It isn’t often that libraries, those citadels of quiet refinement, play a role in capturing a serial killer. Yet that is what happens in the movie Se7en. William Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman, is a veteran detective charged with training a newcomer, David Mills, played by Brad Pitt. Their first case: a pair of murders inspired by two of the Seven Deadly Sins, gluttony and greed. After the third killing (sloth), the duo is nowhere close to solving the case. They don’t even have a suspect.
Then Somerset gets an idea. “What would [the killer] study,” he muses, “to do the things he’s done?” For an answer, he turns to a FBI friend, who uses an unnamed database to run a report of public library users who have borrowed books like Paradise Lost, The Inferno, Helter Skelter, Murderers and Madmen, Dictionary of Catholicism—anything that could account for their killer’s skill set. “How is this legal?” asks Mills, to which Somerset replies dismissively, “Legal, illegal….These terms don’t apply.”
Several hours later, report in hand, Mills and Somerset end up at the apartment of John Doe (Kevin Spacey), who fires a gun at them and flees. Later, covered in blood, he turns himself in. Somerset’s trick worked! (Small comfort, as—spoiler alert—the blood on his clothes had belonged to Mills’s wife.)
For years, I thought this sequence was fantasy. I was certain the FBI didn’t have some mysterious database of all U.S. libraries that could spit out the borrower record of any one user. Besides, why would the government care what people read?
My skepticism, it turns out, was unfounded.
Privacy has been a part of ALA’s Library Bill of Rights since that document’s original adoption in 1939. All fifty states have either laws or attorney general opinions protecting the confidentiality of library records. Courts have repeatedly upheld the rights of citizens not to have their personal records searched, ruling as the Supreme Court did in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995): “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation–and their ideas from suppression–at the hand of an intolerant society.”
The tussle has existed as long as libraries and governments have shared breathable air, but it kicked into high gear on June 14, 1953, when President Eisenhower had this advice for a group of Dartmouth College graduates: “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t be afraid to go to your library and read every book as long as any document does not offend your own ideas of decency.”
The American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Statement… exhorts libraries to circulate “the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.”
It was one of the first challenges to McCarthyism, the communist-obsessed fever dream of Senator Joseph McCarthy that serves as a stain on the otherwise idyllic 1950s. Inspired by these words, the American Library Association created one of its seminal documents, the Freedom to Read Statement, which exhorts libraries to circulate “the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.”
In the 1960s came the Vietnam War, which many librarians opposed. (One letter published in Library Journal urged staff members to “protest, if they must, as private citizens exercising citizens’ rights, but not as librarians.”) In 1971, the so-called Media Papers–leaked FBI documents–described the Bureau’s ubiquity on college campuses and its cultivation of “educators and administrators who are established sources.”
A year earlier, U.S. Treasury Secretary David Kennedy responded to a congressional inquiry about Treasury officials “engaged in systematic checking of library lending lists to learn what books are being read by American citizens.” Kennedy responded that it was not “systematic” but three or four isolated investigations regarding individuals who may have borrowed books on bomb-making. (In 1970, the Treasury and not the Department of Justice housed the Division of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.)
At the apex of these investigations sat the Library Awareness Program. No one knows when it officially began, or how far the program reached; it involved FBI agents approaching employees in public or academic libraries and asking for names and other details of people who had used the library to locate, say, engineering journals, scientific texts, government publications—anything that might be considered the slightest bit sensitive. Most were university libraries, though public libraries in New York and Broward County, Fla., were also targets.
The FBI was especially interested in users with “foreign-sounding names” or who came from countries “hostile to the United States.” At the University of Wisconsin, for instance, agents watched a Soviet national reading the Russian newspaper Pravda and asked a librarian if that copy “had been marked up.”
The public was largely ignorant of these encounters until the case of Gennady Zakharov, a Russian-born United Nations aide who was indicted in 1986 for trying to transmit “unclassified information about [American] robotics and computer technology” to the Soviets. His source turned out to be a Guyanese college student who stole publicly available microfiche from several New York-area libraries and sold it to Zakharov.
The next year, the New York Times reported for the first time on the existence of the Library Awareness Program, calling it part of a national counterintelligence effort. Unlike the efforts of the 60s and 70s, however, this one targeted librarians, trying to turn them into “government informers.” The American Library Association spoke out, as did journalists and civil rights organizations.
Finally, Congress took note. In June and July of 1988, a House subcommittee on civil rights held a pair of hearings to suss out what the FBI was doing. Subcommittee chairman Don Edwards (D-Calif.) opened the first hearing by observing that libraries “are intended to be havens for scholarly work and quiet relaxation” and that their records “should not be available to intelligence agencies just for the asking.” Not long after that, they weren’t. The program ended not with a bang or a whimper, but with the stroke of a pen.
