Monday, July 21, 2008


The other day, I managed to surprise one of my daughters who believes she knows everything about my rather simple, transparent life. I told her that my undergraduate college minor was library science. I am nearly as old as Dewey Decimal himself, but I can legitimately put on my resume that I have a minor in library science.

“Get out of here,” my daughter exclaimed skeptically. “You?? A library science minor??”

I smiled modestly, implying that there might be many, many other surprises in my colorful background to astound her (there aren’t).

So given my library science background, imagine how pleased I was to read an excerpt from Karen Joy Fowler’s latest book, Wit’s End, when a reference is made to heroic librarians who, along with Superman, are the guardians of truth, justice, and the American way (p. 148):

“ . . . Rima’s father had always told her never to underestimate librarians. The Patriot Act, he’d said, had made the mistake of underestimating librarians, and now they were the only thing standing between us and 1984, and they [librarians] weren’t all spineless the way Congress was. They read books. His money was on them.”

The reference in Fowler’s book was to the Patriot Act following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centers. It turned out that some of the terrorists’ research in planning the attacks had been done at the Paterson Public Library in Paterson, New Jersey. When the FBI came a-knocking on the library door after September 11 with a federal subpoena requesting information on two of the hijackers’ library usage, the library complied and turned over records.

But later, when the Patriot Act gave the federal government the right to track any and all library patrons’ reading habits on a regular basis to investigate cases regarding foreign intelligence and international terrorism, the librarians rose up in indignation. You see, their library patrons come to the library when they have questions about funny rashes in embarrassing places or family issues or legal questions—sensitive issues they maybe don’t want the whole world to know they’re researching. And those quiet librarians feel like their patrons have the right to do research at the library without every Tom, Harry, and Dick Cheney knowing their business.

I’ve seen pictures of some of these rabble-rousing, flag-waving, civil-liberties touting librarians who protested the Patriot Act. And guess what. They look like you’d think librarians might look—mostly bespectacled, flat-shoed, sweater-wearing ladies with hair cut in sensible bobs.

But you’ve got to love that they’re out there fighting for our right to satisfy our curiosity at the library about any subject we want without fear that the FBI will come in and try to make something of our eclectic taste in reading material. They’re out there fighting for you and me—and a guy named Ahmad Abduhl—and our right to check out a book about cures for groin rash without the Department of Homeland Security knowing about it.

So maybe it’s a stretch that I feel a sense of kinship with these brave librarians out protecting our rights to privacy. Maybe a minor in library science doesn’t give me a membership in their club. But a small part of me, the part that suffered through Cataloging and Classification (LIBS 421) and the interminable Intro to Reference Materials (LIBS 431) in Spring Semester of 1969 feels it has a right to be considered part of the brother/sisterhood of librarians.

Yes, it’s true, that the closest I’ve ever come to working as an actual librarian is checking out my own books using the automatic bar code scanner at the public library. But I, too, would be willing to march and testify before Congress to protect John Q. Public’s right to access library materials on any topic without fear of public disclosure.

In spirit, I want to be one of the librarians described by Karen Joy Fowler in Wit’s End—the strong, patriotic type. The kind you should never underestimate.

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