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Before book-banning wave, the FBI spied on people’s library activity

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/23/2023 Anthony Aycock
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Efforts by school boards and county and state governments to ban books have taken on historic proportions in recent years. The American Library Association reported a record-setting number of book challenges in 2021 — a record that probably was broken in 2022 — and some challengers went so far as to call for the librarians who maintained these books to be arrested.

But even if government censorship of libraries is unprecedented in scope, it’s not new. Fifty years ago, there was another campaign to monitor people’s access to books. It was overseen not by local governments but by the FBI.

And it was not concerned about kids getting a peek at Captain Underpants (among the most-challenged books of the past decade) — it was looking for Soviet spies.

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The first evidence of FBI surveillance of libraries came in January 1971, when two agents visited the home of Zoia Horn, chief reference librarian at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. The agents were investigating a supposed plot to detonate tunnels beneath Washington, D.C., and kidnap Henry Kissinger, President Richard M. Nixon’s national security adviser. The FBI learned about this plot from Boyd Douglas, an inmate at a nearby federal prison who had a work-release job at the Bucknell library. The agents wanted to know what Douglas may have seen and heard among the library’s patrons.

The FBI’s intrusion sickened Horn. Patron privacy is part of the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, which states, “All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use.” She cooperated with the investigation at first, but later, when she was called to testify at a suspect’s trial, she refused. Her failure to cooperate cost her 20 days in jail.

“The very presence of an FBI informant sends chills down people’s backs,” Horn said in a 2002 interview, as libraries were once again in the news because the Patriot Act required them to produce “any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents and other items)” requested by the FBI during a terrorist investigation. “It means Big Brother is watching you.”

Zoia Horn, former Bucknell University librarian, leaves the Federal building in Harrisburg, Pa., after refusing to answer questions in the trial of seven antiwar activists in an alleged bomb-kidnap conspiracy in 1972. © Paul Vathis/AP Zoia Horn, former Bucknell University librarian, leaves the Federal building in Harrisburg, Pa., after refusing to answer questions in the trial of seven antiwar activists in an alleged bomb-kidnap conspiracy in 1972.

Other libraries were visited throughout the 1970s and 1980s as part of what became known as the FBI’s Library Awareness Program. Most were university libraries, though public libraries in New York and Broward County, Fla., were also targets.

The FBI’s purpose, according to Herbert N. Foerstel in his book “Surveillance in the Stacks,” was to demand details about library use by people from countries “hostile to the United States, such as the Soviet Union.” Agents tended to approach whoever was at the reference desk — often a student assistant or paraprofessional — and ask for names and other details of people who used the library to locate technical and scientific materials, such as engineering journals and publications of the National Technical Information Service. At the University of Wisconsin, according to Foerstel, agents watched a Soviet national reading the Russian newspaper “Pravda” and then asked a librarian if that copy “had been marked up.”

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The public was largely ignorant of these encounters until the case of Gennady Zakharov, a Russian-born United Nations aide who was indicted in 1986 for trying to transmit “unclassified information about [American] robotics and computer technology” to the Soviets. His source turned out to be a Guyanese college student who stole publicly available microfiche from several New York-area libraries and sold it to Zakharov.

The next year, the New York Times reported for the first time on the existence of the Library Awareness Program, calling it part of a national counterintelligence effort.

The FBI immediately tried to downplay the program’s significance. “Hostile intelligence has had some success working the campuses and libraries,” said James Fox, deputy assistant director of the New York FBI office, “and we’re just going around telling people what to be alert for.”

This explanation didn’t satisfy librarians. “We’re extremely concerned,” said Betsy Pinover, public relations director of the New York Public Library, “about intellectual freedom and the reader’s right to privacy, and are committed to protecting the privacy of our readers.” The New York Library Association and American Library Association issued similar statements. Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.), a former librarian, called it “a new low for the anti-intellectualism of the Reagan administration.” Cartoonists took aim; humorists made hay. (A person “is not a spy just because he wants to read a book on lasers,” advised Washington Post humor columnist Art Buchwald, but the FBI should be notified “[i]f he tears the pages out of the book and stuffs them into his pants.”)

Finally, Congress took note. In June and July of 1988, a House subcommittee on civil rights held a pair of hearings on library counterintelligence. Subcommittee chairman Don Edwards (D-Calif.) opened the first hearing by observing that libraries “are intended to be havens for scholarly work and quiet relaxation” and that their records “should not be available to intelligence agencies just for the asking.”

The FBI defended its work in a report, “The KGB and the Library Target: 1962-Present,” in which it claimed, “For nearly three decades, the [Soviet Union] has found it beneficial to concentrate some of its resources on the targeting of America’s … libraries.” The American Civil Liberties Union and a slew of library organizations countered by pointing out that the FBI’s activities contradicted library privacy laws in 38 states, plus the District of Columbia.

It is unclear exactly when the Library Awareness Program formally began, or when it ended. Given the prominence it briefly acquired in the 1980s, it’s remarkable how quickly it was forgotten. On a 1989 episode of “Jeopardy!,” for instance, Alex Trebek read the following clue: “This Bureau’s nationwide Library Awareness Program is intended to ferret out Soviet spies.”

There were probably a few fist bumps at 935 Pennsylvania Avenue when no contestant was able to answer, “What is the FBI?”

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