When progressive provocateur Michael Moore was down and out, he found help from an unlikely source. After September 11, Moore's publisher, HarperCollins, told him that his new book, Stupid White Men, wouldn't be released unless he cut some controversial sections and rewrote others. When Moore balked, HarperCollins told him it would simply cancel the book. That December, a few days after he learned that his book was destined for early recycling, Moore went to speak to a meeting of the progressive group New Jersey Citizen Action. He told group members of his plight and read a few chapters from the doomed book. When members asked him what they could do, Moore told them that there were more important battles to fight.

Ann Sparanese, who was sitting in the audience, didn't see it that way. "Problem is, I am a librarian," says Sparanese, head of reference at the Englewood Library in New Jersey. "I was shocked . . . I think we're used to books being censored by the government for having either classified or embarrassing information in them, but this was actually being censored by a publisher who had already invested in printing the book . . . That really kind of stunned me."

When Sparanese got home from the meeting, she sent out an e-mail to several professional listservs, and HarperCollins soon found itself flooded with thousands of outraged phone calls. "We're getting hate mail from librarians!" screamed one exasperated publishing rep, according to Moore. Within weeks the book was released, and soon it was sitting atop the New York Times Best-Seller Lists.

The librarians had taken on a publishing giant -- and won. Surprised? Don't be.

The sedate shushers of your childhood have stepped into the political arena, and they've emerged as one of the most vital and effective progressive forces in the country. Over the past several years, librarians, and their professional governing body, the American Library Association (ALA), have been behind some of the most significant civil-liberties battles in the country -- from the fight over the Communications Decency Act (which the Supreme Court struck down as the result of a lawsuit brought by the ALA and the American Civil Liberties Union) to the controversy over the USA PATRIOT Act (which the ALA sharply criticized in a recent resolution) to the question of whether to strengthen copyright restrictions on digital media (which the ALA opposes).

It may be because of their buttoned-down image that librarians have such wells of political capital. Of all the common stereotypes of various professions -- the sleazy lawyer, the absentminded professor, the kindly grocer -- few are more potent than that of the mousy, officious librarian. That image is so ingrained that it's nearly impossible to think of librarians as agitators, radicals or troublemakers. But in these times of bipartisanship and muted dissent, that's exactly what they've become.

"We are one of the few voices out there who are saying to this administration, 'Wait a minute: You can't take information away from the public and not suffer the consequences,'" says Judith Krug, director of the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF). The role of librarians in a democracy -- as stewards of information and facilitators of debate -- makes them natural civil-liberties crusaders, Krug says. "Our professional responsibility is to bring people and information together," she adds. "Because if we don't have the information, we can't govern ourselves."

Krug has been the OIF's director since the office's inception in 1967, when the ALA created it to defend and protect the principles outlined in the association's Library Bill of Rights -- which includes the provision that library "materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation" and also calls on librarians to "challenge censorship in fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment."

For much of the OIF's history, upholding these principles has meant defending the jobs of those unfortunate souls who had the temerity to keep Tropic of Cancer or Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret on their local shelves.

But that was before the digital revolution, the explosion of the Internet and the attendant changes in the library world. During the early 1990s, libraries were some of the first institutions to champion Internet access for all, and as online services grew at a rapid pace, libraries became the prime portals for those Americans who could not afford access from their homes. Then, in 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which made it a crime for anyone to distribute "patently offensive" or "indecent" Internet material to minors. Because librarians facilitate Internet use for millions of minors, they realized that they were sitting squarely in the act's crosshairs. So they fought back.

The ALA, along with the ACLU, filed a lawsuit that challenged the act, arguing that its effect would be to limit Internet content to what was acceptable to minors. In 1997 the Supreme Court struck down the law by a 7-to-2 ruling, but the bill's proponents were unfazed. They crafted a second piece of legislation, the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), designed to avoid the constitutional pitfalls of the first bill. When the High Court remanded COPA back to an appeals court that had already struck it down, conservative legislators went after the victorious librarians with yet another piece of federal legislation, the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires all libraries receiving federal money to install filtering software on their Internet terminals.

