US library leader questions Patriot Act, from Reuters
Gorman said he would be reluctant to go to jail to defend the implicit trusted relationship between librarians and readers.
“To be perfectly honest, I’m a 64-year-old academic librarian,” he said. “I’m not going to go to prison over that kind of stuff.”
Now, I certainly don’t want to suggest that I think Gorman should go to jail, or even that he should be willing to go to jail over this. But I can’t help but think… reporters are willing to go to jail to defend implicit trust relationships; it’s sad that librarians aren’t.
Of course, confidentiality serves a different function in librarianship than it does in journalism. Though I can’t decide just how different. In journalism, a source might not talk except under the condition of anonymity, and so the world loses a source of information. In librarianship, a reader might not check a book out except under the condition of anonymity, and so the reader loses a source of information. I think of anonymity in librarianship as more analogous to lawyer-client privilege, or doctor-patient privilege: protecting one individual’s privacy because it shouldn’t be anyone else’s damn business what an individual confides to his lawyer, or doctor, or librarian, and certainly no decisions should be made about that individual on the basis of what was divulged in that confidence. Journalists protect individuals’ privacy as well, but for different reasons: it is everyone else’s business what a source confides to a journalist, which is why the source is confiding it and the journalist is seeking it, and decisions should be made on the basis of what the source divulges (though not necessarily about the source himself). It’s a difference in degree, but I can’t decide if it’s a difference in kind.
To be fair, Gorman himself points out that there’s been no test case of the PATRIOT Act in libraries, so maybe some librarian somewhere would be willing to go to jail over this. Just as there must certainly be journalists who aren’t willing to go to jail to protect a source. It seems reasonable to me for a principled journalist to be willing to go to jail to protect a source, since not protecting sources is a slippery slope: it’s not terribly far from that to reporting on propaganda as news. On the other hand, I can’t decide if I believe it’s reasonable for a principled librarian to be willing to go to jail to protect a library user: not doing so is a slippery slope as well, & what’s at the bottom is a loss of personal privacy. So ok, I do believe that’s worth going to jail over. Both are matters of precedent.
Anyway, my only, not very exciting conclusion here is that we need a test case of the PATRIOT Act in libraries.
My personal opinion is that it would be nice to have a leader in this profession who would say something like, “This is a really big battle but it is worth the fight,” rather than “I’m getting too old for this.”