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Library Policy Hurts Privacy, Patron Says
Shirlington's Response Fails to Assuage Fears

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

When the ultra-modern $17 million library and theater complex opened in Shirlington in March, Elliott Jaffa was ecstatic. The library, a half-mile from his home, boasted the latest in technology, with 28 computers, wireless high-speed Internet access and books with built-in microchips to enable patrons to use special machines to swipe their library cards and check out books themselves.

He loved it. Self checkout is part of the transformation among libraries as they redefine themselves in an age of multimedia, using technology to free librarians from boring, routine tasks so they can spend more time organizing author talks and poetry workshops and helping with in-depth research questions.

But then Jaffa asked the library to hold a book for him, and when he came to pick it up, he didn't like what he found. Instead of his book being held discreetly behind a desk, he found it on shelves in the lobby, with the title and his full name in plain view of passersby.

"This is not new technology," Jaffa said. "This is a break away from all the rules about privacy typically associated with a library."

It's not that Jaffa had anything to hide. He said he wasn't ashamed that he liked to read mysteries and schlocky fiction. It was the principle. Libraries are supposed to protect privacy and intellectual freedom. Libraries have gone to Congress to fight an anti-terrorism law that gives the FBI greater authority to seize records of patrons under suspicion. With the new hold policy, all an agent -- or a nosy neighbor or passerby -- would have to do is walk into the lobby, where people's reading choices were in full view.

Jaffa decided to press his case. He called the branch manager and talked with the director of Arlington County's public libraries. The Shirlington library went from putting a Post-it note with the person's name on the spine of a book to covering the book with a sheet of paper that had the person's name. Jaffa persisted. So library officials began putting the books in manila envelopes. Jaffa is still unhappy.

"Why don't they use the library [card] number? Or, like American Airlines, use the first three letters of the first name and the first three of the last name?" he said. "Just eliminate the full name."

Branch manager Susan McCarthy said the new system illustrates efforts of libraries to fit the vibe of their communities.

"Really, it was a matter of convenience," she said. "Here in the village, we have people who come to do multiple things -- buy lunch, pick up dry cleaning, buy theater tickets. We wanted them to be able to bop into the library, pick up their books and browse."

She said the library took Jaffa's complaints seriously, pointing out that it began putting the reserved books in envelopes. Further, she said, the books on hold are linked to a person's library card and can't be checked out by anyone else. "We did offer (Jaffa) an accommodation to hold his books and anyone else's behind the desk, but they would have to wait in line to pick them up."

McCarthy said she walks by the shelves of reserved books all the time and has never seen anything untoward. And no one else has complained, she said.

Jaffa is not convinced. He went last week to the airy, 15,000-square-foot glass-and-steel library to prove his point. He easily picked books at random from the shelves, opened the envelopes and peeked in, finding that his neighbors wanted to read books on raising emotionally intelligent children, had asked for "Jews and Power" and had ordered DVDs of the TV show "The West Wing."

"I could stand there all day and look at what everyone's reading, and no one would stop me," Jaffa said. And indeed, no one did. No one appeared to even notice.

"What if I see that a neighbor has books on how to build a bomb? Is he a terrorist? Do I tell somebody?" Jaffa said. "What if I see someone I know is checking out books on getting a divorce. Suppose I start talking to friends asking if there's something going on? Or if someone's getting books on cancer, and I see her and say, 'Hey Mary, do you have cancer? I saw you checked out three books on it?' "

Jaffa said the only thing that has surprised him is that no one else seems as bothered that their privacy could be so easily invaded.

During Jaffa's demonstration, Eileen Bradley came by to pick up her reserved books. Was she worried about her privacy?

"No," she shrugged. "This is very simple. It's an easy way to get your books. It never even occurred to me. These days, people can find out anything they want about you. There's no privacy anymore. Just go on the Internet and see what comes up."

She, however, drew the line at the government knowing. And, the more she thought of it, Jaffa's suggestions to stop using patrons' full names began to make sense. "That sounds reasonable," she said. "It's not that I have zero concern. And you're asking for a minor adjustment."

Diane Kresh, director of libraries, said the self checkout and easy access to books on hold is the direction many libraries are taking, including some in Fairfax, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties. She said the county has addressed Jaffa's concerns. "We have to balance one person's complaint with meeting the majority of our patrons' needs."

Back at the library, Jaffa, a consultant and retired psychologist, said the new policy won't keep him from reserving the two to three books a week he reads. But he said he won't be happy until he knows no one can rifle through them and figure out what he reads.

Has he ever seen anyone do that?

"No," he said. "But it can be done. And that's what bothers me."

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