft-confused aspects of free expression and intellectual freedom: namely that free speech is but one element of intellectual freedom, and that library organizations – for instance the ALA – tend to try to strike a balance between privacy, access and free expression in order to promote the package we call Intellectual Freedom.

Patron privacy and confidentiality is an essential element of ensuring access to information. Privacy is as essential as anti-censorship in assuring intellectual freedom. (Hmm…why hasn’t a “Privacy Week” caught on the same way as “Banned Books Week” or “Freedom to Read Week”? I would say something about USA PATRIOT but this really goes back much farther than that…something for me to ponder)

If a library user fears ridicule, exposure or public humiliation due to his question, mannerisms, health history, or criminal record, that patron is not actually being provided with the access to information we hold. The beginning of that ALA Library Bill of Rights reads:

Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.

It later states that:

Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

clearly indicating that resistance of censorship, and promotion of free expression, are one facet of the great goal of providing access to information (and nirvana).

By threatening patron privacy – be it by complying with a warrentless library search,  or by writing a thinly veiled exposé of the “perverts” in your library, a library worker is eroding intellectual freedom, no matter how loudly she may insist that the privacy threat was made in the name of “free speech” (or national security, “for the children,” etc.).

The “Library Diaries” author has posted an online rant:

“Whats going on in this world? I have not been able to find one lawyer to make a First Amendment (Freedom of Speech, Press) case or even a whistleblower case.”

I suspect this is because the lawyers she has consulted have a stronger grasp on the concept of free speech than she does. In addition to free speech being one part of the intellectual freedom balancing act in the information world, there are legal limits on free speech as well. Defamation (for example libel, which may or may not have occurred in this book) is a legal restriction on freedom of speech in the US.

Many professional codes of ethics restrict professionals’ free speech, but this is not a constitutional violation because employment in that field is voluntary. Would a doctor being fired from a hospital after publishing thinly veiled accounts of her patients’ weird and embarrassing health issues cry “free speech”? I suppose she could try, but I doubt she would she get as much support as this library worker is getting.

Lori Basiewicz has written an interesting and useful USAmerican take on what free speech and censorship are and are not. Basiewicz blogs that while it is possible that the author may find a lawyer to take on a wrongful termination suit (depending on what the exact reasons for her termination were), the library has done nothing to prevent publication or dissemination of the book (which could be considered censorship, although probably would not technically infringe on the author’s First Amendment right to free speech), and her claims that the book is fiction make the whistleblower argument pretty weak. I tend to agree.

The Profession

Some of this muddle relates to our confusion as to the role of libraries. Are library workers trusted professionals or information waitresses? Is our job to check books in and out, or is it to build and protect free information infrastructure for the public? The profession cannot fully resolve these questions internally, so it should come as little surprise that the public doesn’t know how to regard us either.

You don’t have to be a MLIS-type librarian to run a library, and you don’t have to believe in the ALA Code of Ethics to be a librarian. Library assistants and other “para-professional” or non-MLIS library staff are integrated and accepted in a very spotty manner, into the ALA-type library world. These are core professional issue that we seem thus far to have been unable to resolve, despite being a fairly ancient profession.

That said, the ALA Code of Ethics is generally seen as setting best practices and standards for libraries in the US, and it seems pretty clearly violated by the book at the centre of this current storm. The first three items are clear enough:

· We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

· We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.

· We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.

that it seems almost unnecessary for me to also add in item #6:

· We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.


For me the question is one of our profession and coordinated messages. Maybe the author involved in this brouhaha knew she would likely get fired for the book, and didn’t care. Maybe she saw her mission to expose the “characters you never dreamt were housed at your public library” as important enough to risk the job. If so, that’s her choice to make (much as some might wish she would not make it), and all choices in life have consequences. However, if she is really as uninformed about free speech and the library’s role as she appears in the sound bytes, I have a concern about our profession.

After working in a library for 15 years one would expect a better grasp of the concept of intellectual freedom. Some might argue that she was “only” a library assistant, but that’s who most of the public has the most interaction with, in many libraries – it is essential that such library workers are educated in core professional ethics. We need to act on two things if we want to reduce such confusion:

  1. Hit more clearly on our core value messages; make sure all library workers understand and can teach the public what intellectual freedom is, and
  2. Better integrate non-MLIS library workers into our professional organizations

– Greyson


Filed under censorship, Intellectual freedom, LIS education, Other blogs, privacy, public libraries, The Profession

Warrentless library computer searches – what affects librarian response, and what can we learn from the news?

There have been a couple of high-profile cases this summer involving US law enforcement seeking library computers as evidence, and showing up without a warrant in hand:

  1. In Maryland, FBI agents took two computers from a Frederick County Library. The library director granted them permission, although they came without a warrant.
  2. In Vermont, state police detectives were told by a librarian that they had to go back and get a warrant before seizing Kimball Public Library’s public access computers to investigate a child’s disappearance.

