Public Libraries

I am truly honored to be here today and to have the privilege of representing both the American Library Association and the El Paso Public Library, two organizations that have helped to shape my life by showing me how essential libraries and literacy are to an effective democracy. I want to personally thank Sam Moore, your president, for choosing the topic “Books and Libraries” as the theme for this annual meeting and for his kind invitation to speak on several of the key issues facing libraries today.

I would like to begin my speech by taking you on a little trip into the future as we contemplate some trends that libraries face. This story comes from the book A Library for All Times, published by the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs:

It is nighttime in Malmö, Sweden, in the year 2010. Even though it is after midnight, lights shine through the windows of the big library. For the past few years it has stayed open round-the-clock. Plenty of people are here. Self-service is now fully integrated, but there are staff in every section of the building to help with questions, advice and consultations.

Why do people come to the library in the middle of the night? Set work schedules have not only changed, they have disappeared. More and more people are working from home. The number who study here has multiplied many times over.

To get access to reading space, advisory services, equipment and collections, people have to be prepared to come at odd hours of the day. But still they all study, to improve their qualifications and learn new things. They study in their free time and without financial compensation.

The book continues:

In theory, the library should have a bright future. Large libraries have an especially favorable outlook. John Naisbitt was right in his book Megatrends written in 1982 when he coined the term “high tech, high touch.” This means that the more high technology distances us, the more important human and social contacts become.

No one is forced to go to the library. You go voluntarily because it is more enjoyable and rewarding than sitting at home
in front a computer. This Library in Malmö is seen as a huge cathedral of knowledge, with its enormous glass facade facing the park and red brick castle with its historic atmosphere, seating more than 1,000 people in reading corners, newspaper and periodical rooms and at computers.

Does the library in Malmö present an accurate picture of the public library in seven, ten, even twenty years from now? I would like to believe that it does, and I would like to share some thoughts on issues that the American Library Association has identified as important to the future of libraries.

One issue that has been critical to the work of ALA is intellectual freedom. I grew up in a household that fostered the belief that access to books and knowledge is the right of every American. My father, a Marine who had fought in the Korean War, spent many hours during my childhood reading a wide variety of books to me as I sat perched on his lap. Some of his topics were not what my teachers might have chosen—a favorite was the poem “Gunga Din” by Rudyard Kipling—but I will never forget the joy I felt at being so close to my dad while sharing his beloved books. (By the way, I hope that all of you read to your children and grandchildren—they will never forget that experience, and it’s a wonderful way to introduce them to the joy of books.) His favorite subject was American history, and there were many history lessons at the dinner table as my dad attempted to shape my sister and me into young patriots who understood the value of the democracy for which he had fought.

I mention this because I have been accused, along with other members of the ALA, of not being patriotic due to our concerns about the potential for the invasion of privacy in connection with some provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act.

To give you a little background, the USA PATRIOT Act was passed in October of 2001, immediately following the tragic events of September 11. Its primary purpose was “To deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes.” While all Americans agree that terrorist acts must be stopped, many people did not realize the impact that the PATRIOT Act would have on public libraries and their ability to protect the privacy of the millions of people who use them. Section 215 of the act allows federal authorities who are conducting a foreign intelligence or international terrorism investigation to obtain a court order for access to any tangible item, no matter who holds it, including library loan records and the records of library computer use.

In January of 2003, the American Library Association Council (the ALA’s governing body) passed a resolution calling for changes to the USA PATRIOT Act that would protect the privacy of library users and increase public information accountability on the part of the U.S. Department of Justice. Several bills have been introduced in Congress that could accomplish this.

The Freedom to Read Protection Act, introduced by Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT), would amend Section 215 of the act “to exempt bookstores and libraries from orders requiring the production of any tangible things for certain foreign intelligence investigations.” The new legislation would reestablish Americans’ constitutionally protected right to read and access information without government intrusion, while still giving law enforcement tools to fight terrorism domestically and abroad. A duplicate bill has been introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) which, like its predecessor, carries bipartisan support.

The question that may come to mind is this: should anyone be concerned that the FBI is scrutinizing his or her library use? A reporter asked that question of Senator Hutchinson last night, who asked me to respond. I had to say that, under the act, I couldn’t tell you whether the FBI had been to the El Paso Public Library. So the short answer is—not at this point. I can also tell you that the FBI has not invoked the PATRIOT Act anywhere. In fact, a September 18 report by the Washington Post included a statement by Attorney General Ashcroft that, nationwide, “The number of times Section 215 has been used to date is zero.” Nevertheless, libraries have been called “a logical target for surveillance” by the U.S. Justice Department, and the American Library Association is now concerned that national security letters, which are easier to obtain than a court order, are being used to secure information about library use.

I was recently asked to take part in a call-in show for Wisconsin Public Radio on the topic of the USA PATRIOT Act, and I was curious about what callers would say about the act as it affects libraries. The comments ranged from that of a man who said “he didn’t care who knew what he was reading” to that of another who identified himself as a farmer and stated, “The PATRIOT Act is like closing the gate after the horse is out.” I was interested to note that the calls, by a ratio of about 3 to 1, sided with the ALA position on the portion of the act that applies to libraries. Benjamin Franklin, a time-tested American patriot, once said, “They that give up essential liberty to obtain temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The American Library Association and public libraries nationwide are working to protect your privacy, which, we believe, will also help to ensure the safety of our communities.

