Founded in 1876 in Philadelphia and chartered three years later in Massachusetts, the American Library Association (ALA) is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with more than 64,000 members. Its mission is “to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.”
In recent years, the ALA has been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s War on Terror and, most particularly, Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Section 215 reworks Title V of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, and states that if the FBI believes a library’s computers are being used by terrorists to plan or carry out their activities, the Bureau may make an application to a judge who can grant an order for the production of a suspected patron’s records. ALA members condemn Section 215, vowing that they will not break the “sacred” trust that exists between a patron and a librarian.
Following ALA policy, more than 225 libraries across the United States have chosen to defy the mandates of Section 215. For instance, the Santa Cruz, California library has chosen to shred all records of its patrons’ book use on a daily basis. Anne M. Turner, Director of that city’s library system, explained, “The basic strategy now is to keep as little historical information as possible.”
In January 2003 the ALA passed a resolution calling Section 215 “a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users.” The organization’s website featured a prominent display of lawsuits filed against the federal government in an effort to thwart the implementation of the Patriot Act. In a link titled “FBI in Your Library,” the ALA website described a scenario where “A couple of suited thugs take the library patron away.” The website also provided a link to a Village Voice article titled “Things we lost in the fire,” depicting America’s alleged transformation into a fascist state. “Looking for terrorists in a public library is just part of an overall strategy to diminish the civil liberties of American citizens,” said ALA President Mitch (Maurice) Freedman.
The ALA has a long history of objecting to government interference or scrutiny. In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, the organization issued its “Freedom to Read” statement, resisting federal calls to loyalty. In 1984 the ALA passed a resolution condemning the United States for withdrawing from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. (That withdrawal had been made to protest UNESCO’s growing politicization; anti-Western bias; budgetary mismanagement; anti-free market policies; and advocacy of a “new world information order” through which the organization sought to institute the licensing of journalists and increased government control over the media.)
In 1998 the ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) voiced its opposition to the U.S. bombing of Iraq. The self-proclaimed “conscience of the ALA,” the SRRT believes that “libraries and librarians must recognize and help solve social problems and inequities in order to carry out their mandate to work for the common good and bolster democracy.”
In June 2002 the ALA, under the auspices of its SRRT section, condemned Israel for its alleged oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The ALA demanded that the United States and other nations do all they could to “prevent further destruction of libraries and cultural resources” in Palestinian territories by Israel. When confronted with the fact that any destruction at the time had taken place during a war (the Palestinian Intifada against Israel), ALA President Mitch Freedman responded: “ALA policy does not differentiate between deliberate or unintentional destruction. Whether it is intentional or unintentional, justified or unjustified, the destruction of libraries, library collections, and property [is deplored by the ALA].”
At a January 2003 ALA meeting in Philadelphia, Freedman screened a documentary about the bitterly anti-American, anti-Israel professor Noam Chomsky, and a videotaped speech by Amy Goodman, the host of the Democracy Now! radio program.
Two months later, the ALA argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) — which states that libraries should filter Internet access to eliminate “visual depictions that are obscene, contain child pornography or are harmful to minors” — was an infringement on freedom of expression. The ALA spent more than $1.7 million on court battles to fight the implementation of CIPA.
In 2003, when news outlets reported that Iraqi libraries had been vandalized and looted during the conflict, the ALA website blamed the United States.
The ALA website features a section titled “Alternative Resources on the U.S. ‘War Against Terrorism,” which contains links to Antiwar.com, MichaelMoore.com, StopTheWar.com, War Resisters League, and a series of petitions opposing America’s War on Terrorism. The SRRT portion of the ALA website directs readers to links that explore “Cuban Library Tours and Conferences” where they can “find out for [themselves] the real Cuba.” There are also links to the “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgendered Round Table,” and to numerous websites beginning with the word “progressive.”
The ALA was a signatory to a March 17, 2003 letter exhorting members of the U.S. Congress to oppose Patriot Act II on grounds that it “would severely dilute, if not undermine, many basic constitutional rights.” In addition, the ALA has given its organizational endorsement to the Community Resolution to Protect Civil Liberties campaign, which tries to influence city councils to pass resolutions of noncompliance with the Patriot Act.
The ALA is a member organization of the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE), a coalition of groups that believe the American workplace is rife with sexism and discrimination against women.
The ALA has received funding from: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Verizon Foundation, among others.