Archive for October, 2012

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking at the University of Illinois as a part of Ethics Awareness Week. My presentation, entitled “It’s Not Just Privacy, Porn, and Pipe-Bombs,” was well-received and I want to thank the organizers for inviting me. The talk was, essentially, an extended look at the themes and issues I raised a few posts back, wherein I argued that librarianship lacks an actionable ethics of service for handling the typical librarian/patron interaction. Our professional codes are better understood as broad values statements and our library school curricula tend to focus on extreme examples (like pipe-bombs) as thought experiments. These are good things, but we also need a decision procedure for resolving the dilemmas that arise when our professional values and our policies come into conflict. Here are the slides, if you’re interested:

And while you can look at the slides and follow the hastily written accompanying notes, perhaps it would be a good idea for me to briefly explain my take on libraries and the ethics of service…

It starts with ethics…

If we’re going to talk about professional ethics, it’s a good idea to figure out just what a “professional” is. That is: why do we need a specifically professional ethics in the first place? Why not just follow general ethical principles? I mean, respect for privacy and equal treatment seem like things that everyone should agree to, right? So, why do librarians need a special code? Understanding the nature of librarianship qua profession is an important step in answering these questions and, after a few weeks of thinking about it, I think I’ve figured out the four properties common to all professionals. But, before I describe them, I need to make a brief foray into ethics proper.

Put simply, ethics is the study of morality, where ‘morality’ refers to the norms, ideals, and virtues that guide our behavior. Morality itself comes in at least two flavors (mmm…flavors). At the broadest level, we have the common morality. These are the norms, ideals, and virtues applicable to ALL moral agents (cultural relativists be damned). The common morality is what applies to everyone everywhere at all times. Don’t lie, cheat, and steal without a damned good reason. Return kindness with kindness. Respect others. Don’t kick babies. You know, that sort of thing.

Except this baby. You can kick this baby.
By Flickr user mrseb, CC BY-ND

Separate from the common morality, we have community-specific moralities. These are the norms, ideals, and virtues that arise within specific communities, and that do not apply to all moral agents, in general. Typically, community-specific moralities arise from religious, cultural, or institutional practices. For example, a particular religion might have a moral prohibition against eating pork. That doesn’t mean that no one on Earth should eat pork, just that members of that community shouldn’t. Other examples include attorney-client privilege, how we treat gender and sex differences, or how we respond to plagiarism…different comunities have different norms. The important thing to remember is that the common morality trumps community morality every time. If your community thinks, for example that kicking babies is awesome, or that we should deny women the same rights as men, then your community has a problem.

What’s more, we’re all members of lots of different communities and we often run into ethical dilemmas when one set of community norms conflicts with those of another community (even one of which we are a member, like if your religious values conflict with your political values, for example).  And that’s not to say that communities of practice are always small subsets of society at large. Communities can be organized around professions, cultures, religions, races, sexual orientations, countries…heck, everyone who ever lived are part of a community. And you and I are both parts of several communities. And some communities have almost identical values, and some communities have slight changes, and some communities are so into baby-kicking that they might only have one member (I’m looking at you, Todd). Long story short, as librarians, we have community-specific values that guide our behavior in addition to the general, common moral principles that guide everyone. So, what’s up with our professional  community?

Four principles (or, what a librarian, a lawyer, and a plumber have in common).

Well, the first thing to understand is that professional roles are socially constructed by a community. Communities have things that have to get taken care of, so they designate certain community members to take care of those things. If building are burning down, a community will designate professional firefighters. If people are getting sick, a community will designate professional doctors. If information needs to be organized and made accessible (among other things), then a community will designate librarians.

Second, professional roles are a function of certain skills or expertise. We don’t make any jackass a doctor, just the ones with medical expertise. We don’t allow anyone to be a librarian, just the ones with the skills and expertise the community needs. (Quick aside: I’m not saying that not everyone can be a librarian, just that you need to learn how before a community should entrust you with the position. Anyone can be a librarian if they want, you’ve just got to gain the expertise though reliable means. Sometimes that’s library school, sometimes it’s experience, and sometimes it’s something else entirely.)

Admittedly, some professional skills are more desirable than others.
by the_exploratorium, CC BY-NC-SA

Third, professionals are entrusted with specific decision-making authority on behalf of the community. If you are a professional, then you are entrusted with the ability to make decisions on behalf of others. Lawyers make legal decisions. Electricians make wiring decision. Librarians make information decisions. And so on. The role of the professional is to use his or her expertise to make decisions on behalf of a community. For librarians that means spending a community’s money (e.g., taxes, tuition, and insurance premiums) or deciding what materials to make available or what educational services to offer. And so on. Professional librarians make decisions on behalf of their schools, hospitals, universities, cities, counties, States, countries…and usually some combination of these.

