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Yes, I Have a Tinfoil Chapeau

Over at It’s All Good, Alane asks something I’ve heard from time to time: why are we so knee-jerk about patron confidentiality? When it comes to encouraging technologies that trade a little patron privacy for convenience, we can be party-poopers.

The answer is yes, sometimes we go farther than we need to on behalf of this concept, such as librarians that hesitate to let patrons pick up their own reserves. But sometimes we need to go that far, and the reasons behind our caution can’t be captured in a check-off sentence on a library card form someone is rushing to fill out so they can go home with a pile of bestsellers.

Take the Patriot Act. It’s not an illusion or a concept; it’s a fact. Section 215 is a fact. You couldn’t make this stuff up; sneak and peek and roving wiretaps are concepts worthy of Tricky Dick himself. Yet the problems with the Patriot Act can’t be easily captured in sound bites (though kudos to the ACLU for its efforts to do so).

Not only that, the Patriot Act doesn’t come with a warning label listing our government’s many earlier attempts to turn the Bill of Rights into ancient history. At any given time, other laws are attempting to work their way through the system, struggling to worm their way through the Constitution, weakening our liberties, making it easier to spy on innocent citizens.

Sometimes in our cautions we librarians look mulish and foolish. I’m sure that’s how Zoia Horn seemed to some back in the early 1970s when she went to jail rather than turn over the records of her patrons (who happened to be the Chicago Seven). To many people since then, Zoia has been a living symbol of everything we believe in and cherish as librarians. Zoia had the long view, and time has proved her right.

Andrew Abbott, in The System of Professions, talks about every profession having a unique “heartland of work.” In our profession, our hammers keep changing, and so do our nails, almost faster than we can imagine. Yet we continue to be librarians. That’s because we have values and beliefs that are far more resilient than anything as prosaic as a book or catalog card (or website). One of our finest qualities is our willingness, even passion, to advocate on behalf of the people we serve, on behalf of principles we know are valid. Sometimes we seem mulish and foolish when we do so, but that doesn’t make us wrong.

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