This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, November 22, 2000

November 22, 2000 - Tattered Cover and Customer Privacy

I have long been an admirer of Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover bookstore. I've even had the pleasure of working with her on several efforts to resist censorship.

Joyce doesn't just sell books, she really believes in the whole idea of an untrammeled world of ideas. She has lost customers by bringing in certain authors for book signings. This isn't an issue of left versus right, liberal versus conservative. Through her author invitations, she has offended both ends of the spectrum. Joyce believes that people have the right to think, speak, write, and read what they will. She literally puts her money where her mouth is.

Joyce is in the news again. She's seeking to block a subpoena forcing her to provide customer records to the police. Her notion -- almost quaint in an age of ever more invasive electronic attacks on privacy -- is that what you buy from a bookstore is a confidential transaction.

I'm not sure I can accurately summarize the police position. I believe they found a book at the scene of a crime, and that both involved the making of methamphetamine. A Tattered Cover invoice was also present at the scene. The police are seeking customer records from Tattered Cover to link the book to one of several persons under suspicion of the crime.

Joyce states that if her customers believe that business records about what books people purchase can be opened to governmental review, and that buying a book on a subject bespeaks an intent to commit a crime, this will have a "chilling effect" on her business. I think she's right.

I once faced a similar situation. I used to work in an Illinois library as the head of a large circulation department. The local police came to me with a library book, found at the place where arson was suspected. It was their only real lead. As in Colorado, I was forbidden to reveal this information UNLESS a subpoena were presented. First, though, I tried to verify that we had the information. I discovered that the book hadn't been checked out at all.

It should surprise no one to learn that somebody who steals a library book is capable of other crimes.

But Joyce has raised some troubling questions. Most people would grant that police work is important and difficult. Most of the time, cooperation with duly constituted authority is reasonable.

But for civil libertarians and others, alarm bells begin to sound when the government seeks to expand its ability to monitor not just what citizens DO, but what they are thinking about.

Have you ever read a book about something that was a crime? Or something that might one day be considered a crime?

Have you ever done a student report on drugs, or famous robberies? Have you, as a citizen, investigated charges of official corruption?

Just how eager should we be to start locking up people, or seeking to lock them up, on the basis of what strikes their curiosity? At what point does the attempt to catch crooks begin to make crooks of us all?

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