Interlibrary Loan Causes a Stir

The blogosphere was humming over the weekend with a startling news story, “Agents’ Visit Chills UMass Dartmouth Senior,” published in the Standard-Times, a daily that serves Dartmouth, New Bedford, and other Southcoast Massachusetts towns. Professors told a reporter that one of their students had been visited by Homeland Security agents after requesting a copy of Mao’s “Little Red Book” through interlibrary loan.

The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand’s class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents’ home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said. . . The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a “watch list,” and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further. . .

Dr. Williams said he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk. “I shudder to think of all the students I’ve had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that,” he said. “Mao Tse-Tung is completely harmless.”

This story roused my curiosity because if true, it’s appalling. If half-true, it’s appalling. The idea that even the threat of surveillance would cause a professor to reconsider what he teaches is chilling indeed. But there were some oddities that made me want to know more. It seemed strange, for instance, that a library would ask for a student’s social security number on an interlibrary loan form; I looked at the UMass Dartmouth library’s Web site and, sure enough, it doesn’t.

Today, the University issued a statement. Though they aren’t contesting the student’s claim, and they are protecting his identity at his request, they offer some reassurance that their library, at least, didn’t participate in violating the student’s rights. The student says he made the request through another library, unnamed. The rest of the UMass Dartmouth statement goes on:

The UMass Dartmouth library has established policies for handling requests under the Patriot Act and has taken every lawful measure possible to protect the confidentiality of patron records.

The Library subscribes to the American Library Association Library Bill of Rights and was a signatory to the MCCLPHEI (Massachusetts Conference of Chief Librarians of Public Higher Educational Institutions) resolution on the USA Patriots Act submitted to the Massachusetts Civil Liberty Union in 2003.

UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack said, “It is important that our students and our faculty be unfettered in their pursuit of knowledge about other cultures and political systems if their education and research is to be meaningful. We must do everything possible to protect the principles of academic inquiry.”

I hope the rest of this story gets a thorough airing in time. Many bloggers commenting so far don’t seem aware of the fact that libraries don’t participate in surveillance willingly and short of a court order or National Security Letter would never report on a student’s reading habits.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

16 thoughts on “Interlibrary Loan Causes a Stir”

  1. If it is not the UMass Dartmouth library card that was used in the interlibrary loan transaction, then two other issues need to be addressed.

    First, are our consortial agreements loopholes through which a search of patron records from one of our consortium partners enters our system without our knowledge? Perhaps one way to find out if that is the case here is to ask if the search of the student’s records could have come from another member of the library consortium serving UMass students? Perhaps someone knowledgeable about the requirements of those libraries could find out if any require the patron’s Social Security Number for an interlibrary request initiated by that library.

    The second issue is the source of the UMass card. It sounds as though it is similar to the kind of all-in-one ‘smart’ card used at many campuses. If so, the card is like a debit card that students can use to pay bills at the university as well as use for library circulation. According to the website for the UMass card, the student’s Social Security Number is used in at least one case, to request a refund of the balance on a card that is being terminated:
    “7. REFUNDS AND MERCHANDISE RETURNS: … All accounts will be closed before a refund is granted. A refund request letter from the account holder must be submitted before a refund is processed. The letter must be addressed to The UMass Pass Office and include the Name, Social Security Number, Current Address, Date, and Signature of account holder.”

    Again, perhaps we are opening a back door to student records through the use of debit/library cards. Although this student does not seem to be have been affected in this way, could any search of business records related to UMass or other university ‘smart’ cards open the library’s patron database to the same search as an extension of business records associated with this account number without any warrant or subpoena submitted to the library administration?

    Both issues — consortial loopholes and debit/library card back doors — would seem to apply to many college and university libraries and be worth investigating.

  2. Pingback: The American Mind
  3. Sherrill brings up an interesting point. If our records systems are tied into other enterprise systems, it may be possible for a subpoena to be served on someone who has access to the other one, and that person my have no qualms about assisting a law officer who has the paperwork. And given that paperwork now can come with a built-in gag order, they may not be in a position to consult the library first.

