Campus & Community

Business as usual – almost – at Harvard libraries:

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Assessing the effects of the Patriot Act

Despite the myths, rumors, and apprehension that swirled around the library community in the wake of the USA Patriot Act, the act’s impact on Harvard’s 90-plus libraries has been minimal.

“It’s not really something that is affecting the operation of the library,” says Director of the Harvard University Library Sidney Verba. “On the other hand, it is an issue that could be serious and that we have to pay attention to and we have to inform librarians about.”

The quickly drafted act is riddled with ambiguities that caused concern among librarians, says Verba. Some interpreted the act to read that if a government official requested borrowing records of a library patron, the librarian approached would not only be required to provide that information, he or she would be forbidden from sharing the request with anyone.

Working closely with Harvard’s Office of the General Counsel (OGC), however, Verba found a different reading that holds Harvard University, not an individual library staff member, responsible for complying with requests.

“The person who is asked this should immediately get in touch with the General Counsel’s office,” says Verba, who is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor. He adds that while the USA Patriot Act does expand the powers of law enforcement agencies to gather information, it doesn’t substantially change government access to library circulation records, which, before and after the act passed, were available by subpoena.

Jeffrey Horrell, associate librarian of Harvard College for collections, has been spearheading the libraries’ efforts to decode the Patriot Act for its staff members. He moderated a panel at the fall meeting of the Librarians’ Assembly in December 2002 aimed at dispelling rumors and guiding staff members on how to handle requests.

“There had been a real myth out there that if you were contacted you just cooperated and handed over whatever information and didn’t tell anyone,” Horrell says. “That was important to clear up. He added that no staff member should feel that they must respond immediately to someone who appears with a badge and a legal-looking document.

Through staff training and the libraries’ internal Web site, Harvard Library’s policies regarding requests for information are clearly stated. Horrell and Verba both note that to their knowledge, no requests have been made to Harvard’s libraries since the enactment of the USA Patriot Act.

Libraries, at Harvard and nationwide, have always taken measures to protect patron privacy. “There is a very long, long tradition in the library profession of privacy of user records,” says Horrell.

At Harvard, libraries maintain borrowers’ records while a book is circulating, but convert all records to categorical inventories once the patron returns a book. While Jane Doe is reading and reviewing her borrowed copy of “Plato’s Republic,” for instance, her name is attached to the record for that book. Once she returns it, the library’s records do not refer to her by name but could produce a report indicating how many times the book had circulated and whether it was to students or faculty.

Verba says this conversion of records, long the policy of the University’s libraries, has risen in priority since the passage of the Patriot Act, ensuring that it doesn’t slip down the to-do list of busy librarians.

“It’s just re-expressing a policy,” he says, rather than creating a new way of obscuring borrower information from would-be government investigators.

As keepers of information and defenders of the free and confidential circulation of such, librarians have long been at the flash point of civil liberties debates. The USA Patriot Act and the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere in the nation has put libraries back in the hot seat.

“There is a general unease about the traditional and complicated tension between institutions that have as one of their dominant values open communication of scientific and scholarly materials and concern about security implications of open communications,” says Verba. “But it certainly hasn’t changed what we do in the library, nor have we been asked to change what we do.”

While a request for information might be troubling, both Verba and Horrell stress that the University is prepared to respond.

“We would comply completely with the law with a legitimate authenticated request,” says Horrell. “But we would also maintain our concern for the privacy of our users.”