A few days ago I cracked open Inventing the Public Enemy: The Gangster in American Culture: 1918-1934 by David E. Ruth. Over the title page was a small notice with a Homeland Security symbol. The notice read as follows: “As of 15 November 2007, the book you are holding has been deemed ‘Elevated Risk’ in accordance with PATRIOT-USA as per NSA and DHS regulations. By checking this book out of the library, you may be subject to the exceptional deployment of certain surveillance measures from the United States of Homeland Security.”
At first I thought it was a joke played by a bored, creative undergraduate student. Then I thought, if this is real, how come it’s the first time I’ve ever seen one of these? Then I was disconcerted. Libraries have always been my safe havens. When I arrive in a new city, the first thing I do is obtain a library card. The URI librarians and I are on a first name basis. It might have to do with the fact that when I was a child, librarians were the kindest people I knew. I was the adolescent that took out 12 to 20 books at a time–the stacks sometimes as tall as I was. I loved roaming through the card catalog and picking books out by the strange sounding titles or even stranger author names. I cracked open the spines of books and smelled the pages. The librarians always helped to reach the books placed on a too high shelf.
When I saw the Homeland Security notice, I did what I was trained to do: I went to the source. My librarians would know the answer. Tell me it was, in fact, a joke. When I asked the URI librarians about it, they said, “well, some books were deemed an elevated risk after the Patriot Act, but we never marked up our books.” One of the librarians called Brown University (where the book was from) and came back with this story:
Apparently back in 2011, Brown placed this notice in every book that had words like bomb, bombing, terror, terrorism, gang, gangster, etc. It had to do with some new amendment to the USA Patriot Act. Brown removed the notices a few years later, after the expiration of said amendment. Apparently, “they missed a few.”
After my visit to the URI library, I received an email from David E. Ruth. I wrote him because I wanted to know if he knew about the notice or if he might have some other insight. He said, it was “a product of clever anti-Patriot Act activism by someone at Brown.” So, I dug further. In June 2015, Section 215, which according to Slate magazine was “commonly nicknamed the ‘library records provision,'” expired. Before the expiration, librarians had fought this amendment through various tactics. In particular, some librarians hung up signs that stated:
Now I’m not sure what to think. If the Brown librarians were practicing civil disobedience, why didn’t they tell the URI librarians? Perhaps the Brown librarian with whom my librarian spoke did not work in the library during the years of fighting Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Or perhaps we have reached a point in time where we all know we are being monitored and accept it. Was the notice then both a warning and a protest? Either way, I know more and less about how I might be a deemed a “public enemy” for my reading and writing habits.