Fourth, and finally, professionals accept certain practical obligations through their roles. By which I mean professionals might have special legal obligations, specific employee handbooks, or similar practical (i.e., non-moral) obligations that guide their behavior. For librarians, this manifests itself in our special attention to copyright legislation, the PATRIOT act, vendor contracts, and other practical concerns we have to deal with when providing service to our communities.

Professional ethics

Now, because I’ve only had a few weeks to think this through, I’m not absolutely beholden to these four principles of professional identity. Likewise, there may be others I’m forgetting. But, the important thing is that from these four principles of professionalism we can cleanly derive four ethical corollaries.

First, if your role is socially constructed by a community, then you should act on behalf of your community (or communities). Don’t undermine your professional status by making decisions that undermine the trust your community has placed in you. Remember your stakeholders. If your school has entrusted you with an educational mission, then, by golly, be an educator. If your city has entrusted you with a mission of providing equitable access to information, then, by golly, provide that access equitably. But, always remember that you are part of a community. Let’s say that Frat-boy Fred comes to your college reference desk and asks for the answers to his homework. Sure, you aren’t supposed to discriminate on the basis of educational attainment, but your community (i.e., your school) has entrusted you with an educational mission as well as an information-organization (or whatever)  mission. Create the teachable moment, don’t give out homework answers. Of course, if you are a public librarian with a similar but different mission, you may, in fact, be obligated to give Frat-boy Fred the homework answers. It all depends on the role your community has entrusted you with. (And, just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we should just do what we are told: the universal, common morality always trumps community-specific morality.)

Second, if your role is a function of your expertise, then you should act within your expertise. Don’t give out legal advice if you aren’t a lawyer. Don’t be a patron’s therapist unless you really are a therapist. Don’t give medical advice unless you are a health professional. I don’t let dentists tell me how to shelve my books, and I sure don’t tell dentists how to fix my teeth. Conversely, as professionals, we shouldn’t deny our expertise to our community. If a patron asks you for help, and you can help, then you should. Don’t deny information because your religion says the information is immoral. Don’t be a jerk because you’re sick of people asking for help with JSTOR. Professionals are obligated to help within the bounds of their expertise. And, importantly, you should adopt professional development as not just a practical, job-advancement value, but as a moral value. A lawyer who doesn’t understand recent legislation is a bad lawyer. A librarian who doesn’t understand contemporary information needs and services is a bad librarian. Your community expects more.

Third, if you are to make decisions on behalf of your community members, then you should respect their autonomy. Remember that, as a librarian, your patrons are coming to you and voluntarily ceding certain decision-making authority. Respect that. The ability to make decisions on behalf of another person is a precious responsibility, not to be taken lightly. Likewise, your patrons haven’t ceded everything: they are still autonomous individuals and it is incumbent upon you, as a professional, to honor and respect the autonomy that has not been ceded. Don’t be a paternalistic jerk. Sure, you might think your patrons are rotting their brains by reading Fifty Shades of Grey, but their freedom to read is theirs, not yours.  You might think that the patron homeschooling her kids with conservative propaganda is doing something wrong but, when she asks for that science book that has Jesus riding a Brachiosaurus on the cover, you need to respect her decision.

by Flickr user mockstar, CC BY-ND

Finally, given that we have profession-specific practical demands, we should understand our practical obligations. We are morally obligated to have at least some understanding of intellectual property and copyright laws, of vendor contracts, of our employee handbooks, and of similar contractual and quasi-contractual obligations. I should probably point out that law and morality are parallel, yet distinct, concepts: we often encounter immoral laws. So, following the law or our library policies is not sufficient for acting in a morally responsible way. However, we should always understand that, in some instances, doing the right thing will create negative practical consequences. Emailing a student an article might get me in trouble for violating policy (“we aren’t a document delivery service!”), but it might also be the right thing to do. An important distinction we need to understand is the distinction between right/wrong and praise/blame. In many cases, we can do the morally wrong thing, yet not be blameworthy. An example might be the librarian who refuses to place an entire book on electronic course reserves due to the likely threat of a lawsuit from the publisher. Making information accessible and supporting the educational mission of the university might be primary moral values, but a librarian may not be blameworthy for setting these values aside in order to avoid severe practical consequences. Or maybe she is blameworthy. The important thing is just to acknowledge the distinction between right/wrong and praise/blame. We need to understand our practical obligations and we need to be willing to accept the practical consequences of our actions. If you’re going to break or bend policy to do the right thing, then you should at least understand the practical consequences and be prepared to defend your decision.

