Saturday, December 22, 2007

Strange Times

Donis here. For most of my adult working life, I was a U.S. Government Documents librarian. Back in 1895, the Congress of these United States passed something called the Depository Act, the purpose of which was to make all non-classified government publication as accessible as possible to U.S. citizens all over the country. Any library in the nation can elect to receive as many documents as it could maintain from as many government entities as it wished, as long as it agreed to make the collection available to anyone who wanted to use it, even if the rest of library was private or restricted. This is very good. Even if you live in Washington state instead of Washington D.C., you can have access to government papers. This was freedom of information.

The deal is that the documents still belong to the U.S. Government, and not the library, and the government can recall any document it wants whenever it wants. Because of this, historically most depository libraries keep their docs in a special collection, with a special call number system, and specialist librarians to maintain and reference it. I was a docs librarian at two full depositories in universities, both dating from the inception of the program in 1895. Needless to say, both collections were massive, and incredibly fascinating. This is where I developed my fascination and extreme familiarity with U.S. history and government.
We had all versions of bills submitted to Congress, White House papers, old geological surveys, papers from both World Wars and every subsequent conflict, Census reports from 1790 onward. Want a WWI infantry manual? Got it. A list of Civil War pensioners? Got it. How about the Pentagon Papers, the HUAC hearings, the Watergate transcripts?

Every once in a while, some department (usually Defense) would have second thoughts about something they had released, and we would get a call saying that a U.S. Deputy Marshall would be shortly paying us a visit to retrieve all copies of said offending document. We would naturally rush out to the stacks, pull the document, and pass it around the office as fast as we could so that everyone could read it before the marshall showed up. I really can't remember ever learning anything that compromised national security.

Things have changed quite a bit since I was in the docs biz. In the first place, most of it has gone electronic. In the second place, free access to government information has undergone a sad dimunition. The collections of most large depositories may now be of more historical interest, I fear.

Now the goverment gathers information about us, rather than the other way around. Librarians who are served warrants must turn over a patron's circulation records, and they are not allowed under threat of arrest to inform anyone - especially not the patron himself - that the records have been summoned. I don't think the idea that the government wants to keep tabs on or manipulate the behavior its citizens is a new one at all. I do a lot of research about the early 20th Century for my series, and most civil liberties were pretty much suspended during WWI. People were encouraged to spy on their neighbors, and one could be arrested for criticizing the war or the president.

The difference now, as Charles reminds us, is how much more info about each of us is available and accessible. And do we ever cooperate! It's impossible not to, if you own anything or have a bank account or a phone. Or if you have a Face Book account and think it's funny to post pictures of yourself drunk and naked with your head in the toilet. Advertisers may use this information to create a campaign to psychologically manipulate you into buying their product, and how benign this is is a matter of opinion. But you don't have to buy the product. As for government ... well ... perhaps with the best motives in the world, they can at least keep you from getting on an airplane, and at worst, you might find yourself disappeared to some third world country for questioning.

What a wierd world we find ourselves in. Things are possible now that never were before, most of them entirely wonderful. But we walk a razor's edge, and have to keep a close watch. As Franklin said, anyone who would give up his liberty for security deserves neither.

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