by mark lasswell - © the wall street journal 2003
at last, the archie mcphee novelty company in seattle is about to start shipping to stores the latest addition to its eclectic roster of action figures.� soon to join ben franklin, albert einstein, stainboy, the albino bowler and other toys not likely to be found in the collections of incredible hulk aficionados: the librarian.� modeled after nancy pearl, the seattle-area bibliothecary who in 1998 launched the popular "one city reads one book" campaign, the five-inch-tall librarian wears a long skirt and sensible shoes.� this being an action figure, she also--if you press a button on her back--swings a finger up to her lips in a shushing motion.
if you assumed that librarians as a group would feel flattered, or at least amused, by the prospect of being elevated to action-hero status, then your library card must have expired long ago.� their view of the vocation has changed a tad since the days when laura bush was reshelving books.� news last month of the impending immortalization in molded plastic set off a torrent of complaints from librarians who were irate about being depicted as shushers.� as one explained unhappily to the associated press: "we're so not like that anymore."
while the quote doesn't quite rank up there with samuel johnson's "no place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library," its truth was undeniable.� what much of the membership of the american library association is so like these days is any other organization in such thrall to left-wing politics that it has an aclu-like ability to identify an absurd position on almost any topic and instantly adopt it.� when former collectors of fines spend the better part of a decade rebranding themselves as passionate defenders of free speech, you can't blame them for their fury at being reduced to shush-dolls.� but you can scratch your head over what, exactly, they're defending.
the past few months have been especially perplexing for those of us whose perception of librarians is pretty close to archie mcphee's.� a summer that saw a trifecta of loony ala firefights began in june with a press release from the 64,000-member organization headlined "ala denounces supreme court ruling on children's internet protection act."� it was a bitter admission of defeat in the ala's battle against efforts to shield children from internet pornography in public libraries that receive federal support.
the librarians argue that computer filtering technology is indiscriminate, possibly knocking out innocuous content about, say, breast cancer, in addition to zapping giantbreasts.com.� the ala also contends that the children's internet protection act (cipa), which the court upheld 6-3, infringes on librarians' mission: "it's the libraries' responsibility to provide access to a wide range of information," an ala lawyer told u.s. news & world report.� "it's not the libraries' responsibility to become the parent, just as it's not their responsibility to feed or clothe children, either."
of course, libraries have always exercised plenty of discretion over the range of information access they provide--that's why you don't find bound volumes of hustler in the stacks next to house & garden--but somehow librarians, seemingly mesmerized by the vastness of the internet, have convinced themselves that they are the guardians of all it contains.
which is why the ala saw a silver lining in the cipa case: at least it allows adult library patrons to request that the internet filters be switched off. it's good news for the ala, perhaps less so for actual librarians--like the dozen in minneapolis who grew so weary of the peep-show conditions at the downtown library that they filed a federal lawsuit last spring claiming the place constitutes a hostile work environment, thus raising the delicious prospect of the american library association filing an amicus brief against the very sort of folks it supposedly represents.
those librarians in minnesota aren't the only ones who find themselves in a legal tangle that doesn't elicit much sympathy from the ala.� the same week that it attacked the supreme court's cipa ruling, the organization was holding its annual conference in toronto and failing to come up with anything to say about fidel castro's jailing of 14 librarians who dared to set up their homes as lending libraries stocked with reading material that they say the government bans.� (their arrests were part of a roundup of dozens of dissidents in march.)
a contingent within the ala sought some sort of official statement on the matter--"ala denounces castro" has a nice ring to it--but unlike library censorship in south africa and the supposed american responsibility for iraqis' ransacking of their own national library, earlier targets of official ala scorn, this request spurred only infighting.� even the fact that the jailed librarians were being denied unfettered access to the internet failed to move the organization to action.
a rather different sort of prisoner is being detained elsewhere in cuba, at guantanamo bay, as part of a u.s. effort you might have heard about to discourage people from trying to raze the 50 states.� the government would like to keep jailing terrorists, and to that end passed the usa patriot act in october 2001, expanding law enforcement's investigative powers.� the ala has been sounding alarms about tyrannous intrusion ever since, decrying parts of the act as "a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users," according to the group's official resolution on the subject.
the ala so vividly conjured images of the fbi snooping through library lending records that jan o'rourke, a librarian at the bucks country free library in pennsylvania, started, to wide publicity, destroying patrons' borrowing records, crowing: "if we don't have the information, they can't get it."� they also can't get it--and this somehow gets drowned out by all the wailing in the stacks--without first obtaining a judge's permission.� in other words, an invasion of oxymoronic public-library privacy is more akin to getting a search warrant to raid a drug den than arbitrarily rummaging through somebody's book bag.
late in the summer, attorney general john ashcroft launched a barnstorming tour on behalf of the patriot act, lampooning the ala's hysteria by conjuring the image of 11,000 fbi agents desperately tracking americans' billion annual library visits in an effort to find out how far readers had gotten on the latest tom clancy novel.� "no offense to the american library association," mr. ashcroft said at one stop, "but we just don't care." you could almost hear the librarians muttering, as they scanned the shelves for orwell, george, "that's exactly what big brother would like you to believe."
but then in mid-september mr. ashcroft declassified information about the government's use of the dreaded section 215 of the patriot act, revealing precisely how often investigators had exercised its powers to examine the records of libraries, hospitals, and other businesses: never.� the ala pronounced itself "surprised."� that's often the reaction to a pie in the face.� and it is, if anything, even more entertaining than a librarian action figure.