April 7, 2003
Librarians Use Shredder to Show Opposition to New F.B.I. Powers
ANTA CRUZ, Calif., April 4 — The humming noise from a back room of the central library here today was the sound of Barbara Gail Snider, a librarian, at work. Her hands stuffed with wads of paper, Ms. Snider was feeding a small shredding machine mounted on a plastic wastebasket.
First to be sliced by the electronic teeth were several pink sheets with handwritten requests to the reference desk. One asked for the origin of the expression "to cost an arm and a leg." Another sought the address of a collection agency.
Next to go were the logs of people who had signed up to use the library's Internet computer stations. Bill L., Mike B., Rolando, Steve and Patrick were all shredded into white paper spaghetti.
"It used to be a librarian would be pictured with a book," said Ms. Snider, the branch manager, slightly exasperated as she hunched over the wastebasket. "Now it is a librarian with a shredder."
Actually, the shredder here is not new, but the rush to use it is. In the old days, staff members in the nine-branch Santa Cruz Public Library System would destroy discarded paperwork as time allowed, typically once a week.
But at a meeting of library officials last week, it was decided the materials should be shredded daily.
"The basic strategy now is to keep as little historical information as possible," said Anne M. Turner, director of the library system.
The move was part of a campaign by the Santa Cruz libraries to demonstrate their opposition to the Patriot Act, the law passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks that broadened the federal authorities' powers in fighting terrorism.
Among provisions that have angered librarians nationwide is one that allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation to review certain business records of people under suspicion, which has been interpreted to include the borrowing or purchase of books and the use of the Internet at libraries, bookstores and cafes.
In a survey sent to 1,500 libraries last fall by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois, the staffs at 219 libraries said they had cooperated with law enforcement requests for information about patrons; staffs at 225 libraries said they had not.
Ms. Turner said the authorities had made no inquiries about patrons in Santa Cruz. But the librarians here and the library board, which sets policies for the 10 branches, felt strongly about the matter nonetheless. Last month, Santa Cruz became one of the first library systems in the country to post warning signs about the Patriot Act at all of its checkout counters.
Today, the libraries went further and began distributing a handout to visitors that outlines objections to the enhanced F.B.I. powers and explains that the libraries were reviewing all records "to make sure that we really need every piece of data" about borrowers and Internet users.
Maurice J. Freedman, president of the American Library Association and director of the library system in Westchester, N.Y., said only a handful of libraries had posted signs or handed out literature about the Patriot Act. Warning signs are posted in the computer room at a library in Killington, Vt., and the library board in Skokie, Ill., recently voted to post signs, Mr. Freedman said.
Many other libraries, he said, including those in Westchester, decided that warnings might unnecessarily alarm patrons.
"There are people, especially older people who lived through the McCarthy era, who might be intimidated by this," he said. "As of right now, the odds are very great that there will be no search made of a person's records at public libraries, so I don't want to scare people away."
At the same time, though, thousands of libraries have joined the rush to destroy records.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said libraries were not breaking the law by destroying records, even at a faster pace. The spokesman, Mark Corallo, said it would be illegal only if a library destroyed records that had been subpoenaed by the F.B.I.
Ms. Turner, the library director here, said librarians did not want to help terrorists, but she said other values were at stake as well.
"I am more terrified of having my First Amendment rights to information and free speech infringed than I am by the kind of terrorist acts that have come down so far," Ms. Turner said.
Library officials here said the response to the warning signs had been overwhelmingly positive, and visitors interviewed today had nothing but praise. Several of them noted, however, that Santa Cruz was not necessarily a microcosm of America.
Santa Cruz is a community well known for its leftward leanings and progressive politics. Last fall, city officials allowed marijuana for medicinal purposes to be distributed from the steps of City Hall. The City Council also passed a resolution condemning the Patriot Act.
"That is the nice thing about living in this town," said Elizabeth Smith, a waitress, who dropped by the central library today to use the Internet. "They call something like this to our attention that is being ignored in so many other parts of the country."