How libraries blocked the FBI

It is called the ‘Library Awareness Program,’ and it remains one of the oddest things to come out of the 20th century.

Mike Selby

It is called the ‘Library Awareness Program,’ and it remains one of the oddest things to come out of the 20th century. Although fairly benign sounding, the Library Awareness Program was a clandestine operation of the FBI—one which attempted to recruit librarians as ‘assets’ in their war against foreign subversives. Agents would simply approach anyone working at a library desk and ask if they had noticed any “suspicious looking foreigners,” and sometimes ask to see the library’s circulation records.

There is so much wrong with this it is difficult to know where to start. First was the impossibility of determining foreigners from non-foreigners by sight, let alone just what constitutes suspicious looking activity. And second, the FBI was ill-prepared for the reaction of the library community, who battled with the FBI in the courts, the media, and in public, in—what CBS News called—”the unlikeliest fight of the year.”

It began in early June of 1987, when two agents approached a clerk at Columbia University’s Mathematics and Science Library, asking him to “report on activities of foreigners” during his shifts. The clerk referred the agents to Paula Kaufman, the university’s head librarian. Kaufman informed the FBI that to help them would break one of the library profession’s most cherished ethics, not to mention breaking numerous privacy laws of the state. Librarians simply do not report the reading habits of their patrons to anyone. Ever. The agents were polite but wrote Kaufman off as a hysteric, one who felt what they were doing was “atrocious… a violation of the First Amendment, etc.”

What they didn’t expect was Kaufman to report her visit to the New York Times. An investigative exposé was published in September of 1987. Kaufman told the Times: “The FBI’s request to me to report on foreigners using our libraries is one with which I could not practically comply, even if our institution supported such cooperation, which is does not; even if such a request did not contravene my professional ethics, which it does; even if it did not infringe upon the First Amendment and privacy rights of all library patrons, which it does; and even if it does not violate the laws of the State of New York, which it does.”

This predictably caused a ripple effect which no longer just outraged librarians, but civil rights and law organizations, educators, and privacy advocates. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act caused further anger, when it was learned that the FBI kept files on those librarians who refused to assist them, which turned out to be every librarian they approached. The entire operation was a sad throwback to McCarthyism and the archaic practices of J. Edgar Hoover.

Yet the FBI remained not only committed to the program, but exasperated at the non-compliance of library personnel. “Why should librarians be off limits?” asked one operative, stunned librarians “weren’t cooperating with their own security forces.” The operative also expressed that without the librarians’ help, they left to “seek recruits only among pimps and whores.”

(Herbert Forestall, chief librarian at the University of Maryland, conceded that at least the FBI “distinguished librarians from pimps and ladies of the night.”)

A Congressional hearing was soon called to investigate the Library Awareness Program. FBI assistant-director James Greer blamed “misunderstandings and misperceptions” by library staff which have blown things out of proportion. Greer was cut off by Congressman Don Edwards, who stated “I haven’t heard one word from the FBI to indicate that you have any appreciation for the special role of libraries in this society. The FBI should recognize that reading and books are special. Everybody in this country has a right to use libraries, and they have a right do so with confidentiality.”

Greer continued to defend the program, stating: “In the 1970s, when we had this program, not one word was said about it. So I’ve got to assume that we did it properly and we got some information that was very helpful.” No one was more shocked than Congress to find out the Library Awareness Program had begun as far back as the ’70s.

President Bush formally requested the FBI to shut down the Library Awareness Program, but then director Sessions refused to do it. Libraries across America were left with only one choice—to draft crystal clear policies and procedures to protect their patrons should the FBI ever return.

And the FBI did return en masse in 2001, with something called the ‘Patriot Act.’

Mike Selby Reference Librarian at Cranbrook Public Library.

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