Alternative Press Needs Librarians' Stories of Government Seeking Information on Library Users

February 10, 2004

Dear Colleague:

Concerns regarding the USA Patriot Act are growing, as are efforts to combat various provisions. The latest initiative to come to our attention is spearheaded by a group of alternative papers. They are planning a report this spring that may appear in as many as 150 papers nationwide.

This report will examine the controversy surrounding government attempts to spy on citizens in libraries using provisions of the PATRIOT Act and through other means.

As you are aware, Attorney General John Ashcroft has responded to librarians concerns about protecting the privacy rights of library users by calling us "hysterics" and "dupes of the ACLU." He also said the FBI has never used the USA Patriot Act to acquire information about library users.

Nevertheless, a study by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinoisfound that 6 percent of public and 5 percent of academic libraries have been contacted by government authorities since Sept. 11, 2001, with requests for user information.

The story the alternative newspapers are working on seeks to determine to what extent the government is using library, bookseller, ISP, medical, banking and other records to spy on its own citizens since September 11th. Additionally, this investigation will look at the extent to which the government has done so in the past, pre-9/11.

To base the story on factual information, the alternative press is looking for librarians who have had experience in the recent or distant past in which they have been contacted by government entities, formally or otherwise, for the purpose of attaining information on library users. These could be contacts from the police, FBI, INS, the Justice Department, or other government representatives. They could be informal requests to report suspicious people, provide patron records, provide records of people checking out certain books or report patrons showing interest in certain subjects. They could be court-ordered requests or just pressure or intimidation by government representatives.

The basic idea is that the story will be big-picture and nationwide, and will run side by side with local stories in each media market. All the stories will be posted on Alternet's Web site, which receives 1.5 million unique visitors each month. This project is similar in organization to another successful nationwide story that ran in the alternative newspapers regarding married priests.

We do not anticipate that the "gag order" imposed by Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act will impact this project. The gag order only applies to librarians who have actually been served with a court order issued under Section 215 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; the Department of Justice insists that no librarian or library has been served with a Section 215 order. Librarians who are or have been contacted by law enforcement and other government entities in other circumstances are free to speak about those experiences.

This project is very important to ALA. The story addresses a subject close to librarians' hearts—the privacy rights of our patrons.

Please send your name and a brief description of your experience in the recent or distant past in which you have been contacted by government entities, formally or otherwise, for the purpose of attaining information on library users to Don Wood at or Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association, 50 East Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60611. Again, your experiences could involve one or more of the following:

We will then forward that information to the reporters working on the story.

Thank you so much for your assistance.


Judith F. Krug
Office for Intellectual Freedom

See also

USA Patriot Act

USA Patriot Act in the Library

Confidentiality and Coping with Law Enforcement Inquiries: Guidelines for the Library and its Staff

What To Do If Served with a Search Warrant under USA Patriot Act

USA Patriot Act Analyses