Patriotic Librarians

Interview with American Library Association DIrector Carol A. Brey-Casiano

In June, El Paso Public Library Director Carol A. Brey-Casiano became President of the American Library Association, the oldest and largest library association in the world, with 64,000 members. In the brave new world of John Ashcroft-style justice, the ALA has opposed efforts to track library patrons’ book check-out habits and other intrusions into readers’ privacy, contained mainly in section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The ALA is also responsible for organizing national Banned Books Week, which this year took place from September 25 to October 2. A native of Illinois, Brey-Casiano has worked in libraries since she was 16 years old. In addition to representing librarians nationwide, and managing a library system that serves 750,000 people from both sides of the Rio Grande, she also is president of a consulting firm that provides strategic planning and related services for libraries and nonprofit organizations.

In June, El Paso Public Library Director Carol A. Brey-Casiano became President of the American Library Association, the oldest and largest library association in the world, with 64,000 members. In the brave new world of John Ashcroft-style justice, the ALA has opposed efforts to track library patrons’ book check-out habits and other intrusions into readers’ privacy, contained mainly in section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The ALA is also responsible for organizing national Banned Books Week, which this year took place from September 25 to October 2. A native of Illinois, Brey-Casiano has worked in libraries since she was 16 years old. In addition to representing librarians nationwide, and managing a library system that serves 750,000 people from both sides of the Rio Grande, she also is president of a consulting firm that provides strategic planning and related services for libraries and nonprofit organizations.

The ALA is one of many groups that have publicly denounced the Patriot Act and its many intrusions into Americans’ privacy. Brey-Casiano’s very hometown is one of the more than 350 U.S. cities and counties to have passed resolutions opposing the Patriot Act. Recently the Observer spoke to Brey-Casiano about the ALA’s defense of Americans’ right to privacy and about the impact of recent legislation referred to as “Patriot II.†As this issue of the magazine was going to press, a federal judge in New York struck down a section of the Patriot Act involving “national security letters,†secret subpoenas of Internet data.

Texas Observer: Based on your research, how much will Patriot II impact public libraries?

Carol A. Brey-Casiano: Basically our initial ALA staff review has shown there is no real direct impact for libraries at this point, but there are some civil liberty and privacy issues that we will be monitoring. But not having studied it myself, I’m not sure what those are yet. Certainly we’re going to be very vigilant in terms of looking for any incursions into patron privacy, as well as further limits on our freedoms; we feel it is extremely important to protect the rights of readers in this country. We’ll be looking at those sections that have affected libraries in the past, particularly section 215.

TO: How have ALA members dealt with the Patriot Act? Are your members actively subverting it in any way?

CB-C: There’s a great deal of concern among our members. I was a member of the ALA Council when we passed a resolution calling for amendments to the Patriot Act that would remove provisions affecting libraries. We’ve been supportive of those members of Congress who would amend the Patriot Act, such as Bernie Sanders (Independent-VT) and his Freedom to Read Protection Act. The bill has more than 150 co-sponsors. [U.S. Congressman Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso] has spoken with us about libraries in El Paso and understands our concerns and I would say is supportive.

Also, we have had an ongoing reader privacy campaign, and on Wednesday will present thousands of signatures collected at libraries and public meetings. We’ve also partnered with other organizations, including the ACLU. And of course we’ve been partnering with booksellers, because those same provisions of the Patriot Act apply to booksellers.

While as librarians we will comply with the current Patriot Act as need be, and cooperate with law enforcement, at the same time we feel it’s definitely a core value for librarians to protect readers. In Texas, there is an act that protects patron confidentiality. Basically it states that—and I’m paraphrasing here—libraries should not maintain information about someone’s use of the library any longer than is necessary. So, for example, many of our library automated systems are set up so that when someone returns a book to us, once we check that book in, that record goes away, so there’s not a record of who had that book. And those kinds of things are very important to us as librarians, because we want to provide information to people, and the freedom to read. We don’t really want to know what people are reading. Our role is to help people find what they need. So beyond that, we don’t really get involved.

TO: Have you done any internal classification of books that patrons might check-out with caution—for example, The Anarchist’s Cookbook?

CB-C: Well, you know it’s interesting because we haven’t really had any communication from the FBI about any specific titles.

They have actually told us that they have not invoked the Patriot Act in libraries, although we know they have been in libraries seeking information because we have evidence that they’ve used national security letters to gain information—which do not require the same amount of documentation as, say, a court order might. And just last year, a Department of Justice spokesman called libraries a logical target of surveillance. So that’s important to keep in mind.

