Librarians Emerging From Book Stacks, Increasing Activism
Former congresswoman and one-time presidential candidate Pat Schroeder is hardly a Washington novice, but she took a political drubbing recently from the unlikeliest of foes: a bunch of librarians.
Schroeder, who now heads the Assn. of American Publishers, had the temerity to publicly criticize libraries for their stance on copyright laws and for distributing free copies of electronic books and articles that publishers are trying to sell. Schroeder’s spokeswoman made matters worse by complaining about the libraries’ “radical factions.”
They roasted Schroeder for “library-bashing.” They confronted Schroeder at public appearances, demanding an apology. They wrote to lawmakers en masse to complain.
Eventually, Schroeder raised a white flag and backed away from her comments.
The lesson? Don’t mess with librarians these days.
They were supposed to quietly fade away with the advent of the Internet, but libraries -- and librarians -- are enjoying a higher profile than ever before. They’ve mobilized in Washington, beefing up their lobbying presence and inserting themselves into far more controversial subjects than their usual bread-and-butter issues, such as literacy.
The 65,000-member American Library Assn., the chief trade group for librarians, has:
* Led opposition to tougher copyright laws, putting it at odds with major entertainment and publishing conglomerates.
* Lobbied against the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism Patriot Act because it gave law enforcement easier access to library records.
* Successfully sued the government to block an anti-pornography law that required libraries to install Internet filters on library computers or risk losing federal funds.
“We aren’t your grandmother’s library,” said Emily Sheketoff, head of the American Library Assn.'s Washington office. “We’re getting into some odd things.”
But that higher profile may carry political costs. Librarians have long enjoyed an all-American reputation, and that innocent image is now taking a hit as opponents label them everything from pornographers to pirates.
Some thought it was no coincidence that a bill to double federal funding for libraries stalled in Congress this year.
“If we are going to provide these funds, how will they be used?” asked Rep. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering Jr. (R-Miss.), one of the chief sponsors of the Internet filtering bill that libraries blocked. “Will they be used to promote a radical, extremist social agenda? Libraries are like Mom and apple pie. Why would they want to squander their goodwill and good reputations to get involved in issues like child pornography?”
Sheketoff and other librarians bristle at the notion that they support pornography or don’t care about children, but they say criticism isn’t surprising given the association’s heightened activism.
“We successfully sued the government,” said Sheketoff, former deputy assistant secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration. “That doesn’t make us very popular.”
Sheketoff, who cut her political teeth working for Senate Republicans during the Watergate scandal, was hired by the American Library Assn. in 1999. Some within the organization objected to the appointment of Sheketoff, the first non-librarian to head its lobbying office.
But leaders decided they needed a political professional to get them to the negotiating table on more issues and help overcome the traditional stereotypes about librarians, which often resulted in condescending, pat-on-the-head treatment on Capitol Hill.
“I still get people asking me where’s my bun,” Sheketoff said. “We’re training ourselves to be much more aggressive.... And sometimes that also means being obnoxious and strident.”
The group has built up its Washington office to 20 members, nearly twice its size in 1995, including one unit devoted to lobbying and another to policy research.
Lobbying expenditures by the American Library Assn. and other library groups now rank among the highest for nonprofits, doubling to about $750,000 in 2000 from $360,000 in 1997, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
That’s more than public broadcasters, Boy Scouts of America and Red Cross combined, though less than the $1 million that the movie industry pays annually to its top lobbyist, Jack Valenti.
A former television producer, Sheketoff hasn’t been shy about using the media to “stay in the news cycle” on key issues. She hired a press officer for the Washington office and has started sparring more frequently with conservatives and law enforcement officials on CNN, Fox News and talk radio.
Borrowing a tactic from the for-profit world, Sheketoff initiated a program to lean on libraries’ vendors and suppliers for assistance in Washington. For example, 3M Worldwide, which sells many of its computer systems to libraries, was enlisted to help arrange meetings with some lawmakers this fall about the library funding bill.
When it needed co-sponsors for the bill, the Washington office sent out 10,000 e-mails to libraries nationwide, urging librarians to call their legislators. In less than a week, 94 lawmakers signed on.
And though librarians are fighting to quash those old stereotypes, they’re not above exploiting their image to help butter up lawmakers.
During a key copyright battle, librarians appealed to Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) in part by evoking his childhood memories of spending time at library bookmobiles, according to an entertainment lobbyist.
“They’re not pushovers,” the lobbyist said. “They’re pretty formidable.”
Still, libraries lack the clout of more seasoned, and better-funded, interest groups.
“Librarians are not exactly up there with pharmaceutical companies,” quipped one Capitol Hill staffer.
The American Library Assn.'s decision to sue to overturn the Children’s Internet Protection Act, however, has tested the limits of that perception. Conservatives ranging from radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger to the Family Research Council attacked the association for the suit. Sheketoff said she received hate mail and death threats.
Though some libraries support the use of filters to bar visitors from browsing pornography Web sites and other potentially offensive material on the Internet, the association maintains that such decisions are better handled at the local level, rather than by a federal mandate.
American Library Assn. President Maurice Freedman asserts that Internet filters, which are based on a list of adult-themed words, infringe on patrons’ civil rights because they frequently block sites that have nothing to do with pornography. Among them are those dealing with breast cancer and birth control. The association’s lobbyists have noted that even the congressional Web site of House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) became snagged in the filter because of his first name.
A federal appeals court sided with the librarians, and this month the Supreme Court agreed to review the case.
Now librarians worry that their lawsuit may have derailed their funding bill, which passed unanimously in committee but was never put to the House floor for a vote. The measure would increase federal library funding from about $160 million a year to about $350 million.
Richard Diamond, a spokesman for Armey, insisted that lawmakers simply ran out of time in the last session.
Although he conceded that there were concerns about how much money was being allocated and where funds would go, he said the filtering lawsuit was not a factor.
“It doesn’t bother us one bit if they speak out on that,” Diamond said. “That’s their right.”
Copyrights are another issue that librarians are speaking out on, creating new divisions with old allies, such as publishers and media companies.
Libraries spend about $2 billion a year on books and $1 billion on electronic databases, the American Library Assn. estimates. But they fear that the growing use of anti-piracy technology and copyright controls will prevent them from performing their traditional services of loaning books, making backup copies and helping patrons with free research.
For example, many libraries have switched to electronic databases rather than subscribing to hard-copy magazines and scholarly journals.
But they insist that they need to have the right to copy materials as a backup and to share materials with other libraries. Otherwise, if a library can no longer afford to pay for electronic access, it loses not only future issues, but also access to the archives.
Publishers and media companies, on the other hand, worry that in a digital world, libraries will become an electronic back door through which books, movies and music can pass freely. In the past, when a library loaned a book to a patron, there was little concern that it would interfere with sales. But if libraries can loan digital copies of materials, publishers fear that widespread pirating may result and sales could slump.
“Look at what happened with music,” said Schroeder, the former congresswoman. “If it gets out for free, how are we going to pay the authors?”
Schroeder said she is hoping to soon find a compromise that will allow libraries to continue serving patrons without threatening the livelihood of publishers.
Since her jab last year, Schroeder has been careful not to criticize librarians, and she says she has spent many hours explaining her remarks to them.
“They have a very strong image, and this is a political environment,” Schroeder said. “Librarians were very upset. But for the life of me, I still have not figured out what to apologize for.”
Sheketoff harbors no hard feelings. “In fact, I thanked her,” she said. “It really increased our visibility.”