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The San Diego Union-Tribune

April 13, 2003

Some libraries shredding documents to prevent FBI access


Edition: BULLDOG
Section: NEWS
Page: A-13
Dateline: SANTA CRUZ

Estimated printed pages: 3

Article Text:

The humming from a back room of the central library here on a recent day was the sound of Barbara Gail Snider, a librarian, at work. Her hands stuffed with wads of paper, Snider was feeding a shredding machine mounted on a plastic wastebasket.

First to be sliced by the electronic teeth were several pink sheets with handwritten requests to the reference desk. One asked for the origin of the expression "to cost an arm and a leg." Another sought the address of a collection agency.

Next to go were the logs of people who had signed up to use the library's Internet computer stations. Bill L., Mike B., Rolando, Steve and Patrick were all shredded into white paper spaghetti.

"It used to be a librarian would be pictured with a book," said Snider, the branch manager, slightly exasperated as she hunched over the wastebasket. "Now it is a librarian with a shredder."

Actually, the shredder here is not new, but the rush to use it is. In the old days, staff in the nine-branch Santa Cruz Public Library System would destroy discarded paperwork as time allowed, typically once a week.

But at a recent meeting of library officials, it was decided that the materials should be shredded daily.

"The basic strategy now is to keep as little historical information as possible," said Anne M. Turner, director of the library system.

The move was part of a campaign by the Santa Cruz libraries to demonstrate their opposition to the Patriot Act, the law passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that broadened the federal authorities' powers in fighting terrorism.

Among provisions that have riled librarians nationwide is one that allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation to review certain business records of people under suspicion, which has been interpreted to include the borrowing or purchase of books and the use of the Internet at libraries, bookstores and cafes.

In a survey sent to 1,500 libraries last fall by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois, the staff at 219 libraries said they had cooperated with law enforcement requests for information about patrons; 225 libraries said they had not.

Turner said the authorities had made no inquiries about patrons in Santa Cruz. But the librarians here and the library board, which sets policies for the 10 branches, felt strongly about the matter. Last month, Santa Cruz became the first library system in the United States to post warning signs about the Patriot Act at all of its checkout counters.

On April 4, the libraries began distributing a handout to visitors that outlined objections to the enhanced powers and explained the libraries were conducting a review of all records "to make sure that we really need every piece of data" about borrowers and Internet users.

"The U.S.A. Patriot Act makes it illegal for libraries to tell you if our computers are monitored," the handout begins. "Be aware!"

Maurice J. Freedman, president of the American Library Association and director of the library system in Westchester County, N.Y., said only a handful of libraries had posted signs or handed out literature about the Patriot Act. There are warning signs in the computer room at a library in Killington, Vt., and the library board in Skokie, Ill., recently voted to post signs, Freedman said.

Many other libraries, he said, decided that warnings might unnecessarily alarm patrons.

"There are people, especially older people who lived through the McCarthy era, who might be intimidated by this," he said.

But thousands of libraries have joined the rush to destroy records.

Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said libraries were not breaking the law by destroying records. Corallo said it would be illegal only if a library destroyed records subpoenaed by the FBI.

But Corallo said the libraries were engaged in "an unfortunate waste of time" because authorities had no interest in most materials. He said libraries were not a main focus of the act.

"The only reason we even include libraries is because the terrorists used library computers to plot and plan the mass murder of 3,000 innocent people," Corallo said, referring to the 9/11 hijackers.

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Record Number: UTS1730497