Easton Public Library Director Lynn Zaffino felt overwhelmed last month after receiving an email from a resident who requested purchase orders for books and materials the library bought from Jan. 1, 2018 to July 1, 2023.
The five-year Freedom of Information Act request was so large Zaffino didn’t know how she could meet the legal requirement to oblige. Under FOIA, people can access public records from agencies to ensure a level of transparency and accountability within government.
The five-year FOI request emailed to Zaffino on July 13 by resident Anne Manusky encompasses roughly 2,000 items the library purchased each year, or a total of roughly 10,000 items. It would take library employees weeks, if not months, to look up and provide Manusky a hard copy of every purchase order, according to Zaffino.
“I don’t have the staff to handle such a request for all those files,” said Zaffino. “I took her request to mean every item the library has purchased, and that included books, CDs, DVDs, audio books in various formats, Launch Pads for kids and teens.” Launch Pads are electronic tablets that come preloaded with educational content.
Town Finance Director Christine Calvert suggested looking up the items the library purchased on Bibliomation, a digital library consortium. The Easton Public Library subscribes to the consortium. Library card holders can search and request items from any of Bibliomation’s member library collections.
Bibliomation ran a report of the items for the library, which Zaffino emailed to Manusky.
Manusky could not be reached for comment. Her FOI filing mirrors a nationwide uptick of public records requests. School districts and libraries across the country have been flooded with demands for public documents sought by parents and education groups.
For example, last year the school district in Fairfax County, Virginia added a half a million dollars to its budget just to process FOI requests from the public. The money will be spent to hire staff and buy technology to respond to the volume of requests that often lead to challenges over school and library books and curriculum dealing with racial and LGBTQ+ issues.
The Easton Library Board of Trustees discussed the FOI request at its Aug. 7 meeting. Members said the library was fortunate to access the purchase orders through Bibliomation because it would have been labor intensive for the staff to do.
Elizabeth Boyce, a member of the library board, is unsure about what motived Manusky’s request, but Boyce is concerned that editing the library’s public collection for political review will infringe on human liberties.
“As a historian and as a parent, I believe that the free access of educational material is essential, and we should cherish our libraries as nurturing and safe centers of learning,” said Boyce.
After First Selectman David Bindelglass mentioned the FOI request in his weekly message, some residents volunteered to scan the items.
“People reached out to me either by stopping in or calling or emailing, asking how they could help,” said Zaffino. “I’m appreciative. It’s great to know that they are supportive of the library.”