LIBRARIES may be for sleeping, but they certainly are not for spying. They are sanctuaries of the spirit, depositories of data designed to inform, enlighten, enrich.
Libraries, at least indirectly, educate, cultivate, sophisticate, delight. They appeal to fantasy. They break down intellectual and political barriers. They are not for couch potatoes - but are for armchair aristocrats and non-aristocrats alike.
It never occurred to the millions of us who charged out of the schoolhouse door daily to enter these portals of pensiveness that sleuths and saboteurs lurked around the Dewey decimal system.
We now are told, however, that in this modern world of microfiche and retrieval systems, the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming. They are coming to absorb, copy, photograph, recruit, subvert - and anything else stack operatives do.
No less an austere body than the Federal Bureau of Investigation is asking librarians to keep a sharp eye out for suspicious-looking characters, to monitor what they read and check out, and then to tell all to the bureau.
The FBI's Library Awareness Program is no read-a-book-a-day campaign. It started out as a quiet, even covert, effort on the part of the agency to collect evidence against foreign agents and their operatives. These bookworms were thought to be using libraries to gather national security materials, make contacts with other spies, and recruit intelligence gatherers.
The agency encouraged the resident book monitors to take notes, in between checking volumes in and out, of who was reading what - and snitch.
Some librarians felt they were being manipulated, coerced, even threatened under the banner of patriotism. So they blew the whistle on the FBI.
Now bureau director William Sessions is trying to explain the whole thing to a congressional subcommittee, civil libertarians, the American Library Association, and everybody else.
Mr. Sessions says the program is a significant part of the FBI's counterespionage effort. It is very limited in nature, he adds, and mainly operative in New York City and focused on special collections libraries.
``People don't come to a technical library to read `Goldilocks and the Three Bears,''' Sessions told a group of legislative probers.
Other bureau officials assured librarians that their cooperation in this program was strictly voluntary. They explained that a purpose of the program was to make library employees aware of the potential threat of a foreign intelligence operation within their glance.
Most of the book-lending world, however, isn't buying this explanation.
Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, says this type of FBI request is in ``direct contradiction to what the Library Association stands for.'' She adds that it is a misuse of library records, which are private and confidential. Ms. Krug points out that 38 states have statutes making it illegal for librarians to make public the names of individual users and what materials they are using.
Jan Lori Goldman, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, notes that the library materials reportedly being scrutinized by enemy agents are all ``unclassified.''
``If this information is dangerous to the national security, simply classify it,'' Ms. Goldman advises the government. ``The library is different from other institutions,'' she says. ``It must protect the First Amendment. It must perpetuate the free flow of information.''
The FBI-library caper has already spawned litigation. People for the American Way, a citizens lobby, and the National Security Archive, a nonprofit group that collects unclassified government documents, are seeking to force the bureau under the Freedom of Information Act to disclose more information about the Library Awareness Program and how broadly it operates.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights is looking into possible legislation to curb or eliminate the program.
A Thursday column