Archive for October 8th, 2012

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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