Libraries exist to serve public, not terrorism

Presumably, the Kitsap Regional Library’s board of trustees intended to come off sounding principled and strong last week when it drafted a resolution critical of the U.S. Patriot Act.

Instead, the group more closely resembled a petulant child who resorts to whining and getting in the last word after having the law laid down by a parent.

The library board was responding to provisions in the Patriot Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which could require a library to divulge the names and borrowing history of its patrons to law enforcement officials.

From the standpoint of public safety, it seems perfectly reasonable to most observers that when building a case against a suspected terrorist investigators might want to know whether he’s been doing extensive research on the subject of, for example, bomb building.

And, as patriotic Americans, one might also suppose library personnel would be more than willing to cooperate with such investigations in the hopes of preventing further death and destruction.

The library board, however, apparently see its responsibilities a bit differently.

“Freedom of access to information, confidentiality of library records, and patron privacy rights are cornerstones of library practice in the United States of America,” the KRLB’s manifesto stated. “ This resolution supports continuation of these practices and opposes their erosion.”

In other words, we’re expected to consider the relationship between librarian and book borrower as equivalent to that of doctor and patient, lawyer and client, or priest and confessor in the eyes of the law. Also, as far as the library board is concerned, it’s more important to protect a customer’s presumptive “right” to learn everything he can about constructing a nuclear device than to potentially save the lives of his thousands of victims.

It’s worth noting that, for all its bluster, the library board does intend to comply with the federal mandate. But just to make sure unsuspecting terrorists don’t blunder into the wily investigators’ trap, signs will be posted in all Kitsap County public libraries stating, “WARNING: Although the Kitsap Regional Library makes every effort to protect your privacy, under the federal USA Patriot Act (Public Law 107-56), records of books and other materials you borrow from this library may be obtained by federal agents. Further, federal law prohibits library personnel from informing you if federal agents have obtained records about you.”

Let’s get realistic here for a moment. The right to privacy, if it exists Constitutionally at all, refers to what individuals do on their own time, in their own homes using their own resources. Public libraries are none of the above.

The books, magazines, reference materials, Internet access and other resources available at a library are paid for, at least in part, by taxpayer dollars. As such, it’s beyond absurd to suggest that a public accomodation should be exempt from considerations of public safety.

Think of a library card as you would a driver’s license. No one has a Constitutional right to a driver’s license; it’s a privilege extended by the state in which you live in exchange for your acceptance of certain conditions. One of which, of course, is that investigators will probe your driving records if you use a vehicle in the commission of a crime.

Why should library usage be any different? If law enforcement officials suspect you’ve used public library resources to help you plan or commit a crime, how can anyone possibly object if those records are accessed during the investigation?

The Kitsap Regional Library Board members have a funny idea of what constitutes public service. Fortunately, as it turns out, they don’t get to make their own rules.

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