The Whatcom County Library Foundation

About Our Foundation

Whatcom County Library Foundation was formed in 2005 for the purpose of supporting the Whatcom County Library System's mission and plans.

 >> History of Our Foundation

Whatcom County Library Foundation History Print Email

The 2005 PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award was given to Library Director Joan Airoldi because of the library system's actions in the face of a Federal Grand Jury Subpoena. The $25,000 award became the seed money that started the Whatcom County Library Foundation. Here is the story of that event.


June 8, 2004

An FBI agent visited the Deming branch of the Whatcom County  Library System, showed his card and asked the person at the desk whether the library could provide the names of persons who had borrowed the book Bin Laden; the man who declared war on America, written by Yossef Bodansky.  Staff at the library told the agent that the matter would be communicated to library management per the WCLS policy.

A staff person called the library director, Joan Airoldi, and she called the library's attorney to tell what had happened. Joan then called the local FBI for further information. The FBI had obtained the book from a patron who had called them to report that there was a handwritten note in the margin of a book he had checked out that said "If the things I'm doing is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal.  Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded by God."  The FBI had the book in custody. The library's attorney told the agent that the library would not release any information without a subpoena or court order. 

Then the attorney did a simple Google® search using the words in the margin and found that they were nearly a direct quote of a statement made by Osama Bin Laden in a 1998 interview conducted by ABC and Time and quoted on numerous educational websites. The library's attorney wrote a letter to the FBI agent and reported that new information.

A grand jury subpoena was served to WCLS asking for the names and personally identifiable information of all persons who had checked out the book since November 15, 2001. This is commonly termed a "fishing expedition."

With the subpoena was a letter requesting that WCLS not disclose the existence of this subpoena on the grounds that it might make it more difficult to conduct their investigation. In open session at a WCLS Board of Trustee's meeting, the board passed a resolution to proceed with a Motion to Quash Subpoena without disclosing any details of the situation.

The arguments in the motion included:

  • The subpoena infringes upon constitutionally protected rights
  • A library is a cornerstone of First Amendment rights, an institution built on the concept of free expression of ideas; free exchange of information is a fundamental First Amendment right of the library, the patron and the public
  • There is no substantial connection between the information sought and the subject of the grand jury proceedings—there must be an adequate foundation for inquiry.  Even assuming that the subject of the grand jury's investigation is related to the government's interest in preventing terrorism, the information sought does not advance or relate to that goal.
  • Libraries have the right to disseminate information freely, confidentially and without the chilling effect of disclosure; a crime is about what you do, not about what you read or think.
  • The Supreme Court has recognized, several times, that individuals have a fundamental First Amendment right to receive information, free of the chilling effects of regulation of that right
  • The information is not readily available to the Library District because the computer records contain only the names of the current book borrower and a maximum of one previous borrower if that borrower borrowed the book within 90 days.  Production of records within the backups of the system would be a burden on the library district and in fact are maintained by the Bellingham Public Library. (The Library District and the Bellingham Public Library have shared a common database and circulation system for over a decade).                         

July 16, 2004

The Library District's attorney received notice that the FBI withdrew their request and therefore the Motion to Quash was dismissed as Moot Without Prejudice because the circulation data is maintained on the system operated by the Bellingham Public Library; not within WCLS's jurisdiction.

No further efforts at obtaining records from the city of Bellingham were made.

Since that time, the Bellingham Public Library and Whatcom County Library System have examined and revised their circulation records retention policy and clarified ownership in the event that another such request is made.

More information on the 2005 PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award.