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USA PATRIOT Act - What You Should Know

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, hereafter "the Act," was signed into law on 26 October 2001 and reauthorized on 9 March 2006. The information provided here addresses common questions about the Act, including its application to your library and you as a library patron.

What kind of information can be requested from my library?

Under the USA PATRIOT Act, information about your library account and usage can be obtained by Federal Agents using a court order. The act prohibits library staff from informing you if such an order or search has been undertaken by means of a gag order. The FBI can retrieve any information about you that the library has. Information from the library may include, but is not limited to, books and other materials you have checked out; searches you have done on library computers, including places you have visited on the Internet; materials you have borrowed through interlibrary loan, when you have signed up to use library meeting rooms, and notes taken by librarians when helping you with a question.

What else is in the Act?

The Act is lengthy and has changed over 15 sections of the US Code. Besides libraries, there have been changes to the laws that govern banking, immigration, communication and business (including bookstores), as well as new penalties for terrorism. Want to learn more? The full text of the Act (Public Law 107-56), along with detailed summaries and brief overviews are on the Colorado Association of Libraries website.

Will the Act expire?

Parts of the original Act, including Section 215 that impacts library privacy, had "sunset" provisions and were set to expire on 31 December 2005. Along with one other section, Section 215 was reauthorized through 31 December 2009 and will expire at that time unless the Congress votes to extend them. The rest of the Act, including Section 505, is permanent and would have to be repealed by Congress.

What are the penalties for defying the USA PATRIOT Act?

A librarian who does not comply with an FBI search warrant issued under the Act may be charged with contempt of court. No specific penalty is spelled out in the Act.

How does the Act affect my library?

The Act, particularly Sections 215 and 505, does a number of things related to libraries. It:

  • Lowers the legal standard for obtaining a search warrant, from "probable cause" that a crime is being committed, to "reasonable grounds" that the library information is "relevant" to an authorized terrorist or intelligence investigation (Section 215);
  • Allows the FBI to get a special search warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court whose proceedings are classified and closed to the public (Section 215);
  • Permits the FBI to use special search warrants to retrieve library usage records of someone who is under investigation of involvement in suspicious activities (Section 215);
  • Overrides state and local privacy laws in the case of FISA search warrants (Section 215);
  • Prohibits the library from notifying the patron under suspicion, the press, or anyone else that an investigation is underway [note as part of the reauthorization of the Act, this prohibition may now be challenged in court one year after the warrant's issuance] (Section 215);
  • Under special circumstances, allows the FBI to take records related to Internet usage without a warrant (Section 505).

What is retained in current Boulder Public Library records and what might be used by the FBI?

If you open an account with the Boulder Public Library by applying for a library card, the following information is retained:

  • Your name, home address and home telephone number
  • Your library card number
  • Demographic information of where you live, (Boulder City, unincorporated Boulder County, Louisville, Lafayette, Longmont, Lyons, etc. for user statistics)
  • An issue date and expiration date
  • Total number of checkouts (A number, not titles)
  • Total number of renewals (A number, not titles)
  • Total number of claims returned (A number, not titles)
  • (Optional) You may have provided an email address, a work or business phone, a birthday or a birth year. The library does not require that you provide us with any of this information.
  • (Optional) If you chose to opt into the "My Reading History" feature on your library account, an ongoing list of the items you have checked out will be saved on the library's server for you to view (even after they have been checked in). If the library is served with a subpoena, Reading History information may need to be surrendered to law enforcement officials.
  • (Optional) If you chose to use the "Preferred Search" feature on your library account, a list of the search criteria you have chosen will be saved on the library's server for you to use. If the library is served with a subpoena, Preferred Search information may need to be surrendered to law enforcement officials.

The above information is retained, whether or not you have any items checked out.

If you have items checked out:

  • A record of any items you have checked out is retained so the library can contact you if items are not returned. 
  • Once you return items and they are checked in, a system identification number indicating that these items were the last checked out on your account remains on the item record until it is checked out and returned by the next borrower.  This is necessary to make sure any damage to an item can be attributed to the appropriate borrower. Once the next borrower returns the item, your association with that item is removed.
  • Items checked out to your account that become overdue will remain associated with your record until the late fee is paid. A history of the fines paid is maintained for up to 6 months to provide data for fees that are disputed.
  • Items checked out to your account that become 5 weeks overdue and not returned to the library are billed to your account. The association between your library account and the billed items will remain until the bill is reconciled.
  • The library system backup procedures record all transactions on system backup media for 7 days, after which they are deleted.

What is the Boulder Public Library doing to safeguard your privacy?

Each library sets its own privacy policies. At the Boulder Public Library, we feel that the rights of our patrons to privacy and autonomy are of the utmost importance. We use computer systems set up so that after you have renewed or returned books and other materials, we do not keep track of the titles unless you choose to do so on your own with the "My Reading History" feature.

When you use a computer in the Boulder Public Library, we maintain no personal information on your usage. You do not have to have a library card or account to use Boulder Public Library computers. We continue to explore ways to keep only those records required to maintain our collection.

Is a library exempt if the city passes a resolution against the Act?

These resolutions are largely symbolic, though there is at least one town in California that has made it a crime to comply with the Act. In this case, federal law is more powerful than state or local resolutions, so your library would still have to comply.

The state has a privacy law for library records. Does it protect me from the Act?

In the case of FBI search warrants issued under the Act, state privacy laws do not apply. However, state and local privacy laws are still in effect for other investigations that are not being performed under the authority of the Act.

The material presented here includes information on relevant policy procedures of the Boulder Public Library, information provided by the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Colorado Association of Libraries, and materials from the American Library Association.

Permission to reproduce all or part of this document for informational, non-commercial purposes is granted, with proper acknowledgement of the source. The Boulder Public Library may be reached at or 303-441-3100. The Colorado Association of Libraries may be reached at or 303- 463-6400.


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