Three book organizations kicked off a national signature drive yesterday to amend a federal law that allows the FBI to inspect library and bookstore records surreptitiously.

The American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, and the writer’s group PEN American Center launched the “Campaign for Reader Privacy” to amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. Passed in October 2001, the law allows the FBI, with authorization from a special court, to inspect the book-buying or -borrowing histories of individuals. The library or bookstore would be forbidden to inform customers of the inspection.

US Representative Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, filed a bill last year to repeal Section 215, but it never reached the House floor. Similar bills have since been filed. The campaign seeks 1 million signatures, which are being sought through bookstores, libraries, and the Internet.

Some New England booksellers, who were sent copies of the petition earlier, already report customer support. “I can’t get over how people are responding at the counter,” says Eric Wilska, owner of the Bookloft in Great Barrington and president of the New England Booksellers Association. “They look down at the pad, grab the pen, and sign angrily. We have a pitch we’re ready to give, but it hasn’t been necessary.”

A supportive book industry statement issued yesterday was signed by the Association of American Publishers, the Association of American University Presses, and the American Association of Law Libraries. Numerous publishers, bookseller giants, and distributors also signed on.

A US Justice Department spokesman yesterday said the effort is unnecessary. “A careful reading of Section 215 makes clear,” said Mark Corallo, “that the only people who have anything to worry about are terrorists and foreign spies.”

David Mehegan can be reached at

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