Lacking info, libraries nearly unsearchable

Langley resident Rick Winsor -- who browsed for  a good book  Monday afternoon -- dislikes the idea that federal agents could obtain the library record of what he
Langley resident Rick Winsor -- who browsed for a good book Monday afternoon -- dislikes the idea that federal agents could obtain the library record of what he's borrowed and researched on the Internet.
— image credit: Jennifer Conway

Terrorists might not be researching on Whidbey Island anytime soon, but the Sno-Isle Regional Library System is prepared to deal with the FBI and the Patriot Act just in case they do.

The USA Patriot Act, enacted on Oct. 24, 2001 to help track and prevent further terrorism, isn't specifically directed at libraries or their patrons. It allows federal authorities to investigate what a patron has been borrowing and what they are browsing on the Internet.

Even if the FBI does have a court order or search warrant, there's no guarantee they would get what they want from the Sno-Isle system.

"We do not retain library records," said Mary Kelly, community relations manager for Sno-Isle.

Kelly said this week Washington state law protects the privacy of library users.

"If we got a court order, we wouldn't have that information," said Kelly.

She said once a patron returns what was borrowed, the item disappears from the patron's record. Only when a book is outstanding or overdue will a record show any history of what the person has checked out.

To obtain a patron's records, Freeland librarian Joann Harmon said there are several requirements law enforcement must obey. Every library in the Sno-Isle system, she said, has received protocol on how to handle such situations.

First, Harmon said, a person looking into a library patron's record must prove her or she is a federal agent by presenting proper identification. The right paperwork must also be presented -- either in a search warrant or court order, before a search can begin.

"We're very protective of people's private information, and we don't give it out," Harmon said.

Once law enforcement provides the identification and paperwork, librarians will refer such a matter to the director of library systems, Becky Bolte, for legal council. From there, the director can review the court order, consult with the library system's attorney and take steps to comply with the Patriot Act.

Kelly said the Sno-Isle Regional Library System will analyze the way it keeps records in the future, and will determine if retaining patron information is necessary.

"That's a lot of data to save," she said.

The idea of the Patriot Act wasn't a new one to Langley resident Rick Winsor. Standing in the Langley Public Library's fiction aisle Monday, Winsor said he doesn't like it one bit.

"I think it's very intrusive," Winsor said.

In the past, Winsor said he had been in libraries where disclaimers had been posted, warning patrons their records were subject to search.

The invasion of privacy won't change the way Winsor borrows books, but he doesn't see Whidbey Island having anything to worry about.

"I doubt they are in the Langley Library," he said.

Whether or not any Sno-Isle libraries have been searched will remain unknown, according to Kelly. She said librarians are prohibited from disclosing anything about a law enforcement's visit.

"I don't think that we've gotten anything," she said of requests from federal agents.

Vicky Welfare, a librarian at the Langley library, said patron records are even protected from the patrons themselves. She said if a patron wants to look up the author of a book they checked out two months prior, that information would not exist in their system.

"People have a right to their privacy," Welfare said.

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