May 26, 2011

When it comes to privacy, librarians watch out for their patrons


The most beautiful building in Seattle: The Library

Most people raise their voice one or two octaves when interacting with law enforcement personnel. Many can lose an otherwise relentless chip on their shoulder and unconsciously deliver a series of, “Yes, mam(s)” and “No, sir(s).” Some of us even indulge in the formality of using the word “Officer” to remind the person about to hand over an astronomically expensive parking ticket that they are without a doubt in charge.

Librarians tend not to do any of that, and thankfully so. In the U.S. we owe lot to the stand librarians took against the Patriot Act‘s invasive federal letter program. It was a resistance that quietly became a landmark achievement against Bush-era constitutional treachery. By not handing over what the Feds had requested, namely a list of readers of certain books deemed “of interest,” they set a precedent for a flagging Constitution to hide from Bush‘s thuggish and illegal investigative approach.

And they’re still at it. Seattle’s King County Library System has decided to remove all security cameras from their libraries. The reason? Fear that the video footage would be used by law enforcement to pry into the reading lives of their patrons.

Bill Ptacek, director of the library system, explained his reasoning in the Seattle Times:

“We decided the cameras were not serving a purpose and were a point of contention with law enforcement,” said Bill Ptacek, who as director of the county library system has the final say. “We don’t want to be in an adversarial relationship. We believe intellectual freedom is the important part, so we got out of the camera business.”

I think the average MobyLives reader will appreciate that sentiment. Ptacek wasn’t done though, he added:

Removing the cameras isn’t costing any extra money because it’s being done as part of the normal course of work for facilities employees, according to the library system.

The camera removal will even save money because it costs $30,000 a year to maintain the cameras, Ptacek said, “and $30,000 buys a lot of books.”

Good work, Mr. Ptacek. Two birds with one stone.

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.