It began with the Harrisburg Seven.
This was a group of Roman Catholic nuns and priests who were awaiting trial in the Lewisburg federal penitentiary for their anti-Vietnam war protests. Adjacent to the prison was Bucknell University, whose library offered minor work/study jobs to carefully chosen inmates. These jobs were supervised by Bucknell’s reference librarian, Zoia Horn.
In the winter of 1971 Horn was visited at home by the FBI. They stated they had uncovered a plot by the Harrisburg Seven to “kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up heating tunnels in Washington.” They wanted Horn to testify as to the activities and reading material used by the inmates. Horn refused, and soon found herself in front of a grand jury, where she refused to answer any questions. The following year she found herself subpoenaed to the actual Harrisburg Seven trial. Sticking to her professional code of ethics, she once again refused to testify, stating “I cannot in my conscience lend myself to this black charade [of] the government spying in libraries.”
And for the first time in North America, a librarian was jailed for protecting the intellectual freedom of others. Horn spent a full three weeks locked up, until the jury deadlocked and the judge was forced to call a mistrial. One juror stated “I thought the whole thing was kind of funny, the idea of a bunch of priests and nuns zipping off with Henry Kissinger.”
Slow learners, the government again tried to get librarians to snoop on their patrons with the FBI’s notorious ‘Library Awareness Program’ of the 70s and 80s, but they had as much success as their above counterparts.
If anything could make librarians reveal the reading habits of the public, it had to be the monumental force of the U.S.A. Patriot Act. Legislated in response to the devastating 9/11 attacks, the Patriot Act (Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) not only gave law enforcement the right to demand any and/or all patron library records from anywhere in the United States, but anyone who complained about it faced five-years in prison.
Will the government ever learn? The first thing Connecticut librarian Peter Chase did after a visit from the FBI was ‘complain’ about it to his lawyer. He and three other librarians sued the government with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. They were successful, and in the fall of 2007 a federal court ruled that this aspect of the Patriot Act was unconstitutional.
Zoia Horn — now 96-years-old — continues to travel and speak at many intellectual freedom organizations around the world. Far from enemies, the FBI works closely with librarians every day in matters of patent fraud, book theft, and cultural destruction.
Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library