Libraries urge clarity on terrorism criteria

November 11, 2005

While London universities plough cash into high-tech protection in the wake of the July attacks, there are fears the terror Bill will criminalise staff and students

Librarians and researchers could be criminalised by the new Terrorism Bill unless the Government makes last-minute amendments, libraries warned this week.

The major librarian associations and the British Library wrote a letter to MPs last week appealing for help in clarifying their position.

They said that the second clause of the draft Bill, which is being debated in Parliament this week, presented a "significant danger" and could mean that libraries accidentally fell foul of the law.

The legislation states that no one should buy, sell, distribute or lend a terrorist publication. But libraries have criticised the definition of this as ambiguous.

Toby Bainton, secretary of the Society of College, National and University Libraries, said: "It is definitely too broad about what constitutes a terrorist publication. A publication could be ordinary one week, then something happens such as the bomb attacks in London and it becomes a terrorist publication. Suddenly the librarian is criminalised."

He added that researchers looking into issues such as terrorism could very easily be implicated, too.

He said: "The Home Office says it will be fine because we dealt with the Obscene Publications Act, but this isn't the same. Potentially, a textbook on chemistry might be a terrorist publication, as could a history book about how Nelson Mandela struggled against the apartheid Government and succeeded."

Robin Green, executive director of the Consortium of University Research Libraries, described the situation as "very serious". He said lawyers had advised the libraries that they would not be protected by the Bill, despite the Home Secretary Charles Clarke's reassurances to the contrary.

He added: "The Government is being forced to pay attention to certain concerns, the 90-day ruling in particular. But it wants to make sure the Bill passes as smoothly and as fast as possible. Other issues are likely to be sidelined."

A spokesman for the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals said: "In view of the wide and uncertain definition of what may constitute a terrorist publication, librarians and their governing bodies or institutions would be at risk of prosecution as the clauses currently stand."

Coincidentally, the CILIP recently published advice detailing how existing laws could impact on members, including police powers to access library records.

Full details:


  • Someone accessing information about human traffic on the London Underground, as well as maps and other station information, could be a postgraduate researching anti-terrorist intelligence operations or a terrorist researching where to place explosives.
  • A researcher in the House of Commons library accesses written submissions that raise concerns over security at the Olympics. The researcher, although security checked at the time, uses this information years later for terrorist training. The library is liable to prosecution until it proves it did not endorse the material.
  • A novel is read at a public event. A reader endorses the book as a fine piece of fiction and a fantastic critique of terrorist activities. A member of the audience uses the ideas in a future terrorist act. The Bill leaves the reader and the author open to prosecution.

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