There’s an old saying: give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach him how to fish and he’ll die from mercury poisoning because you can’t survive on nothing but fish. Or something like that. I never was any good at proverbs.
Anyway, the point is that is usually better to promote self-sufficiency than to merely provide handouts.* But, is this true at the reference desk? In last week’s AL Direct, I came across a post by Jessica Olin who recently asked this very question and I think she’s spot-on in identifying a common reference conundrum. As she frames it,
It’s rare that I just answer questions at the reference desk, especially when the asker is a student. Instead, I escort the student over to one of our public computers and walk them through the process of figuring it out for themselves. I make them work for it because I believe that working for it means they’ll eventually be able to answer questions for themselves. [...] But is this insistence good customer service? How would I react if my mechanic said some version of, “I know what’s causing that grinding noise when you turn left on hot days, but let’s see if you can figure it out for yourself”?
Put another way, is it morally permissible for a reference librarian to withhold information from a student in order to create a teachable moment? Like, “sure, I could just email you those APA citations, and I’d probably do it for your professor, but since you’re a student I’m going to force you to stand here for five minutes while I show you how to do it yourself.” I think Olin’s reference conundrum offers a nice opportunity to discuss something that librarianship is apparently lacking: an ethics of professional service.
A quick word about the official ethics of reference
“Now wait a minute,” you may be saying, “all we need to do is follow the ALA Code of Ethics.” Well, smarty-pants, I hate to break it to you, but official library codes of ethics are pretty much useless at the reference desk. Our professional codes help qualify our values as librarians, but they aren’t service-oriented for at least two reasons. First, statements like the ALA Code of Ethics, the just-released IFLA Code of Ethics, and the RUSA guidelines are prima facie, not absolute. That is, they are general guidelines not meant to negate any particular decisions at the point of service. Second, they tend to focus on ethics at the organizational level, not at the reference-desk level (e.g., RUSA’s statement on information services tells us that “the library should” do this and that, but it says nothing about what librarians should do). As Fallis (2007) has pointed out, the codes and principles supplied by our professional organizations leave us without much guidance as to “how library professionals should apply these principles to concrete cases” (p. 25). Our professional codes of ethics are a starting point, they do not provide a decision procedure for how to provide services.
“Now wait another minute,” you may be saying, because apparently you’re in the habit of talking to computers, “even if the official codes are too general for specific cases, we learned basic reference ethics in library school and we talk about issues every Thursday on Twitter!.” And that’s awesome. But, think back to what, exactly, you talked about in library school. The most recent edition of Bopp and Smith’s Reference and Information Services: An Introduction (i.e., the standard textbook since 2001) tells us that “ethical questions such as the provision of information that has the potential to harm society (e.g., how to build a bomb) are now concrete issues that reference librarians encounter in their daily lives” (p. 20, my emphasis). Other common reference dilemmas include whether or not to provide information about freebasing cocaine (p. 42) or whether to help troubled teens locate the how-to-commit-suicide manuals (p. 43). And sure enough, not a day goes by that I’m not dealing with coked-up emo kids looking for pipe-bomb recipes.
Except, that never actually happens. Yes, there’s certainly a great deal of pedagogical value in submitting our ethical intuitions to extreme cases, but the vast majority of ethical decisions are not about bombs, porn, and suicide. Neither are they always about banned books, open access, ebooks, or other hot moral issues in the blogging world. Yes, these are important things to discuss, but they are issues of advocacy more than they are issues of practical service. Practically speaking, most of our ethical decisions are mundane: whether to waive a fine, whether to give out the guest username and password, whether to ask a patron to lower their speaking voice, who should get the free books at the conference, or, in Olin’s case, whether to give a student the answers to her homework assignment.
Between professional codes that are too broad for specific use and thought experiments that are too narrow for realistic service models, where are we to look for an ethics of practical reference service?
The fiduciary relationship
Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot in the current professional literature. I did a quick search for “reference AND ethics” in LISA, LISTA, and Library Literature and Information Science Full-Text. Once the book reviews are filtered out, there are fewer than 100 articles published on reference ethics since 2002. Most of these are either irrelevant or they only cover the sexy issues likes bombs and porn. There are a few good articles that touch on reference service, including Bivens-Tatum (2007), Lenker (2008), and Ulvik & Salvesen (2007), but it’s pretty slim pickings. So, for my money, the best extant discussion of an ethics of reference service can be found in John Bunge’s article, “Ethics and the Reference Librarian” (1999), wherein Bunge makes two important observations. First, librarians are professionals and with that status comes certain fiduciary obligations to patrons. The librarian/patron relationship is a fiduciary relationship in which the patron is willingly placing his or her trust in the specialized knowledge and skills of the librarian. At all times, the autonomy, competence, and responsibilities of the patron are key moral concerns, and yet the patron has willingly ceded some autonomy to the librarian. According to Bunge, the upshot is that the fiduciary model “accommodates [all patron skill levels], allowing the client as much authority and responsibility as is warranted by his or her ability to make decisions” (p. 47). Bunge’s second observation is that professional relationships are never exclusive to the professional and the client: there are always third-party stakeholders to whom we have moral obligations (p. 55). Academic librarians work for universities, students study with teachers, and so on. We should always keep in mind our obligations to third-parties…as well as our patrons’ obligations to third parties, and this is where I part with Bunge.