Another topic that has been of interest to libraries nationwide is the filtering of computers in libraries, following the recent decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA. I was the ALA representative who waited on the steps of the Supreme Court this past June as the court’s very narrow decision was handed down. When I was later interviewed by NBC Nightly News, I attempted to convey the level of concern we librarians feel about the implications of the court’s decision.

While librarians are certainly concerned about the safety of children on the Internet, we are also stalwart in our defense of equal access to information by all. Adult library users, in particular, must be able to see what sites are being blocked and, if needed, to request that the filter be disabled—with the least intrusion into their privacy and the least burden on library service. The court’s ruling assumed that filtering could be turned on and off at will for each user, which at present is not easy to do without expensive customized software.

Other implications for libraries beyond the expense of purchasing the filtering systems are federal funds. When the ruling goes into effect on July 1, 2004, federal funding to libraries will be dependent on providing filtering software to patrons using computers in the library. Therefore, some libraries are considering not accepting federal funds rather than limiting access through the filtering systems now available. This will probably not be an option for those libraries that depend on federal funds for their operation.

Another nationwide issue, which libraries are making efforts to address for the good of all, is the literacy level in our country. A recent literacy study of cities with a population of 255,000 or higher was conducted by the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater earlier this year. Thirteen factors were considered in evaluating the sixty-four cities covered in the study. These factors included education levels, publications, newspapers, libraries, and bookstores. Of the sixty-four cities, El Paso was ranked No. 64 in literacy. This was a stunning announcement for me, coming on the heels of my being elected president-elect of the American Library Association.

However, one of ALA’s primary goals is to promote libraries in helping children and adults develop the skills they need—the ability to read and use computers—because the association understands that the ability to seek and effectively utilize information resources is essential in a global information society. Of course, here locally we feel that the ability to read is essential, and we are working with numerous other local agencies and organizations to provide assistance. Our primary focus is on the book, about which Thomas Staley spoke so eloquently earlier today. We promote books for all ages, beginning with babies who receive board books through Estoy Aprendiendo/I’m Learning. For adults we offer various classes, including computer classes, citizenship classes, and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. There are many opportunities in each community to assist those who want to learn to read in English and other languages.

Visitors to the El Paso Public Library can enjoy the same experiences as Mr. and Mrs. Juan Rosales. When they retired, they wanted to find an activity to fill their time and to keep them active. They also wanted to fulfill their lifelong dream of becoming U.S. citizens. They started attending free citizenship classes at our Clardy Fox branch, and soon they were able to realize that dream together. They loved the relationship they started with the staff and patrons of Clardy Fox, so they continued attending classes, this time attempting to fulfill another dream: continuing their education. They began attending Clardy Fox’s free GED classes and soon received their GEDs together. Mrs. Rosales has since passed away, but Mr. Rosales is still faithfully attending English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Clardy Fox almost every weekend.

The book A Library for All Time calls the library a “huge cathedral of knowledge,” and I notice that the Philosophical Society has chosen as its purpose “to provide for the collection and diffusion of knowledge.” Obviously, there is a natural alliance between the Society and libraries, and I am proud that you chose El Paso as a place to celebrate that alliance.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “A democratic society depends upon an informed and educated citizenry.” What are we doing today to educate our citizenry? Where is the only place that everyone can go, free of charge, at any age, to learn? The library, of course. Yet why is it that our nation’s libraries remain underfunded, understaffed, operated on a limited schedule, and even closed permanently in some cases? I believe it is because we, as library stakeholders, are not speaking up enough to defend our libraries. We must advocate for our libraries—at every opportunity. This idea of grassroots advocacy for libraries will be the focus of my presidential year, which begins in June of 2004.

I feel strongly that for the future, our goal as an association must be to take every opportunity to impart information to organizations such as the Philosophical Society so that we can build coalitions for protecting our citizens’ right to privacy, ensuring access to information through print resources as well as on-line, and promoting the services of libraries. In my upcoming presidential year, my advisory committee has agreed to the following vision statement: “Stand Up and Speak Out for Libraries—Turning Passive Support into Educated Action.”

As I mentioned, the focus of my presidential year will be a grassroots advocacy campaign that will mobilize everyone—librarians, library workers, library trustees, Friends, and other supporters—to speak out “loudly and clearly” for libraries.

Within the framework of that campaign I will focus on the issues that we all know are most important to libraries across the country:

Literacy. El Paso may have been 64th out of 64 in the University of Wisconsin study, but there were other cities at the bottom of that list with us. We have work to do to promote literacy!

Equity of access (which builds on the theme of the current ALA president, Carla Hayden). We know that only 51 percent of all households have computers nationwide and that fewer have access to the Internet.

Salaries and Status/Recruitment. It’s been said that librarians can’t live on love alone, so we must improve salaries in order to recruit new librarians.

International Relations—Rebuilding the Sister Libraries program. I was just down in Guadalajara talking about this, as well as the Campaign for the World’s Libraries.

Intellectual Freedom.

ALA’s response to the CIPA decision.

USA PATRIOT Act / Freedom to Read Protection Act

This is just a brief overview of my vision for my presidential year. Many people are working with me to make the vision happen, and I invite you to join in the fun! Together I believe we can make a difference for libraries, by standing up and speaking out on the national, state, and local level about the value of libraries in our communities.