Spies In The Stacks

Posted: February 24, 1988

Why shouldn't librarians spy on spies skulking in their stacks? What else do they have to do besides shush noisy kids and thump rubber stamps on inkpads? And if they're not sure how to distinguish spies from other sinister people - like people who just enjoy reading, for example - well, nobody's perfect, not even librarians.

So why are library officials and civil libertarians up in arms over the FBI's "Library Awareness Program"? All the FBI is asking is that librarians help combat the threat from "hostile foreign intelligence" agents who frequent libraries. When the librarian sees one of these foreign agents engaging in unspeakable acts, like meeting accomplices on the premises or getting valuable information off the bookshelves, he or she should report it to the FBI.

It may surprise you that top-secret information is as accessible as the bookshelves in your local library. It's a revelation to librarians, too. Most of them weren't aware that libraries are repositories of information that should not be available to anyone who walks in. Most of them thought of a library as a warm and welcoming place to one and all, even people looking for information. Instead, law-enforcement agencies - not just G-men, but also police, Secret Service and T-men - often ask them, while they're checking out books, to check out people who read them.

Librarians have funny ideas. They believe that what a person reads is his or her own business, and nobody else's. That's why 37 states (including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware) have library confidentiality laws - protecting you from anyone trying to dictate what you read or don't read. And that's why the American Library Association has a policy forbidding disclosures about a person's reading habits.

Librarians balk at the role of informant, as well they should. How is a librarian supposed to recognize a "spy"? Real-life spies don't usually identify themselves as such, and, a representative of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in New York notes, "any spy that . . . takes out a book that will point him out as a spy is a pretty dumb spy."

Maybe it's just dumb spies the FBI expects to find in libraries. But if they're so dumb, why does the FBI need librarians to trap them?

These gumshoe tactics are as ominous as they are ridiculous. They reflect what James Schmidt, chairman of the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee, calls "a dangerous mindset . . . that information is dangerous and ought not be free."

Setting up a network of informants alerted to report anyone they consider ''suspicious" encourages the kind of paranoia and divisiveness which inspire just the kind of environment we deplore in countries whose "spies" we are supposed to be protecting ourselves against - an environment in which neighbor informs against neighbor and child informs against parent.

If national security requires adopting the tactics of those we consider our enemies, it's a price too steep to pay.

FLAWED EXPORT

According to the "terms of rehabilitation" agreed upon by his church, Jimmy Swaggart is forbidden to preach for at least three months, because some of what he had been preaching he wasn't practicing.

The repentant televangelist will be permitted, however, to fulfill some preaching commitments abroad.

There we go again, exporting flawed products we consider unsuitable for domestic consumption.

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