    Our system isn’t that integrated, so I’m pretty sure there’s no route for getting book-level detail from any non-library database. But it would be tempting to have a system that would populate patron records for us or handle the accounting when a book is lost. As is so often the case, what we may choose for convenience and efficiency could also mean we lose privacy – as we do when we make our OPACs more interactive and responsive.

  4. Another fishy element to this story:

    The article in South Coast Today reports of the “Little Red Book” that, “Although there are abridged versions available, the student asked for a version translated directly from the original book.”

    However, there is no “original book.” The book is actually titled “Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.” Mao never wrote something called, the “Little Red Book.” Rather, a series of quotations from his writings and speeches were assembled for mass consumption. It came to be known as the “Little Red Book.” It is, itself, abridged.

    The idea that the “original” of this book is hard to come by is ridiculous — it is one of the most printed books of the last century, available in any decent used book store and sold for pennies to any American tourist who wants one outside attractions all over China.

  5. There are in fact several different versions of “Quotations” in circulation. Many people consider the 1966 Peking edition canonical–and besides, it has a brief intro/epigraph from Lin Piao, If you want to read that edition, it’s available on line along with other Zedong Mao works at

  6. An interesting post over on Bibliotheke on this issue provides great background on the whole surveillance issue. I certainly agree with the conclusion: “However, the unfortunate thing about incidents like this is that once they are debunked, many people then disregard anything related to the subject. That’s not good. With the recent revelations about wiretaps on US citizens, these issues need to be recognized, examined and debated more than ever.” And, while it comes as no suprise to anyone who’s ever been involved in any kind of activism, it’s now public knowledge that police routinely infiltrate organizations and even act as provocateurs – just like the good old days of COINTELPRO.

  7. Please, old friends and much respected colleagues, use this hoaxy story to keep this topic of privacy of library records in the news. Our public has much to learn. Don’t miss the chance on this. Thanks, Laurie Person Maitre MLS McGill 1971.

  8. well, there’s aparently one main english translation based on a condensed version, and that’s the one which accounts for the millions sold. what’s silly is the idea that there is some sort of “davinci code” text in the peking edition that merits special investigation.

    an unstable maoist here:

    …suggests that the reason for special attention to this edition may be simply that by entering the data stream of the library system the student was suddenly exposed to the feds. this is ignorant, bumper-sticker analasys. the provision that allegedly makes our libraries into federal dragnets also allows the feds to get business records. so why this student and not another who bought his on amazon? like i said; silly.

    he does raise the point that the student’s studies abroad may have put him in proximity of maoist terrorists in nepal or the philipines. to me this adds the first glimmer of motivation on the part of the feds, while still not explaining the dramatic but unlikely claim about a pair of agents hand-delivering the book. and, instead of lying and saying they had a warrant, alerting the student that they didn’t have one. and telling the student that the book is on a list. and so forth; that scene apparently had a lot of expository dialogue.

    further thoughts are here:

  9. Federal agents’ visit was a hoax
    Student admits he lied about Mao book
    By AARON NICODEMUS, Standard-Times staff writer
    NEW BEDFORD — The UMass Dartmouth student who claimed to have been visited by Homeland Security agents over his request for “The Little Red Book” by Mao Zedong has admitted to making up the entire story.

    The 22-year-old student tearfully admitted he made the story up to his history professor, Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, and his parents, after being confronted with the inconsistencies in his account.

    Had the student stuck to his original story, it might never have been proved false.

    But on Thursday, when the student told his tale in the office of UMass Dartmouth professor Dr. Robert Pontbriand to Dr. Williams, Dr. Pontbriand, university spokesman John Hoey and The Standard-Times, the student added new details. The agents had returned, the student said, just last night. The two agents, the student, his parents and the student’s uncle all signed confidentiality agreements, he claimed, to put an end to the matter.

    But when Dr. Williams went to the student’s home yesterday and relayed that part of the story to his parents, it was the first time they had heard it. The story began to unravel, and the student, faced with the truth, broke down and cried.

