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The Law Librarian and the FBI: A Shaggy Dog Tale in Six Parts: PART ONE

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Librarians, rightly, worry about what to do when the FBI comes knocking, but what does a librarian do when they already knocked and you want back what they might have taken?

(As for Shaggy Dog tales, I owe what I know of them to Isaac Asimov’s “Treasury of Humor,” Houghton Mifflin, 1971. But you can also find shaggy dog stories on the web, here and here and elsewhere.)

(Links to all six parts, from here or … PARTS ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR,  FIVE and SIX)

The beginning:

You win some and you lose some. And then there is that little known third category. [Al Gore, after the 2000 Presidential election, I am told, while campaigning for Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Belton]

While reading The Book Thief, (Travis McDade, Praeger Publishers, 2006), I realized that I had my own tale to tell of the disappearance of two of my law library’s books. In The Book Thief, a federal district court judge learns that a stolen book may not be “just a book.” In my case, a law librarian (and not a few prosecutors) learns that a “search and seizure” does not always make a good case.

When Brandon Mayfield was arrested in the Spring of 2004 and his personal property boxed up and taken away by the FBI, two of my law library’s books that had been checked out to him disappeared as well. Librarians care about missing books, at least most of us do, and in this instance when it looked as if some of my library’s books were caught up in a questionably lawful search, my duty to recover the books was clear. Or was it?

The Librarians’ Code of Justice is an amorphous thing, and perhaps only one of my imagination, unlike the Librarians’ Code of Ethics, which does exist, The Librarians’ Code of Justice has led to some librarians being called “those Radical, Militant Librarians” instead of not being called anything at all or at best, or mild-mannered, bun-encumbered, Marian Librarians at worst. (We won’t even talk about the dire fate of Mary in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” for whom becoming a career librarian was apparently a fate worse than death.)

At the time of Mr. Mayfield’s arrest, circumspection seemed the order of the day. In fact, in the months after his arrest and release and the accompanying uproar, asking after the well-being of a couple of library books, when the well-being of a man and his family, not to mention the U.S. Constitution, were in the most dire jeopardy, seemed singularly inappropriate, on so many levels. My library’s books would and could wait. They weren’t going anywhere. Or were they? Well, I would worry about that later. Instead, I would use the time to do what any good American would do under the circumstances – I would talk to a lawyer or two. (Besides, I needed to find out what to do if the FBI came knocking, a not unheard of possibility at the time.)

I’ve been a law librarian for a long time and happen to know all manner of lawyers from here in Hillsboro, Oregon to the Ivory Towers of East Coast academe. But this case seemed to call for a certain level, yet unknown, of caution so I restricted my legal explorations to those lawyers who I might have to call upon if I got myself in a fix while trying to track down the missing books. Apparently, a “fix” is exactly what this already was (remember, this was 2004). I no sooner asked the question, “how should I inquire into the fate of these books?” than I was immediately warned, and quite firmly at that. Any protestations of mine along the lines of “but they are just library books” was met with, “you don’t know these guys – they’re serious, scary, and if you come to their attention the least of your worries will be the fate of books or your tax returns.” Oh dear. And as Pogo might say,“It’s a mighty sobering thought.”

To be continued …

(PARTS ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR,  FIVE and SIX)