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Librarians Emerging From Book Stacks, Increasing Activism

They've mobilized in Washington and are engaged in far more controversial subjects than their usual issues.

November 25, 2002|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Former congresswoman and one-time presidential candidate Pat Schroeder is hardly a Washington novice, but she took a political drubbing recently from the unlikeliest of foes: a bunch of librarians.

Schroeder, who now heads the Assn. of American Publishers, had the temerity to publicly criticize libraries for their stance on copyright laws and for distributing free copies of electronic books and articles that publishers are trying to sell. Schroeder's spokeswoman made matters worse by complaining about the libraries' "radical factions."

Librarians pounced.

They roasted Schroeder for "library-bashing." They confronted Schroeder at public appearances, demanding an apology. They wrote to lawmakers en masse to complain.

Eventually, Schroeder raised a white flag and backed away from her comments.

The lesson? Don't mess with librarians these days.

They were supposed to quietly fade away with the advent of the Internet, but libraries -- and librarians -- are enjoying a higher profile than ever before. They've mobilized in Washington, beefing up their lobbying presence and inserting themselves into far more controversial subjects than their usual bread-and-butter issues, such as literacy.

The 65,000-member American Library Assn., the chief trade group for librarians, has:

* Led opposition to tougher copyright laws, putting it at odds with major entertainment and publishing conglomerates.

* Lobbied against the Bush administration's anti-terrorism Patriot Act because it gave law enforcement easier access to library records.

* Successfully sued the government to block an anti-pornography law that required libraries to install Internet filters on library computers or risk losing federal funds.

"We aren't your grandmother's library," said Emily Sheketoff, head of the American Library Assn.'s Washington office. "We're getting into some odd things."

But that higher profile may carry political costs. Librarians have long enjoyed an all-American reputation, and that innocent image is now taking a hit as opponents label them everything from pornographers to pirates.

Some thought it was no coincidence that a bill to double federal funding for libraries stalled in Congress this year.

"If we are going to provide these funds, how will they be used?" asked Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr. (R-Miss.), one of the chief sponsors of the Internet filtering bill that libraries blocked. "Will they be used to promote a radical, extremist social agenda? Libraries are like Mom and apple pie. Why would they want to squander their goodwill and good reputations to get involved in issues like child pornography?"

Sheketoff and other librarians bristle at the notion that they support pornography or don't care about children, but they say criticism isn't surprising given the association's heightened activism.

"We successfully sued the government," said Sheketoff, former deputy assistant secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration. "That doesn't make us very popular."

Sheketoff, who cut her political teeth working for Senate Republicans during the Watergate scandal, was hired by the American Library Assn. in 1999. Some within the organization objected to the appointment of Sheketoff, the first non-librarian to head its lobbying office.

But leaders decided they needed a political professional to get them to the negotiating table on more issues and help overcome the traditional stereotypes about librarians, which often resulted in condescending, pat-on-the-head treatment on Capitol Hill.

"I still get people asking me where's my bun," Sheketoff said. "We're training ourselves to be much more aggressive.... And sometimes that also means being obnoxious and strident."

The group has built up its Washington office to 20 members, nearly twice its size in 1995, including one unit devoted to lobbying and another to policy research.

Lobbying expenditures by the American Library Assn. and other library groups now rank among the highest for nonprofits, doubling to about $750,000 in 2000 from $360,000 in 1997, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That's more than public broadcasters, Boy Scouts of America and Red Cross combined, though less than the $1 million that the movie industry pays annually to its top lobbyist, Jack Valenti.

A former television producer, Sheketoff hasn't been shy about using the media to "stay in the news cycle" on key issues. She hired a press officer for the Washington office and has started sparring more frequently with conservatives and law enforcement officials on CNN, Fox News and talk radio.

Borrowing a tactic from the for-profit world, Sheketoff initiated a program to lean on libraries' vendors and suppliers for assistance in Washington. For example, 3M Worldwide, which sells many of its computer systems to libraries, was enlisted to help arrange meetings with some lawmakers this fall about the library funding bill.

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