It's not necessarily that there aren't terrorists hereabouts, or that they don't much read. But the Seattle Public Library isn't being overwhelmed with government demands for patrons' private book-checkout histories. "We have not received any requests under the Patriot Act," says library spokesperson Andra Addison. The surreptitious procedure was enabled by the 2001 law ostensibly to help weed out the terrorists among us, although critics call the library-card inquisition just plain government nosiness.
Library board president Linda Larson debates full disclosure.
In part because of the lack of U.S. inquiries, the Seattle Library has taken a laid-back approach toward alerting patrons of the records risk. A year and a half after President Bush signed the act into law and nearly two months after the Seattle City Council passed a resolution urging the library to post warning signs, the library has yet to tell its more than 350,000 cardholders that their reading habits can be inspected by federal authorities.
A general confidential policy alert about court-ordered searches can be found, with some effort, on the library's vast Web site. But there are no advisories along the lines suggested by the City Council. Following the lead of other U.S. cities, the council on Feb. 18 asked the library board to prominently post at its central library and 22 branches a copy of the Bill of Rights and this public warning:
"ATTENTION: Under Section 215 of the federal USA PATRIOT Act (Public Law 107-56), records of the books and other materials you borrow from this library may be obtained by federal agents. Federal law prohibits librarians from informing you if records about you have been obtained by federal agents. Questions about this policy should be directed to: United States Attorney General John Ashcroft, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. 20530."
The federal law empowers FBI agents to request warrants from a secret federal court for library or, for that matter, bookstore records. The target of the warrant needs only to be loosely linked by agents to an investigation of terrorism or espionage.
Linda Larson, president of the library board, says board members are still debating the pros and cons of posting signs. "My understanding is that the City Council resolution 'urges' the library to post the signs," says Larson, a Seattle attorney. "The issue is whether putting up a sign helps things or ends up making things worse by causing confusion or a chilling effect."
Jerry Welch, looking through a book on Iraq at the temporary Central Library on Pike Street last week, expressed just those sentiments. "They should have signs," he says, "although it might make me think twice about what book I check out. Is that good or bad?" Other libraries around the U.S. have posted signs mostly identical to the one proposed for Seattle, and the 64,000-member American Library Association calls the Patriot Act "a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users."
Larson says because the sign proposal regards "intellectual freedom," the board will hold a public hearing before deciding what to do. The subject has been discussed in committee, and she says, "We will bring it up again at our April board meeting." The meeting is set for 4:30 p.m. April 29 at the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library, Ninth Avenue and Lenora Street. For more information: 206-386-4103 or www.spl.org.