The Slow Squeezing of the Security State: The Library of Congress Edition

A few years ago, I had occasion to visit the Harvard Medical School Library–the building with all of the cool stuff. Getting in wasn’t a problem, but leaving involved a lot of security–they didn’t want a lot of people wandering off with some of the aforementioned cool stuff. We both joked that this was the first time in a long while that we had been treated as potential thieves, as opposed to potential terrorists.

Let us pine for the halcyon days of yore.

Which brings us to this depressing story about the increased security at the Library of Congress. That our internal security apparatus has turned the Library of Congress–the People’s Library in every sense of the word–into a nearly impenetrable fortress would be bad enough, but you might be able to guess what one of the outcomes of this hypervigilance is (boldface mine):

The Library of Congress is America’s national library. It also may be the only library in the United States where getting into one of its Capitol Hill buildings is a lot like trying to board an airplane. Security has shifted so much to anti-terrorism that it’s no longer doing its intended job, to protect the library collection from theft….

According to a report from 1998, entering the Library then was “no different than most other security stations on Capitol Hill: Hand the guard your bag and walk through the metal detectors.” That process typically took seconds.

Leaving the library, however, was an ordeal. It used to involve a Library of Congress Police officer removing everything from briefcases and backpacks and thumbing through books and papers to ensure that nothing was leaving that shouldn’t.

Now, to enter, visitors have to remove electronics and other items, then go through an x-ray conveyor. To leave, officers peek into partially opened bags and do not typically bother to inspect books or folders. The process to enter takes a long time, but exiting usually takes less than ten seconds

Library security was tight long before terrorism reconfigured federal architecture, but it was tight in different ways. Now, with such a strong spotlight on keeping terrorism out, security seems to be letting its original mission slip.

This is what happens when we let the professional security paranoiacs run things. It’s their job (and an opportunity to expand future contracts) to treat every target, no matter how absurd, as something to be defended from a suicide bombing or all-out military assault. Tragically, we’ve never really discussed or agreed to this new normal, it’s just slowly enveloped us.

Though an upside is that I know where to get some really cool books…

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