The Justice Department last week rescinded an order that would have required federal depository libraries to withdraw and destroy five department publications that library advocates argued should remain available to the public.
The American Library Association had objected to the June directive from Justice's criminal division, which involved documents dealing with asset forfeiture laws and procedures, including how citizens can retrieve items confiscated by the government during an investigation.
Justice officials maintained that the documents were for internal use only and were mistakenly distributed to about 1,300 libraries across the country that specialize in government documents. But some of the documents are available in corporate law libraries and other places, according to the ALA. One of the publications was merely the text of a law, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, said Carol Brey-Casiano, ALA president and director of the El Paso Public Library.
"This doesn't seem to meet the criteria that is usually used when we're asked to destroy documents," she said. "I think that's what raised sort of a red flag for us."
Brey-Casiano said that in the rare instances in which federal agencies have asked libraries to withdraw documents from their collections it has been because the materials contained errors or had become outdated.
Of the 265,000 documents the Government Printing Office has distributed to depository libraries in the last 10 years, only 20 were withdrawn at an agency's request, said Judy Russell, superintendent of documents at the GPO.
Casey Stavropoulos, a Justice spokeswoman, said Tuesday that although the department did not intend to disclose the documents, "there wasn't sensitivity in the actual material that required removal from the library system."
The ALA, concerned that destroying the documents would make it more difficult for the public to see them, had urged its members to contact Congress in an effort to keep the materials in the collections. The group also filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the recalled materials with the department to underscore its contention that the documents should be publicly available.
"You can never have too much information and you can never have access to it in too many different ways," Brey-Casiano said. "We really think of the federal depository library as sort of the first line of access to government information for the general public."
Russell also made inquiries to the department about why the documents had to be removed, and recently informed depository libraries that Justice officials had changed their minds.