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New Privacy Protections for Library Patrons

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Vermonters troubled by government's right to know what books they're reading and the topics they're researching can breathe easier. A new state law, signed by Gov. Jim Douglas, requires all libraries that are open to the public to keep patrons' records confidential, except if ordered by a judge to disclose them.

The law, initiated by the Vermont Library Association (VLA), creates broad new privacy protections for library users, putting circulation records, Internet-search histories and email reference questions off-limits.

Librarians across the country have long been troubled by the FBI's growing use of so-called "national security letters," or NSAs, to snoop into patrons' library habits. Librarians who receive an NSA are subject to a lifetime gag order, which prevents them from revealing the letter's contents or even disclosing that they've received one.

Trina Magi, a University of Vermont librarian who until recently chaired the VLA's intellectual freedom committee, says the law wasn't a direct response to provisions in the USA Patriot Act that allow federal agents to search library records without a warrant. Rather, Magi said, the law addresses Vermont's statutory protections, which are "inadequate and confusing" compared to those in most other states.

"Our committee would get calls from time to time from libraries all over the state saying, 'We just got a request for records. What are we supposed to do?'" she said. "So we thought it was time to make things clearer."

The Vermont law doesn't break any new ground, nor does it trump federal law. Library records can still be subpoenaed and, in a compromise that sped the bill's passage, parents of children 16 and under can still access their kids' records.

The VLA opposed the parental exemption, Magi said, arguing that young people often use the library to research topics they're uncomfortable discussing with their parents, such as health, sexuality, religion and politics.

"In a public library setting, we feel that librarians should not be involved in these matters," Magi said. "There are all kinds of other ways that parents can be involved in their kids' reading."

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