The short version

Our professional codes of ethics are valuable documents. Things like the ALA Code of Ethics, Ranganathan’s Five Laws, the Library Bill of Rights, and similar documents, provide us with our default, baseline moral values as library professionals. They are our starting point and they help describe our functions within our communities. Often, in the pursuit of we morally responsible service to our patrons, our professional codes come into conflict with our other community-specific norms. When this happens, we need some way of weighing and balancing our competing ethical demands. My humble suggestion is that, when our values come into conflict, we balance our obligations by considering four things:

  1. Is my decision consistent with my professional role within the community (or communities)?
  2. Is my decision consistent with my expertise?
  3. Does my decision respect the autonomy of the patron?
  4. Am I willing to accept the practical consequences of my decision?

It also helps to keep in mind that professional ethics is not about creating checklists of what to do in every conceivable situation. Rather, it’s about understanding our ethical environment and balancing competing moral obligations in a responsible and critically reflective way. I’m not going to tell you what to do when a patron comes to you and asks for information on how to build a pipe-bomb. Instead, I’m just going to suggest that you consider the stakeholders in your community, consider the limits of your expertise, consider the patron’s autonomy, and consider the practical consequences of whatever decision you make. That’s it, four simple principles to help balance competing ethical demands. Sure, there’s a lot of explaining I’ve left out; it would probably take a book to cover everything in sufficient detail. But, I haven’t written a book. All I did was talk for 45 minutes to a room filled with awesome librarians. Feel free to ask questions or tell me what an idiot I am in the comments, I’m always glad to hear it!

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Photo by loneblackrider on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In my last post, I posed an ethical scenario involving whether or not to waive library late fees. Sixteen people voted and here’s the breakdown:

Case 1, The Harry Potter fan: The vote was 10 to 6 in favor of letting the casual reader check out the last book in the Harry Potter series.

Case 2, The G.E.D. student: The vote was 13 to 3 in favor of letting an unemployed woman check out a G.E.D. study guide despite her library fines.

Case 3, The stranger: The vote was 11 to 4 in favor of letting a complete stranger check out a G.E.D. study guide, despite library fines.

Most of the comments in favor of waiving library fines argued that library fines are a disincentive to use the library, rather than their intended function as a disincentive to keep books beyond their due dates. Most of the arguments against waiving the fines pointed to the importance of personal responsibility on the parts of our patrons. In both cases, the fundamental issue seems to be the fairness, though interpreted quite differently. Those who wanted to waive fines tended to argue that fine policies in and of themselves are unfair to patrons. Those who did not want to waive the fines tended to argue that consistent application of library policy is necessary to make the policy fair. Finally, several comments pointed out that an ILS typically allows staff to override holds on accounts, so there may be other options.

I’m not surprised that most people would let the woman in Case 2 check out the GED study guide; I know I would. It seems to be a straightforward test of our commitment to improving  our community. However, I am rather surprised at the vote for Case 1. Waive or override fines because someone really wants to read a Harry Potter book? Really? Perhaps I didn’t make the scenario realistic enough. For those who would waive the fine for the Harry Potter fan, what would you do in the following case:

Case 4, Pumpkin Spice Latte: A woman comes to the circulation desk to check out Fifty Shades of Grey only to find that she must pay a $10 fine. She admits that she has the cash but she really wanted to buy a pumpkin spice latte after leaving the library. Would you override the hold on her account or waive the fine?

I’m not going to answer this one, because I’d like another shot at starting a new discussion. In the interests of getting a more even split, I’m going to propose another library dilemma, one that happens every Fall semester at our reference desk. Let me know what you think in the comments. (No Google Form this time; it didn’t work the way I had hoped.)

Photo by selva on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


A library service scenario: The music assignment

You work at the reference desk in an academic library. Every semester, Professor Jones assigns a devilishly tricky “library treasure hunt” to his music history students. The assignment consists of 50 music trivia questions and no guidance as to where to find the answers. Here’s an easy one: how many times did Kirsten Flagstad sing the role of Brünnhilde in the 1939-1940 season at the Metropolitan Opera? (Yes, that’s a real question on a real assignment.) After several semesters of the same assignment, the reference desk has put together a document with the answers to all 50 questions. How would you handle the following situations…

Case 1: The last-minute student

The day before the assignment is due, a frazzled student comes to the reference desk and asks for the answers to half of the trivia questions. Do you give her the answers? If so, why? If not, do you provide some other type of assistance?