I want to discuss these cases, because I’ve been mulling over the similarities and differences between them, and trying to figure out what we can learn from the two situations.

First of all, what are the differences between these two cases? I’m sure there are several, and here are some of the major ones I’ve identified thus far:

  • Vermont vs Maryland cultural variances – VT is known for liberalism, independence, cows, white people and lots of libraries.  The state also has a new law that went into effect a couple weeks after the Kimball incident, which requires libraries to demand court orders before turning over records to law enforcement. Frederick MD is very close to Washington DC, very military and politics influenced, and semi-Southern.  The biggest employer in the country, by a large margin, is US Army base Fort Detrick.
  • Type of law enforcement officers – A FBI request seems to me to be more intimidating, commanding, carry more weight than one from the state police.
  • Type of case – This could work both ways.  A federal case (MD) might be more compelling than a local case (VT), but on the other hand the VT case was about a missing 12-year old girl, which seems to be both very time sensitive and heartstring-tugging.  The case of the MD case has not officially been stated, but is generally assumed to have to do with the 2001 anthrax mailings in the US, the major suspect of which recently died of an apparent suicide, which seems less time sensitive or pressing, but does hark back to the post- 9/11 patriotism that may be a bigger cultural factor in Frederick MD than in some other regions.
  • Responding librarian – in VT it was a librarian doing storytime who responded to the police request.  In MD it was the library director, whom I assume was called by other staff to come out and deal with the FBI agents in the library.  Did the library director feel he had more discretion to make a judgment call in this type of matter, rather than blindly following policy?  Had he not developed a policy for his libraries?  I don’t know, but he is likely the person responsible for the “bottom line” in privacy policy, as opposed to a non-directorial librarian who may be more likely to feel bound to follow written policy.

Listing these out, and pondering their influence on the responding librarians’ decisions, I was reminded of when I used to work in domestic violence response services.  I know that if we had someone, particularly a child, go missing, and someone was withholding a computer that might contain evidence that might lead to locating that child I would have been livid. My mission in such a circumstance would be to do anything and everything possible to find that child and bring her home as safely as possible.

On the other hand, one of the things I learned from working in domestic violence and sexual assault agencies is the value of multiple advocates representing different interests. The shelters I staffed worked best for a family when mom had one advocate looking out for her interests and her child had a different advocate looking out for his best interests.  When advocates were free to fully focus on the needs of one facet of the family, their various perspectives could then be heard, weighed and combined for the best possible outcomes.

Similarly, I think it’s important for libraries to demand warrants from law enforcement, because it’s too easy for someone whose main focus is law enforcement to lose perspective on general civil rights outside of the current case.

So while (in the above hypothetical situation) I might have been livid at a librarian for withholding a computer for a couple of hours – hours in which a child might be being assaulted! – on balance I am glad the librarians would be there to demand the proper paw enforcement procedures be followed.  Because their holding that line would free me to fully advocate for the child’s welfare without worrying about stopping and trying to weigh the general public’s privacy rights against my current mission.

Let’s go back to the Kimball and Frederick library computer seizures now.  I think it’s clear that I favour the Kimball type response.  I don’t want librarians to be weighing the merits of privacy rights vs an individual legal investigation in the heat of the moment. I don’t want the culture of the local environment to sway decisions librarians are pressured into making on the spot, with cops staring them down. I see libraries as advocates for the privacy rights of the public, and I’m obviously not alone in this perspective. The ALA, among other library associations, has long been a staunch advocate of privacy rights, stating that:

Confidentiality of library records is a core value of librarianship

I want the well-pondered leadership of professional standards and guidelines to outweigh any sudden freaked-out librarian split-second judgment calls. I believe this frees law enforcement to do their job – trying to properly solve a crime – the best they can as well.

I do want to say that, while I don’t necessarily agree with both librarian responses above, I think it’s important to support both the librarians involved in these two cases as people who were doing their best on the job. Having the cops, let alone the feds, show up and demand something from you is pretty shocking, if not downright scary. It’s not a typical event in the day-to-day life of a public librarian. (My own experience in public libraries was far more focused on pointing people to those damned Rainbow Fairy books, the latest Maeve Binchy novel in large print, or the bathroom, than overtly defending citizens’ rights on a daily basis. On a really exciting day I’d have a high school student doing a report on astronomy, you know?)

If a librarian is really lucky, they had a class on intellectual freedom way back in library school.  More likely they had a discussion somewhere along the line, perhaps in a collection development course, about book challenges.  And very possibly they had no academic background on the topic at all – just whatever they had gleaned from on the job trainings or conference sessions.  I consider myself lucky to have had a full class on IF in my library school (it’s one of the reasons I selected that particular school, in fact), but thinking back to my job orientation at the public library I don’t think any protocol regarding police requests was included.