Filtering software is designed to screen offensive or pornographic material, but it routinely blocks a lot more than that. Medical information, for instance, often doesn't make it past the software, and one study found that it also barred users from viewing the Web sites for Super Bowl XXX, the former Beaver College (it has since changed its name to Arcadia University) in Pennsylvania and the office of former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who, not surprisingly, supported the bill. Librarians have once again challenged the law on constitutional grounds, arguing that the filtering would amount to censorship for adults using the computers on which the software is installed. An appeals court has already declared the law unconstitutional, and arguments before the Supreme Court are set for March 5.

It was because of the prolonged battle over Internet censorship that librarians were gaining notoriety and political muscle just as civil liberties were about to suddenly and unexpectedly come under the knife. Some librarians argue that the USA PATRIOT Act -- passed a month after September 11 with a single dissenting Senate vote from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) -- represents the largest encroachment on civil liberties since the days of J. Edgar Hoover. "This is the worst it's ever been," says Krug gravely. "I've been in this office for 38 years. It's like I get up in the morning and I go to turn on the radio and I'm like, 'Oh God, what's gonna greet me today?'"

One aspect of the law is particularly troubling to librarians. Section 215 lets federal agents issue search warrants for the borrowing records of library patrons under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which established a secret court to approve search warrants against suspected spies. Previously cases fell within FISA jurisdiction only if foreign surveillance was the "primary purpose" of the investigation; now that threshold has been lowered to "a significant purpose." If a FISA warrant for, say, the borrowing records of a suspected terrorist is issued to a librarian, he or she has no choice but to turn over the relevant material -- and then keep the whole thing to herself. (FISA comes with a built-in gag order.) It's possible that federal agents have been using their expanded powers to go through thousands of borrowing records since 9-11, and it's also possible that this power has yet to be exercised. But because the warrants are a secret, no one except the government can say for sure. (Though in an anonymous survey of 1,505 libraries conducted by the University of Illinois Library Research Center, 15 respondents said they were omitting information about run-ins with law enforcement because of legal restrictions.)

The ALA has joined the ACLU in filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, demanding that the Department of Justice tell the public how many times Section 215 has been used. At its conference in January, the ALA passed a resolution strongly criticizing the act, and the group is currently considering possible legal and legislative avenues to challenge it.

Librarians aren't just taking on the government, either: They've also picked a fight with big business, challenging entertainment- and publishing-industry-backed changes to copyright law that would make it more difficult for libraries to distribute digital books and magazines. And they've started a program called Lawyers for Librarians that will train lawyers around the country on how best to defend librarians' civil liberties.

All of this activity has prompted the usual hand-wringing from the cultural right. Dr. Laura Schlessinger has crusaded against librarians, saying they want "to make sure your children have easy access to pornography, under the guise of free speech." In a Los Angeles Times article last November about the ALA's burgeoning political influence, Rep. Charles W. Pickering, Jr. (R-Miss.), one of CIPA's chief sponsors, expressed concern that librarians were promoting a "radical, extremist social agenda."

Opposition to the ALA's platform isn't just coming from the right-wing fringe. CDA, COPA, CIPA and the USA PATRIOT Act all passed with broad bipartisan support. With Republicans currently controlling all three branches of government, a populace scared out of its wits by daily terrorism warnings and an anemic Democratic opposition, Krug and the ALA realize that they have their work cut out for them. That's why they've hired Emily Sheketoff, a veteran Washington insider and lobbyist, to be the first non-librarian to run the group's Washington office. And it's also why the group has more than doubled its lobbying budget over the past four years, from $360,000 to $750,000.

But no matter how shrewd their lobbying efforts, librarians may soon find that entering the political fray on such hotly contested issues comes with substantial costs. As states face budget crises, many libraries are staring down massive cuts -- even branch closings -- and it's at times like these when it pays to have politicians in your corner. The ALA has made its share of enemies, and last year a federal bill that would have doubled library spending failed to make it to a floor vote.

Nevertheless, Krug, who will be attending Supreme Court arguments on CIPA in early March and is gearing up for another fight over the forthcoming PATRIOT Act II, remains uncowed. "We have the First Amendment to the United States Constitution behind us," she says, "and that is one hell of a bulwark to stand against." The politics of the moment may seem stacked against them, but, as HarperCollins found out, adversaries underestimate this new breed of librarian-progressives at their own peril.