    It was a dramatic turnaround from the day before. For more than an hour on Thursday, he spoke of two visits from Homeland Security over his inter-library loan request for the 1965, Peking Press version of “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung,” which is the book’s official title. His basic tale remained the same: The book was on a government watch list, and his loan request had triggered a visit from an agent who was seeking to “tame” reading of particular books. He said he saw a long list of such books. In the days after its initial reporting on Dec. 17 in The Standard-Times, the story had become an international phenomenon on the Internet. Media outlets from around the world were requesting interviews with the students, and a number of reporters had been asking UMass Dartmouth students and professors for information.

    The story’s release came at a perfect storm in the news cycle. Only a day before, The New York Times had reported that President Bush had allowed the National Security Agency to conduct wiretaps on international phone calls from the United States without a warrant. The Patriot Act, created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to allow the government greater authority to monitor for possible terrorism activities, was up for re-authorization in Congress.

    There was an increased sense among some Americans that the U.S. government was overstepping its bounds and trampling on civil liberties in order to thwart future attacks of terrorism. The story of a college student being questioned for requesting a 40-year old book on Communism fed right into that atmosphere.

    In Thursday’s retelling of the story, the student added several new twists, ones that the professors and journalist had not heard before. The biggest new piece of information was an alleged second visit of Homeland Security agents the previous night, where two agents waited in his living room for two hours with his parents and brother while he drove back from a retreat in western Massachusetts. He said he, the agents, his parents and his uncle all signed confidentiality agreements that the story would never be told.

  10. Thanks for the update. Tough for the student, who probably had no idea what he was getting into. Tough for all the people left scrambling to check his story out. But it’s not surprising that people would begin to find the boundaries between reality and fantasy blurring. Today’s news only makes such stories seem more possible. What kills me about this story? Not only is the government keeping an incredible breach of our civil liberties secret, one of the telecom folks wants to keep details under his hat – not because of national secrurity but because of “trade secrets.” John LeCarre couldn’t be more outrageously ironic about the merger of corporate America and the current administration.

  11. Happened upon this website and was amused to find Ms. Fister’s defense of the lying student – “Tough for the student, who probably had no idea what he was getting into”, and even better her attempt to use this discredited story as evidence somehow of the “abuse” she imagines the government is guilty of.

    It is always fun to look at the aftermath of a hoax the liberal community siezes on and then is burned by.


  12. For the record, I was skeptical about this story from the start. And yes, I cringe thinking about a student who tells his prof a lie and then finds it all over the Internet when the professor mentions it to a reporter at the local paper – so sue me for being sympathetic.

    As for “imagining” the government is guilty of making huge sweeps of our communications outside the bounds of law – unfortunately there’s nothing imaginary about it. Nor especially left-wing to be bothered by it, since conservatives aren’t too crazy about federal agents eavesdropping on innocent citizens either.

  13. PS: here’s the Boston Globe’s coverage of the story. They decided not to run it since there were too many holes in the story – but carried an op-ed piece by Ted Kennedy that cited it.

    All of this is a good argument for information literacy that includes significant attention to critical perspectives on sources.

  14. “But it’s not surprising that people would begin to find the boundaries between reality and fantasy blurring.”

    i’m never surprised of the often cavalier disregard for the truth possessed by progressives. they seem to have no problem with poisoning the well with lies. i’ve learned not to respect their views because of this, and certianly don’t believe their claims.

    the fact is that if it weren’t for the implication of the libraries in this story, progressives would be citing this fraudulent incident for years from now. it would be “true enough” as is the sentiment i see expressed here (this also seems to be the extent of reflection progressives think this incident is owed). if it were anyone else — law enforcemnent, business, the clergy, etc. — progressives would be only happy to let this sort of lie stand unchallenged.

    i truly hope that progressive communities use this as an opportunity to inquire within themselves about their fitness to “speak truth to ignorance”.

    i for one am not content with the fraud simply being quickly moved on from. i would like to know what environment, what associations and what motivations caused this.

    i hope all people who care about the truth press the boston globe and the southcoast to follow up on this story further.

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