Library card

It wasn’t many days after Sept. 11, 2001, that I was in New York City walking south on Sixth Avenue, the Avenue of the Americas, toward what used to be the Twin Towers. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going, but as conversations among other pedestrians hushed and movement seemed to be quietly funneling in the same direction, I didn’t need to ask questions. There it was — a black, smoking gnarl, smelling like burnt electrical wire, with two backhoes still probing the remains.

The World Trade Center grounds were surrounded by a wrought iron fence, which had become something of an American Wailing Wall. Mourners had hung their mementos; people from around the country had sent tributes. Flowers, prayer flags, crosses, wedding photos, T-shirts, lots of signs: “We Love You New York” and “God Bless America.” There was even a neon orange Nerf football, perhaps from the child of a firefighter.

It occurred to me that maybe the terrorists had missed their target. The heart of America is not really about trade and money, it’s about freedom. Isn’t it? Isn’t the heart of America freedom? At the public library, American freedom means freedom to read without censorship, open and equal access to information for all members of the community, opportunity to gather for discussion and the freedom to do all this without unwanted surveillance by the government or others.

September is traditionally celebrated as National Library Card Month. Teton County Library has always distributed a multitude of new, free library cards. Each card with a unique bar code on the back to protect the user’s privacy.

After Sept. 11 there was some notable diminishment of both freedom and privacy. In October 2001, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act, which allowed federal agents enhanced access to business records, including library records. Libraries feared this federal intervention and took steps to limit the amount of “personally identifiable information” collected on patrons.

A protective shield against local government intrusion is built into the structure of public libraries. In all 50 states, independent library boards ensure direct citizen control of library operations, keeping them as far as possible outside the political sphere of government.

Wyoming statutes, first of all, direct county commissioners to appoint a library board, which is representative of the community and entrusted with “the control, use and disposition of the county library fund.” The library board “shall budget and expend the fund for the maintenance, operation and promotion of the county library and the county library system in order to carry out the informational, educational, cultural and recreational role of the county library.” (Wyo. Stat. § 18-7-103 (a)).

Thus, the library board is a governing board, as opposed to an advisory board. Budgeting decisions are made independently of any further approval by other government bodies so long as actions are within statutory authority and the county-budgeted amount for the library.

Second, the library board is responsible for staff appointments and the determination of staff duties and compensation, as follows:

“The board of directors shall appoint a competent librarian who with the approval of the board of directors shall appoint a library staff. The duties and compensation of the staff shall be determined by the board.” (Wyo. Stat. § 18-7-104)

Third, State statutes protect the privacy of library records:

“The custodian shall deny the right of inspection of the following records, unless otherwise provided by law: …

(ix) Library patron transaction and registration records except as required for administration of the library or except as requested by a custodial parent or guardian to inspect the records of his minor child; (Wyo. Stat. § 16-4-203(d))

The American Library Association clarifies that privacy of library records applies to circulation records and any records containing personally identifiable information, including email notifications, computer sign-up sheets, registration for equipment or facilities, websites visited, reserve notices, or research notes.

Unfortunately, over the past five years, Teton County Library has had a revolving door of three different library directors and five interim director appointments. While the door was open, county government has slipped into library operations. The library board has welcomed the intrusion, presumably seeing financial benefit for the library. It’s been a downward spiral for library control over budget, hiring and privacy:

County commissioners have begun “reviewing the library’s operations to determine whether the county could take over some aspects of the budgeting process” and are discussing taking over library payroll (News&Guide, Oct. 29, Nov. 4), although county staff accusations of budget overruns have been resoundingly rebutted by library staff. (News&Guide, Nov. 25)

According to current and recent staff members, the County Human Resources Department is heavily involved in hiring at the library —writing job descriptions and determining compensation with no ability for the library director to confer with the county’s (unknown to library) personnel consultant. The library has no clearance from county HR to authorize a new position on its own. Recently, county HR has disapproved the hiring of a new assistant director, revamping that job description and lowering the salary. (See “Staff Report,” Library Board Meeting, Nov. 19, 2020.)

Nowhere has this HR encroachment created more problems for the library than in its IT department. Public access to technology in a modern library is a service equal to or greater than the traditional access to books and media. In early 2018 the library lost its entire three-person IT staff. A technology consultant recommended hiring two IT positions. Alternatively, the county proposed that the library rely on county IT support. Besides the lack of on-site assistance during evening and weekend hours, there were difficulties with the wireless system and breakdowns that disabled the phones, internet connection, and even caused a three-day library shutdown. (See “IT Shared Services Six Month Evaluation” by Dawn Jenkin, Oct. 17, 2019, available on library website.) When then-Library Director Dawn Jenkin vehemently advocated for the new IT positions and the independence of the library, she lost her job.

The library board finally approved the hiring of one IT person in February 2020, (News&Guide, Feb. 23, 2020) but a many-months-long wait ensued as county HR held up approval of the IT job description. Finally, a library IT manager was hired in October 2020.

Over the past two years library staff has fought to keep the library server on-site and the wireless system separate from the county. However, staff reports that library email is now part of the county email system. County IT has access to all library email — whether between staff members, other agencies or patrons.

Thus, patron communications are not private and can be viewed by county IT. Communications with patrons regarding reference questions and other requests now contain a disclaimer that they may be disclosed to third parties.

In an era of fake news, disinformation, alternative facts, politicized science, cookies and spyware, has there ever been a greater need for a public library? A place to go for guidance to unbiased information? A secure haven for asking questions? Open and free to everyone? In the absence of a strong library director and a library board that recognizes its responsibility for governance and privacy, it appears to be up to local citizens to protect the library.

I hadn’t thought to bring something from Wyoming to Ground Zero to honor the dead or even express Wyoming’s support. I wasn’t even wearing a Jackson Hole T-shirt that I could surreptitiously slip out of under my jacket and hang on the wall.

As I stood there, I mentally canvassed the contents of my purse and backpack. Of course! My Teton County Library card. To me, a symbol of freedom. A reminder of the vigilance that is necessary to preserve both security and freedom.

I pulled it out of my wallet and, in the interest of patron privacy, peeled my unique barcode off the back. I placed the bright green library card on the altar next to the neon orange football.

Betsy Bernfeld is an attorney and former director of the Teton County Library. She has been a resident of Wilson and avid user of the library for 45 years. Guest Shots are solely the opinion of their authors.

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