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Archive for October 4th, 2012

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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