Case 2: The very last minute student

Ten minutes before the assignment is due, a frazzled student comes to the reference desk and asks for the answers to all of the trivia questions. Do you give him the answers? If so, why? If not, do you provide some other type of assistance?

Case 3: The music history professor

Professor Smith is considering assigning a similar project for his music history students. He has an answer form with half of the answers filled in and he knows that he could probably find all of the answers on his own if he spent a few hours, but he asks you for half of the answers so he can save some time. Do you give him the answers? If so, why? If not, do you provide some other type of assistance?


What, exactly, are the ethical dilemmas here? Do all three patrons have the same information need? Does the amount of work each patron has already put in matter? Do the research abilities of the patrons matter? Would your answer change if you worked in a public library? Can you create another case that leads to additional ethical dilemmas? Feel free to comment below!



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Photo by Stefan Baudy on Flickr, CC BY 2.0

You know my last blog post? The one about library ethics and service? Would you believe that it got me invited to speak at UIUC next week? Yeah, me neither, but I’m going anyway.

One thing I find especially interesting about this invitation is that, to date, I haven’t written very much about library ethics. This, despite the fact that I used to teach professional ethics, I took every ethics seminar available in grad school, and I even wrote my Master’s thesis in meta-ethics. What the heck! Why haven’t I blogged about library ethics?

Here’s the plan: rather than write long essays about ethical theories or issues, I’m going to start posting short ethical and practical dilemmas for you to discuss. No pipe-bombs and porn here; I intend to keep it to realistic problems that the average librarian might reasonably be expected to encounter. My intent is not to lecture about how we should or should not make ethical decisions, rather, I just want to discuss our moral intuitions as librarians and professionals. In technical terms, this is an exercise in descriptive rather than prescriptive ethics. If I can get a discussion going, I’ll post a follow-up next week as well as a new dilemma.

In what follows, I’m going to provide an actual library service scenario. This actually happened (more or less). First, I’ll provide some background information, though it’s up to you to determine what is relevant. After providing the scenario, I’ll give three variations. Add to the story if you’d like, change the scenario how you please, or make any adjustments that you feel are necessary; the scenario is a discussion prompt, not a story problem. Using either the comments or the embedded form  let me know what you would do in each case and whether there are any ethical or practical issues that are worth considering.

Photo by yuan2003 on Flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0

A library service scenario: The library fines

Just before close on a Friday afternoon at your small, neighborhood branch of a large urban public library, a woman comes to the circulation desk to return six items that are each five days late. At $0.50 per day for each late item, her fine is $15. Combined with the $15 worth of fines already on her account, she is now on the hook for $30. Library software (the ILS) allows library staff to waive fines, but it will not allow patron check-outs if total fines exceed $20 due to library policy.  Given that library privileges are suspended once fines top $20, this woman will be unable to check out new items until she pays at least $10. The current head of the circulation department takes library policy very seriously, but she has already gone home for the day.

These are the material facts. How would you react given the following variations:

Case 1: Harry Potter The woman is a longtime library patron and you know that she has recently fallen in love with the Harry Potter series. The six late items are the first six books in the series. She assures you that the late books were an honest mistake. She really wants to finish the series over the weekend, she doesn’t have $10, there’s no time to get to an ATM before close, and just wants to check out the seventh and final Harry Potter book.

Case 2: The G.E.D. The woman is a longtime library patron and you know that she is currently unemployed due to downsizing at a local manufacturing plant. The items she turned in late are mostly study guides and other test preparation materials for the G.E.D., which she intends to take the following week. She assures you that the late books were an honest mistake. She has $10 in her purse, but she had hoped to use it to buy fuel for her car so she can get to the G.E.D. testing facility. The book she would like to check out is the final G.E.D. study guide she needs to finish her test preparation.

Case 3: The stranger You do not recognize this patron, this is only her third visit to the library in as many years and therefore you know nothing about her. She explains that she has fallen on some hard luck and she is currently unemployed due to downsizing at a local manufacturing plant. The items she turned in late are mostly study guides and other test preparation materials for the G.E.D., which she intends to take the following week. She assures you that the late books were an honest mistake. She has $10 in her purse, but she had hoped to use it to buy fuel for her car so she can get to the G.E.D. testing facility. The book she would like to check out is the final G.E.D. study guide she needs to finish her test preparation.

Using either the blog comments or the anonymous Google Form, feel free to discuss each case in the scenario. I’m really curious to see what you think and I hope I can get at least a small discussion going about ethical and practical dilemmas in librarianship.

By SomeDriftwood on Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0


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