An elderly woman approached the reference desk recently to ask for help in finding a novel. My impression was that neither her vision nor her legs were up to the task of the search, so I retrieved the book for her from the large-print section. While I was thus engaged, my patron was busy reading the placard that the library where I intern has placed at the reference desk. Its purpose is to inform patrons about the USA Patriot Act [the law passed after the Sept. 11 attacks to expand the government’s surveillance powers in terrorist investigations]. It took her a while to absorb the meaning before she spoke.
She said: “What does this mean? This is like the Red Scare. You surely aren’t going to participate in this, are you? I have lived a long time, and never thought I would see this happen again.”
With that she departed.
I watched her go out the door and thought about an answer for her. Certainly I cannot speak for our library, and properly not even as a librarian, being only an intern.
But the woman’s question was more than mere comment, and it was addressed not to me but to the library -- to the institution, the staff and the history and meaning of the place she had known all her life. And it deserved a response. If the library could talk, it would speak with the voice of all those who had worked there and every patron who passed through the portals, in every town where there has been a place set aside for reading and a collection of books offered free for the taking since the practice began.
Regarding the current matter, this bit of legislative excess that has fallen upon us, I believe that the library would utter but a single word: No. Just that one word, but emphatically, and leaving no doubt as to intent or application. And that answer speaks not just to the elements of the current situation but to any such that have been and will doubtless present themselves in the future.
No. That is the answer, our answer to the Patriot Act. No to disclosure of patron information, no to violations of privacy; no to complicity with these activities in any form.
The reason for this answer is because of what we are and what we have been. To go along, even if only through our silence, would be to say to ourselves that what we have stood for was nothing; only a collection of fine words, erased by a collection of other words, orders from a distant source that had more meaning for us than the history and creed of our craft.
The library, which has asked thus far only that we perform our duties as well as possible, now asks that we live up to a standard that has previously existed for most of us only in the abstract. Our hour has arrived; now we will see what sort of stuff we are made of, and afterward all of us and the walls and the very books upon the shelves will know.
What this means is to disobey; the cost is what it has always cost. Silent opposition is as valueless as the unfulfilled intent to give alms; this fight needs no coat-holders. Now is the time to say the word, to live the word, to represent the word to our community. No.
Let our models be the press and the advocates of free speech, who would instantly rise to this threat. We are no less important to the nation, and no less is expected of us by the people we serve.
What we need now is not a gush of words, but a single word, uttered and subscribed to by every librarian in the land: No to this and anything like it, regardless of personal consequence, an absolute refusal on the grounds of our heritage and our responsibility.
And when the supporters of this law react, when some person arrives to suppress and punish, let us rise as one to repeat our refusal and stand together. We are the library of a free nation and must act accordingly.