I get asked a lot whether readers should feel safe in libraries. And I would say absolutely, they should feel safe. We do our very best to protect their privacy, but they should still be concerned about the current Patriot Act and any efforts to strengthen the Act that would take away additional freedoms—whether it’s the freedom to read, to speak, or to express yourself.

TO: How would you say the political situation of libraries has changed since you first became a librarian?

CB-C: It’s a little bit difficult to quantify, but I would say that one of the things that we’ve always adhered to as librarians is this need to be vigilant about protecting our freedoms. There are members of our profession who remember McCarthyism of the 1950s and challenges to our freedoms at that time. And then, many librarians and users probably recall the FBI’s library awareness program of the 1970s and 1980s. I had just become a librarian in 1980, so I remember a little about that. The FBI at that time inappropriately attempted to monitor readers’ library habits and obtain personal information about library users. And of course we are not anxious for this to be repeated.

TO: Have you ever had a personal encounter with the feds?

CB-C: The FBI has been to the El Paso Public Library on a couple of occasions. In the most recent visit, they did not invoke the Patriot Act. They were looking for a computer log sign-in sheet indicating when someone might have been using a computer. They were investigating a threatening email to a high-ranking official sent from one of our libraries. And we didn’t actually have the computer log sheet. We shred those on a regular basis because in accordance with the Texas confidentiality laws, we don’t have any reason to keep that information. I understand [the agents] were not happy about it. I believe they might have had a conversation with other of our city officials about it, but they did not come back to me. Certainly we are not trying to thwart the work of law enforcement, but we have laws we have to abide by as well that relate to user confidentiality and privacy.

TO: Does El Paso hang posters in its libraries reminding patrons that Big Brother might be watching?

CB-C: No, we don’t. I know some libraries across the country do that. I personally think it’s important for people to be aware of the Patriot Act but not through posted signs that will make them feel less safe. We want them to be comfortable.

TO: Does it strike you as odd that the feds have a problem with books that have already been deemed suitable enough by communities to appear in their public libraries?

CB-C: Sure. We as librarians select books and other resources for our collections in an attempt to achieve very balanced collections; we try to provide all points of view as much as we can. Many libraries, especially larger, urban libraries, will have subject selectors who are experts on certain topics. From that perspective, I think library users can feel very comfortable with the fact that we are trying to provide something for everyone, and we want to protect that for our community.

If we talk historically about what’s been happening, about every 20 years we go through this cycle where we see an increase in interest in what people are reading: The fifties, the seventies, and now in 2004… But each one of us has the responsibility to preserve our democracy.

TO: As ALA president, what’s your primary objective that isn’t strictly Patriot Act related?

CB-C: This year we have several different activities planned, including three advocacy institutes that will be day-long workshops for anyone who’s interested in making libraries strong. I think of it as advocacy boot camp, where we give people a lot of tools so they can be effective library advocates. The first will be in Boston in January, at our mid-winter meeting. One is planned as a teleconference that anyone can participate in. We’re hoping that will take place some time in March. The third will take place in Chicago during our annual conference in June of 2005.

TO: What does the future of Texas libraries look like, and how does your role as ALA leader affect that?

CB-C: I’ve seen a push for construction in Texas. In 2000, El Paso passed a bond issue allowing $26 million for construction of three new branches and expansion of our main library. I know that Dallas is renovating their main library; I’ve heard Houston is building a new branch. I would say nationwide there is definitely a push to build more libraries; we’re seeing a return to the idea of a big central library that serves as a flagship library. Many, many major cities have expanded their libraries in the past 15 years. There are new central libraries in Phoenix, Seattle, and Denver—that’s sort of a nationwide trend. I think we’re seeing more attention paid to library spaces. I would say that’s true in Texas as well. I think Texas librarians are pleased and proud that a Texan has become a president of the ALA. There are several Texans on my presidential advisory committee, and we are working on several initiatives, the most important of which is creation of a grassroots advocacy network. That’s my initiative for my presidential year, and that includes a nationwide literacy effort as well as issues related to intellectual freedom, such as the Patriot Act.

I think there is enormous support for libraries out there. The economy has been so bad, libraries have had a difficult time across the nation. I heard there were some branches being closed or hours being reduced. In El Paso we have reduced our hours somewhat this year, because our city was facing some serious budget issues. But we don’t expect that to be something that will last forever. I think that as a nation, as we have become more technology-oriented, we’re searching for places to go where we can connect with other people, physically see people and talk to people—not just by computer. We’re seeing college school libraries, for example, becoming more like community centers and cultural centers.

I think in some ways libraries may be one of the best-kept secrets in the country. Then again, we’re up to 1.2 billion visits per year—double what it was 10 years ago.

Lauri Apple is the director of the Banned Book Project of the ACLU of Texas.

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