You see, Bunge argues that the only things relevant to the reference transaction are those things directly relevant to the expertise that initiated the fiduciary relationship. Bunge writes,
“However, the librarian does not have expertise in the inquirer’s values, in how the information should be used, or in the inquirer’s goals in life. These are areas in which the client should be allowed the fullest possible freedom to make judgments and decisions” (p. 55).
The problem here is that when we are asked to both (1) show respect for our patrons’ autonomy and (2) consider third-party stakeholders, then we must also show respect for the other fiduciary relationships into which our patrons have entered. That includes the teacher/student relationship. In the case of the student asking for the answers to the homework assignment, even though Bunge argues that the way a patron uses information is irrelevant, I argue that we are obligated to respect the teacher/student fiduciary relationship that initiated the homework in the first place…especially when we, as academic librarians, have our own fiduciary relationships with the teaching faculty.** Lest we forget, by initiating the professional encounter, our students are ceding some autonomy and decision-making to the reference librarian and, specifically, they are often ceding decision-making that impacts their external teacher/student relationship. If we really want to respect our students’ autonomous natures, we have to respect their obligations to others.
I could go on and on about professional/client relationships, but I’ll just give you the quick and dirty version of the decision procedure we get out of the fiduciary model. When we run into ethical conundrums on the desk we should keep the following in mind:
- The reference transaction is a professional relationship and the services that a reference librarian provides should be coherent with the the values of librarianship, the librarian’s expertise, external fiduciary responsibilities, and respect for the patron’s own autonomy (which includes the patron’s competence and external responsibilities).
- Understand your expertise: If a patron makes a request that goes beyond the librarian’s skills or expertise, the librarian should not attempt to fulfill that request (get help instead!).
- Consider the stakeholders: If a patron makes a request that undermines the librarian’s fiduciary obligation to a third party, the librarian should honor that request only to the extent that it does not violate the broader external obligations that establish the librarian’s third-party obligations in the first place. (My general rule is that it’s acceptable to bend a policy if doing so is consistent with the general educational mission of the library and university.)
- Respect the patron’s autonomy: At all times, the librarian should respect the autonomy of the patron and avoid undermining a patron’s own fiduciary relationships, provided those relationships are known to the librarian, are uncoerced, and are just. (Your students have willingly entered into professional relationships with their professors; don’t undermine that relationship unless it’s coercive or unjust.)
And that’s it. Four parts. Maybe there’s another one or two I’m not thinking of at the moment, and there are probably a few additional clarifications to be made, but it’s a hell of a lot simpler than the painfully specific mess that RUSA provides. Run Olin’s conundrum through the process and we see that it’s perfectly fine to withhold certain information from certain students. Providing homework answers undermines both student and librarian obligations to teaching faculty, so we shouldn’t do it. Instead, we should do our best to set the student on the right track. Basically, we teach at the reference desk because we have a librarian’s commitment to provide access to information conflicting with a professional commitment to honor our student’s external relationships. Teaching a student to look-up an article is, quite simply, just our way of circumscribing what we can’t do. Consider that conundrum SOLVED!
Finding a balance
I don’t think this idea is particularly revolutionary but I should point out that Bunge’s treatment of the reference interview as a fiduciary relationship has received scant attention in the library literature. I think it’s a good model that can bring our ethics of librarianship more in line with other professions that have far more robust ethics of service (e.g., medicine and law). Granted, there’s a lot more to say on the issue; at the very least, several terms need to be fleshed out (autonomy, obligation, etc.). And I should address soft paternalism (see Chapter 5 of Mill’s On Liberty). But, the general thrust of my argument is that while librarianship is filled with professional value statements and case studies of specific incidents, what we need is a simple, general statement of the relevant principles required to make ethical decisions at the point of service. Since we’re professionals and patrons willingly sacrifice some autonomy when they ask for our assistance, it makes sense to ground our service ethics in the professional/client relationship. So, let’s let the ALA Code of Ethics guide the services we provide, and the fiduciary model guide how we provide those services.
The moral of my story? Sometimes we need to hand out fish, sometimes we need to hand out rods, but we should always hand out something because that’s what we’re here for.
Stuff I cited or thought about
Bivens-Tatum, Wayne. “The Virtue of Reference.” Library Philosophy and Practice. (January 2007). Online.
Bopp, Richard E., & Linda C. Smith. Reference and Information Services: An Introduction. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Libraries Unlimited.
Bunge, Charles A. “Ethics and the Reference Librarian.” The Reference Librarian 31, no. 66 (1999): 25-43.
Fallis, Don. “Information Ethics for 21st Century Library Professionals.” Library Hi Tech, 25, no. 1 (2007): 23-36.
Hauptman, Robert. Ethics and Librarianship. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2002.
Lenker, Mark. “Dangerous Questions at the Reference Desk: A Virtue Ethics Approach.” Journal of Information Ethics, 17, no. 1 (2008): 43-60.
Mill, J.S., On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green, 1869. Online. (See Chapter Five)
Ulvik, Synnove and Gunhild Salvesen. “Ethical Reference Practice.” New Library World, 108, no. 7/8 (2007): 342-353.
* However, this does not hold true in cases of institutionalized inequality. For my purposes, I just want to talk about academic libraries as educational settings.
** Of course, if the teacher/student fiduciary relationship is broken due to coercion, discrimination, incompetency, unfair assignments or other issues, then our obligations to uphold that third-party relationship end. Or, more precisely, we push the relationship to its nearest proxy. In the case of a bad teacher or assignment, we consider obligations to the university, to society, to the world, etc..