Had I been the only librarian holding down a branch when the cops walked in and demanded it, it’s entirely possible that I would have freaked out and had no idea what to do.  Of course this is Canada where the PATRIOT Act is more of an arm’s length threat, but I digress…My point is that we don’t know what type of background, training or support from their library administration these two librarians had, but that the variance in librarian response to similar seizure requests – despite clear guidelines from the ALA – indicates a need for more discussion of and training on privacy issues.

– Greyson

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Filed under Intellectual freedom, LIS education, privacy, public libraries, The Profession

Tomorrow’s History & the Role of Public Libraries

I’ve been thinking about digitization and history; specifically the trusim that history is written by the victors (aka the privileged), and what that means for our current era.

With literacy and war-conquests-slash-oppression on the part of literate groups, orality became devalued as “official” history in most of the mainstream, dominant, Western societies.  Non-literate or illiterate people and groups have largely either been written out or written *about* in what we now deem to be literature and history. (Please forgive my rushed-through and simplistic history of the conquests of literacy-based-culture here…this is just the context part of the post!) With mass printing, the privilege bar to produce, distribute and preserve was reinforced, perhaps nudged a bit, right?  Certainly by the 20th century just writing something down was rarely enough to incorporate it into official narratives of “history”; the writing had to be adjudicated and then reproduced by a professional publisher, preserved by an archivist, or otherwise selected by someone with societal power.

I went to undergrad in 1994.  It was a heady, exciting time, especially if you worked in a library, as I was fortunate enough to do.  The Internet had just gone public!  Netscape and Mozilla were battling it out!  Web 2.0 was already being foreshadowed by innovators like Crayon (remember CraYoN – Create your own newspaper?  Early mashup, back in ‘95!). All the street-level activists in my circles were xeroxing radical zines on their temp job office photocopiers, and the Internet was going to democratize the world! Anyone could publish their work and reach the whole world! Well, anyone in the portions of the world that had electricity at least.  Or at least the literate portions of the world that had electricity…

< – -time warp here- – >

Now, we have these amazing Open Access repositories forming, and we have increasing numbers of people creating and sharing content online. I’m particularly excited about and interested in the community-based archiving projects that are popping up. (**Note to self: write a post about some of these cool projects soon**)

BUT, I have a big concern. I think we’ve all outgrown the “the Internet is going to democratize the world!” phase by now (yes? no?), but I don’t think we’re paying adequate attention to the fact that this migration of “scholarship” and preservation – basically the bulk of what will be tomorrow’s “history”  – is reinforcing the exclusive nature of historical preservation.

We are beginning to see documentation of the same type of hierarchical dynamics in online content generation as we do in printed matter.  I’ve seen recent scholarship focused on the male-female gender gap both in scholarly self-archiving and in creative digital media sharing.

I know most of us aren’t purposefully torching the libraries of our enemies and competitors.  And I don’t want to question the very sensible move of scholarly communication into online, open access format.  But I would like to talk with more folk about how we can hark back to our idealistic 1994 mentality and regain those ideals, if not the naïveté, relating to the potential that digitization holds for the whole of society.

Academic libraries are working fast and furious toward digitally archiving their institutions’ scholarly output.  I think there’s a place for public libraries to serve an organizing function in the community in terms of creating public history. A public history project, perhaps.

Public History Project…I kind of like the sound of that.  Too bad the acronym’s already pretty much “taken.”  Maybe if we slap a “Canadian” on the front end or some such…

Of course, it’s easy to spout off about, and much harder to actually figure out the nuts & bolts: How to you ensure broad community representation?  What do you do with communities that don’t want to participate? How do you select what is of long-term value – or do you at all?  Is that up to the communities themselves, perhaps?  Do you allocate more space to groups under-represented in formal histories and scholarly communities?  Is there content that is unacceptable? What about illegal stuff?  Who’s responsible for the maintenance?  And where does all of this…stuff…reside, anyway?  What formats can reasonably be accepted and preserved? Should the government be involved in this?  What about private funding?  How do you keep things impartial?  Should you strive to keep things impartial?

Despite all of this chaos in my mind about the details, I do think that public libraries are uniquely suited to facilitate a public history project: something technically based on open source software, and developed in coalition with community groups.  And, frankly, perhaps in collaboration with academic libraries, who are doing TONS of work already getting Institutional Repositories up and running.

What are your thoughts?



Filed under academic libraries, archives, censorship, community development, digitization, gender, globalization, media democracy, OA, preservation, public libraries, publishing, racism, technology