The Vermont House Judiciary Committee just approved Senate Bill 220, which would establish a library confidentiality act. This bill was originally introduced last December by Sen. Claire Ayer of Addison County.
After five long months, the bill is finally going to the full House for a vote. This is an important bill because at this time Vermont only provides a public records exception for library records, which protects records from public inspection. A library confidentiality statute would affirmatively state that library patron information is confidential as well as defining when a law enforcement official must produce a court order to obtain individual records.
In 2005, the Vermont Library Association (VLA) recognized a need in the community for additional protection of library patron records. This was a concern that library associations across the country were beginning to address as the USA Patriot Act showed no signs of dissipating.
Many states have drafted new library confidentiality statutes or amended old ones since 2001. This issue was also addressed at the national level, where several bills have been proposed (and subsequently struck down), such as Sen. Bernard Sanders' "Freedom to Read Act." The VLA reacted by conducting a survey of 213 libraries to compile information regarding the extent of local library policies as well as the desire for a stronger law protecting privacy.
The survey results were released in 2006 and revealed that there were 1,228 requests for patron usage information during the previous year. Of the libraries polled, 74 percent of library directors supported a stronger law to protect patron confidentiality. One-third of the libraries that did not have written policies at the time of the survey expressed an interest in developing one. This is a law that the libraries want!
Since the USA Patriot Act was signed into law in October 2001, citizens of the United States have watched our federal government slowly and deliberately scale back our civil rights in all areas of our lives. Perhaps in the Post-9/11 world, privacy must be redefined, but we must also know where to draw the line.
Freedom of information and the right to privacy are essential to our identity as U.S. citizens and this applies even in libraries. As Sen. Sam Ervin wrote in 1970, "official surveillance of the reading habits of citizens has been a litmus test of tyranny."
No one disputes that there will be times when law enforcement officials need immediate access to library patron records.
A library confidentiality statute simply protects everyday library users at all other times. Please call your representatives in the House and urge them to support the library confidentiality bill with no amendments that would weaken the protection it provides.
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