Back when I was a housewife in my late 20s, our three-bedroom bungalow had a basement that we'd finished ourselves. My husband, two small children, and I lived on a block of white painted homes with neatly clipped hedges and freshly painted fences.
Then the neighborhood children got sick. Our gardens withered. A neighbor's dog singed his nose on the lawn. A toddler got chemical burns on her feet from running barefoot in a yard.
Twenty years ago this summer, my neighbors in Love Canal, N.Y., and I first unearthed 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals under our homes. Our normal lives became a nightmare.
I just had a high school degree, as did most of my neighbors. Still, we felt we had the right to know what was making our children and family members ill.
I headed to the Niagara Falls Public Library to learn more about the deadly chemicals beneath the playground at the 99th Street school.
Uncovering Love Canal
If I had not had the ability to look up information - a crash course in biochemistry, statistics, survey research, and the law - Love Canal may never have been uncovered.
At the library, I could pore through the volumes, scroll through old clippings on microfilm, and copy the pages I needed.
Later, when I testified at public hearings and stood before TV cameras, I'd read paragraphs from articles that I'd copied at the library.
This ability to use or quote from copyrighted material in order to quote or excerpt portions of that material for research, education, news reporting, or other appropriate uses is called "fair use."
The fair use provision of copyright law - currently under consideration in the US Congress in connection with copyright and new technologies such as the Internet - is one of the most valuable assets left for ordinary people like my neighbors at Love Canal.
Free references key to research
With limited resources, we couldn't hire scientists or top legal experts. We couldn't afford to subscribe to countless medical journals or to pay for elaborate studies.
But when all else failed, we could count on our right to published facts. To make our case in the court of public opinion, we could go to the library and copy the pages we needed from scientific journals that would have cost hundreds of dollars in subscriptions
The fair-use section of copyright law may sound like a remote nook in an ivory tower. But we found that over and over again it guaranteed our right to know what was happening to us.
What if those journals we leafed through freely in the library were kept locked up in a pay-at-the-door reading room?What if libraries had to pay a yearly fee for key journals for them to remain on the shelf?
Worse yet, what if I had been jailed and my librarian was fined thousands of dollars because she helped me pull up a document and copy it?
That's the kind of world that a bill now before Congress would create.
I certainly understand and respect the right of creative people to make a living from their work. But I also know the difference between the right to make a living and the right to hold public information hostage.
'Fair use' often the only defense
All too many of us wake up one morning and find ourselves faced with medical malpractice, defective products, or contractors who do more destruction than construction in our homes. There is so much that can force us to become lay experts. And often fair use - those folders stuffed with clips and photocopies - is our only defense.
Since I went door to door with my hand-lettered petitions, computers have changed a lot.
We now have at our fingertips a vast global library of constantly changing information. But many companies no longer even publish in print the names of the chemicals they bury beneath our playgrounds or sell to us in garden sprays. Now they're only on the Internet or on CDs.
There is no federal law that prohibits the burial of toxic waste. Our best, indeed our only protection, is our vigilance. And our best tool is fair use. We can't afford to let our representatives in Congress take that from us.
* Lois Gibbs is executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Va. She is the author of 'Love Canal: The Story Continues' (New Society Press, 1998).