Almost as if it had never existed.
The Library Awareness Program exposed a vulnerability that librarians have safeguarded for decades: patron privacy. Privacy is considered a constitutional issue, yet unlike, say, freedom of speech or a fair trial, the word itself doesn’t appear in the U.S. Constitution. Rather, it is an unenumerated right. Such rights, like the right to travel, the right to vote, the right to marry, and, until 2022’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision, the right to an abortion, have been inferred (some would say “made up”) by the courts, whose authority for doing so is the little-cited Ninth Amendment, which states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The right to privacy, or “to be let alone,” was first articulated in the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut, and it’s been a Supreme Court mainstay ever since.
No one knows when it officially began, or how far the program reached; it involved FBI agents approaching employees in public or academic libraries and asking for names and other details of people who had used the library… .
Library privacy hit the news again on October 26, 2001, forty-five days after the 9/11 attacks, when Congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act, which gave the FBI unprecedented powers to gather intelligence on American citizens. One of those powers came from Section 215 of the Act, and it allowed the FBI to “make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” In other words, the Bureau could force bookstores and libraries to turn over patron records, which, under most state laws, had always been confidential.
This went on sub rosa until 2005, when a pair of FBI agents showed up at the Windsor, Connecticut office of Library Connection, a twenty-seven-member library cooperative, to serve the nonprofit with an NSL, or National Security Letter. The letter requested “any and all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person or entity related to” a certain computer IP address. In other words, the FBI wanted to know who had been using the Library Connection network.
The NSL, like others issued during this era, contained a gag order, meaning nobody at Library Connection was supposed to talk about it. Despite this, George Christian, the director, called the other three members of the executive committee: Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, and Janet Nocek. The four met the next day to decide how to respond. The easiest thing would have been to let the FBI have the damn logs. The patrons would never know, and besides, the request was for Internet searches, not circulation records. What did it matter if the government saw how many people had been on Craigslist?
Complying, however, meant condoning the practice of FBI snooping. Chase, who was chairman of the Connecticut Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, couldn’t do that. “I work the reference desk all the time,” he later said. “I have the trust of my patrons.” This request felt like a breach of that trust. So he and his colleagues fought the NSL. A year of litigation ensued, culminating in the March 9, 2006 reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act, which made a significant change: it exempted most libraries from NSLs. Three months later, the government dropped the case altogether.
L’affaire FBI made George Christian and his colleagues famous. Nicknamed the “Connecticut Four,” they were honored by the American Library Association with the Paul Howard Award for Courage. They also received the Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty from the ACLU.
There was regular demand for them as speakers, especially at librarian gatherings, and many articles and essays detailed their story. For defying the FBI, for standing up to The Man, for throwing off their spectacles and sensible shoes and becoming freedom fighters, they were, as Marilyn Johnson wrote in This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, “the most celebrated incognito heroes since Deep Throat.”
In spite of this seemingly settled area of law, threats to privacy are on the rise in 2023. Like the Library Awareness Program and the Connecticut Four case, these battles involve criminal liability, though they are being initiated not by law enforcement but state legislatures as part of the new fetishization of helicopter parenting.
For example, a new law in North Carolina called the Parents’ Bill of Rights permits parents to “review all available records of materials their child has borrowed from a school library.” Other states have passed similar legislation, including Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. The Texas State Board of Education rejected the ALA’s stance toward privacy and ethics in rewriting its school librarian guidelines because that association “has a long history of circumventing parental rights to fill local and school library shelves with pornographic, racist, and leftist propaganda” and also “prides itself on bypassing state laws that protect students from indoctrination and grooming.”
Censorship and privacy are not opposites; they are fruits of the same knotty vine.
If censorship is a library Deadly Sin, then privacy violations may seem more like a peccadillo. Who would vote to divert funds from the former to fight the latter? Yet this tiered approach only works when certain types of books aren’t being outlawed, and as everyone who has followed the news at all the past few years knows, that is no longer the case.
In 2021, ALA tracked more than 700 book challenges, the most in 2 decades. In 2022, that number nearly doubled. Each day, it seems, brings news of another school or library facing a book ban. Inexplicably, the notion of book burning still comes up on occasion.
Censorship and privacy are not opposites; they are fruits of the same knotty vine. Both represent government intrusion. Government overreach. Government infantilization. Conservatives claim to dislike too much government, insisting that, for example, citizens can be trusted to handle guns responsibly, or to avoid transmitting COVID-19 while not wearing a mask.
Books, I guess, are too high a hurdle for personal accountability. Bottom line: for over half a century, the right to privacy has been eroded. Today, it’s being done “for the children.” Tomorrow? You might pull books off a shelf and see a high speed lens staring back at you.