BY DAN ROBERTS
In the hours before US senators voted to take on the might of the National Security Agency this week, their inboxes were deluged with more than 2,200 supportive emails from a most unlikely group of revolutionaries: America’s librarians.
Their contribution to the passage of the USA Freedom Act may not have been as dramatic as the revelations of Edward Snowden, but this mild-mannered wing of the privacy lobby has been stridently campaigning against government surveillance since long before the NSA whistleblower shot to fame.
The first politician to discover the danger of underestimating what happens when you have thousands of librarians on your case was attorney general John Ashcroft who, in 2003, accused the American Library Association of “baseless hysteria” and ridiculed their protests against the Patriot Act.
US libraries were once protected from blanket requests for records of what their patrons were reading or viewing online, but the legislation rushed through after after 9/11 threatened to wreck this tradition of confidentiality in ways that presaged later discoveries of bulk telephone and internet record collection.
In 2005, four librarians from Connecticut also successfully fought a FBI request to use national security letters to seize reading records and hard-drives, forcing the government to drop the case and back off.
“When people were asked ‘who do you trust, some librarian, or the attorney general?’, they said ‘I trust my librarian’,” recalls Emily Sheketoff, head of the ALA’s Washington office.
“You can throw the attorney general up against us and we beat him because we are the ones spending every morning doing story time with your toddlers and we are the ones – when you have been given a devastating health report – who help you find information on what this means,” she adds. “There is this close, close relationship with people and their library.”
Such boosterism might be dismissed as civic nostalgia in the age of Google, but the evolution of libraries from print depositories to digital gateways has put the ALA in the rare position of being one of the few large lobby groups in Washington representing consumers of information rather than producers.
“Librarians were the original search engine,” claims ALA government relations head Adam Eisgrau.
“As advocates [for consumers in digital copyright disputes] we were not just on the barricades, we helped erect the barricades.”
There is no doubt that the risks to personal liberty from having one’s library card or community internet terminal confiscated are small scale compared with the collection of hundreds of millions of phone records or domestic internet surveillance exposed by Snowden.
Yet it is the library’s traditional, and dare one say humdrum, place in American life that perhaps gave the ALA such outsize lobbying clout when it came to making broader arguments about the importance of privacy.
“Because we have this history and it’s our core value, there was no question we were going to be at the forefront,” argues Sheketoff.
“We are able to have the influence we have not because we contribute one dime to anybody’s campaign but because we have the grassroots: we have librarians and library supporters in every congressional district who call and contact their member of Congress.”
And when librarians fought to protect, for example, the identity of a reader who had scrawled notes in the margin of a biography of Osama bin Laden they weren’t just making arguments about consumer confidentiality.
“The reason we feel this is so important is we feel there is a direct tie to democracy: unless people feel free to investigate and read, and now, look at websites, so they can see for themselves what is going on, they cannot truly be a good citizen and they cannot oversee the government,” adds Sheketoff.
Or as Eisgrau puts it: “Freedom of thought is an absolute prerequisite to the freedom of speech, and freedom of inquiry is an absolute prerequisite to freedom of thought.”
From other trade groups, such claims might sound pompous, but the thousands of ALA members who have lobbied Congress or picketed speeches by security hawks like Ashcroft are neither easily roused nor easily dismissed.
“I say this with the greatest affection about our grassroots, but they are a little unusual in that there are some organisations where people read an alert and lunge for their phones or their keyboards,” adds Eisgrau. “Librarians are not lungers. And this is a strength; they want to know what it is they are advocating about.”
It is, acknowledges the ALA, the paradox that explains this stereotypically meek profession’s surprisingly kick-ass reputation on civil liberties.
“We are fearsome defenders of our patrons,” says Sheketoff. “But we are fearful of government overstep.”