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Whether they are aware or not, librarians have just experienced a significant moment in their own history and in the history of the country. Over the past few months, opposition among the profession to the provisions of the Patriot Act reached the point where librarians, individually and collectively, did a thing they are not ordinarily known for: they made noise.
The reason for this racket was because the administration somehow managed to do the one thing that would make librarians howl: they came between patrons and the right to read. Librarians do not ask for much; library pay is nothing to write home about, and the work requires a spirit of devotion as much as anything else. A library career offers the opportunity to serve, generally in anonymity, a public which rarely if ever recognizes the contributor except as a quaint, if generally positive stereotype.The recent frantic tap-dancing by Attorney General John Ashcroft reflects the fact that the librarians' message has hit home in a big way, registering with the public in a manner which does nothing for the image of a president who has sought to ride the wave of public support in the wake of 9-11.
I would venture to say that no previous Attorney General has made a whistle-stop tour of the nation to defuse the protests of mere librarians, but these are not mere librarians: they are librarians alienated, offended, even enraged. More than anything, they are librarians united. Ashcroft has become to the library what Reagan's James Watt was to the environmental community, and not so much for the deed as for the defense, the denial, the attacks upon the offended parties. All of this has had a galvanic effect upon the librarians, making them come together as nothing, not even terrible budget cutbacks, could do.
We ought to give thanks for such officials as John Ashcroft. Without him, the Patriot Act would have no personal face, no identity except on paper. Given the work he has done for the profession, he is certainly a candidate for any library association's Person of the Year.