Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Libraries and the War on Terror: censorship and diversity – John Pateman, Lincolnshire County Council

John changed his subtitle after it had already been published but I failed to make a note or it at the time; it changed from a focus on censorship and diversity to one on human rights. This change was important as one of his points was the erosion of human rights as the UK government inches closer to a police state.

He went on to mention the Patriot Act in the US which allows the FBI to obtain browsing and borrowing records. This in itself is a little worrying as users of the library have come to expect an element of privacy (and clearly it is illegal for librarians to refuse to comply with an investigation), but the fact that it is also illegal for the librarian to inform the user of the request is more worrying to me. It means that the librarian becomes part of the investigation and this isn’t something with which I would be entirely comfortable. Recently, the University and College Union (opens in new window) refused to comply with a request from the UK government to monitor and report unusual behaviour amongst their students. Another of John’s points was the potential good that all of the funding that goes towards the Iraq war could do if it were spent domestically.

One member of the audience pointed out that he had come very close to denying the presence of terrorism (which I also felt at one point during his speech). This gave John the opportunity to make it clear that he did not condone terrorism and that his position was that we need to address the causes of terrorism as a matter of priority, not the terrorism itself.

While I share many of John’s concerns, it was unfortunate that he used the majority of his time to talk about his political opinions and criticise the UK and US governments’ actions rather than focus on how the War on Terror has affected libraries and library services. The one point that he did keep mentioning in connection with libraries was the reduced funding that they received as a result of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This point, though, is a misrepresentation of fact – the truth of the matter is, as was pointed out by one of the members of the audience, that funding for libraries has been decreasing since long before either of these wars commenced. While I can see that it is yet another obstacle to better library funding, it seems naïve to conclude that it is the cause. More interesting and relevant were the few aspects of the speech that focussed on changes to legislation in the name of the War on Terror and how that affects libraries.

At the end of John’s speech (and it was a speech as opposed to a presentation), there emerged a polarity of opinion in the audience regarding the use of this forum for promoting his opinions. Unfortunately, John called for a straw poll after one member of the audience objected to his use of this session for sharing his political views rather than focussing on the impact that the War on Terror has had on libraries. While I agreed with many of John’s points, I agreed with this individual – it was not what we had come to the session to hear. My feelings about the use of the session to present a political position aside, in my opinion, calling for this poll was petty, belittling and disrespectful to the individual concerned; I lost all respect for John at this point. He clearly felt as though he and his ideas were under attack and he was unable to handle it well.

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