Dear John

An open letter to US Attorney General Ashcroft

My Dearest A.G.:

Of all the loathsome provisions in the USA Patriot Act—which you rammed through Congress in those scary days immediately after September 11, 2001—easily the most loathsome and chilling was the part that made it ridiculously easy for the already all-powerful feds to go snooping around public libraries to check up on our reading.

Yeah, yeah, I know how a couple of the September 11 hijackers visited libraries and looked up stuff on the internet and checked out some books. But do whatever scraps of intelligence gleaned from such surveillance justify scaring the hell out of the millions of people who enjoy libraries as public sanctuaries?

The collected works of Ann Coulter? No problem. . . . Likes to readPopular Mechanics? Put him on the list. . . . Kurt Vonnegut and Graham Greene?! Lock her up!

The American Civil Liberties Union says your goons have hit up libraries 50 times since the Patriot Act went into effect. But here in Orange County, your boys will have a tougher time. That's because, according to county librarians, patron checkout records don't exist.

"We keep a link [in the computer] of what you've got only as long as you have it out," said John Adams, who, as Orange County Public Librarian, is responsible for 32 library branches throughout the county. "That way we can come burn your house down if you don't bring it back. But the links disappear once you bring back the book."

According to Adams, the only information federal agents will get about OC library patrons are names, addresses, e-mail addresses and a list of whatever books are currently checked out. Adams insisted that past records are not recoverable.

City librarians for Anaheim, Buena Park, Huntington Beach and Santa Ana all agreed. The policy, mandated by state law, predates the Patriot Act by many years.

"It's safer than when we used the old book cards," said Anaheim City Librarian Carol Stone, referring to the long-obsolete practice of keeping small cards on the inside front cover of all library books, each listing the names and due dates of all previous checkouts.

According to the librarians, a patron's name normally stays in the computer for two weeks, the average checkout time for books. The name will remain longer only if the book is overdue.

Now, I'm not saying that your federal agents will fruitlessly plow through our libraries in an attempt to root out dangerous spies and terrorists. You might consider heading over to the Santa Ana city library. They've got a program for shut-ins—you know, older, often disabled folks—that delivers carefully selected volumes straight to their homes.

To do that, the library maintains a list of previously read titles, to make sure duplicates aren't sent out. According to library assistant director Maggie Owens, Santa Ana has 54 such shut-ins on the program. That's 54 potential—albeit hobbled—subversives you can spy on.

Of course, Owens said they currently have 122,000 active library cards on file, so 54 isn't exactly a representative sample. But invasion of privacy and peeing on the very freedoms that make this country great have got to start somewhere!

All the best,
Anthony Pignataro
(With research assistance by Sarah Callender)
 
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