Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

Yesterday a significant chunk of the librarian Twitterverse Twittersphere Twhatever-it’s-called lost its collective cardigans over a critique of the newly implemented ALA Statement of Appropriate Conduct at Conferences. Will Manley, author of the critique in question, argues that the code of conduct is a substantially flawed document and, in support of that conclusion, he raises four concerns: (1) that the group statuses singled out for protection from harassment are undefined and vague, (2) that the policy will have a chilling effect on intellectual freedom, (3) that much of the code’s language is ambiguous, and (4) that the code does not provide due process for alleged violators. To be honest, I find nothing particularly shocking or offensive about Manley’s criticisms. I also don’t happen to think they are convincing, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Where the real drama unfolds is in the comments to Will’s post, which quickly descended into a mess of identity politics, tone-deafness, ad hominem arguments, and general foolishness.

You can read Manley’s post and subsequent comments in their entirety by clicking the word trainwreck.

I’m not going to do a point-by-point analysis of Manley’s concerns: Matthew Ciszek already has a good refutation of Manley’s critique, as does Nina de Jesus. Instead, I want to look more broadly at the issue of anti-harassment policies. Believe it or not, but there are substantive reasons to reject anti-harassment policies. There are also substantive reasons to endorse said policies. Let’s look at each in turn. (And I apologize in advance for the very rough treatment of each position; I don’t want to take too long a lunch break #newyearsevelibrarian)


The libertarian* argument

Those who reject anti-harassment policies typically make the argument that (1) most harassment is already covered by existing policy and (2) anti-harassment policies stifle otherwise protected speech (or, intellectual freedom). Manley invokes this argument (poorly I might add). On the first part, Eugene Volokh explains that most harassment occurs “one-to-one”, that is, when a speaker is saying things to one listener that the listener clearly doesn’t want to hear. This type of harassment is clearly restrictable on the grounds that restricting it does not infringe upon the speaker’s ability to spread a message or make a public expression of a belief. One-to-one harassment annoys and offends (rather than persuades or convinces) and can therefore be dealt with without violating freedom of speech. Likewise, unwanted physical contact is not speech and, therefore, not at an intellectual freedom issue. If anything, that’s sexual battery, which is wrong in its own rights. However, the free speech libertarian argues that public speech not aimed at an individual is protected no matter how offensive. The libertarian will advocate for the “marketplace of ideas” where there should be no restrictions on the content of public speech. For example, a speaker at ALA Midwinter may want to present arguments against book-challenges raised by fundamentalist Christians. No matter how offended fundamentalist Christians in the audience feel about the presentation (and the ALA code mentions religion), the free speech libertarian would argue that the presentation must be allowed on the “marketplace of ideas” doctrine. Likewise, if speakers wanted to criticize affirmative action, advocate for an Equal Rights Amendment, discuss millennials unfavorably, or otherwise express a contested view, anti-harassment policies could have a chilling effect. Restricting public speech on the basis of its content, no matter how offensive, is antithetical to democratic values, so the argument goes. Think of it this way: while an anti-harassment policy may allow a lesbian or gay audience member some redress against a speaker who argues that homosexuality is immoral, it would also allow a fundamentalist Christian redress against a lesbian or gay speaker who argues that traditional Christian attitudes towards homosexuality are immoral. The best response is to avoid content-based restrictions all together and allow the truth to emerge on its own. Again, so the argument goes.

Whatever you think of the free-speech libertarian position, you should at least know that it is the dominant view in the United States. You know the whole “I hate what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it” doctrine? That’s what I’m talking about. This is why the ACLU (in?)famously defended the right of Nazis to assemble in Skokie and the right of Fred Phelps to spout hate. This is why the Supreme Court ruled that both burning a flag as well as burning a cross are protected speech (though illegal on other grounds). The list goes on and the point is clear: offensiveness and emotional outrage do not trump freedom of expression. Like it or not, that’s the status quo. (If you’re interested, Anthony Lewis wrote a history of the libertarian view in his recent book Freedom for the Thought that We Hate.)

dignityaintcheapThe dignity argument

So, what’s the alternative? What arguments can be raised in defense of an anti-harassment policy? I think a good counter to the libertarian position is the dignity argument raised by Jeremy Waldron in his monograph The Harm in Hate Speech (though, each chapter was previously published elsewhere and easily Googled). Though Waldron argues in favor of hate-speech legislation rather than anti-harassment policies, the issues are similar enough that Waldron’s arguments apply in both cases. Adapting Waldron, we can make the following argument:First, anti-harassment policies are not directed at thought, they are directed at harm. Specifically, these policies address the harm that harassment causes to the dignity of targeted persons or groups–where a person’s dignity is “a matter of status–one’s status as a member of society in good standing–and it generates demands for recognition and for treatment that accords with that status” (Waldron, p. 60). In the context of the ALA, a librarian’s dignity (or, arguably, any conference attendee) is the assurance of equal standing within the library community. Harassment and intimidation are, by their very nature, demeaning of the dignity of the person or group being targeted, thus depriving them of the “assurance . . . that they can count on being treated justly” (Ibid., p. 85). Note that this has nothing to do with a person’s being offended or made uncomfortable. Offense is subjective; dignity is objective. A frank discussion of sexuality or race might be incredibly uncomfortable for some listeners, but it only becomes harassment if the discussion is calculated to undermine dignity or demean those listeners.

Second, though isolated instances of one-to-one harassment should be able to be handled by existing policy (a concession to the libertarians), many isolated instances of harassment have the effect of creating an unwelcome atmosphere in which the dignity (i.e., the equal standing) of an entire group is undermined. When left unchecked, harassment can harm this “dignitary order” of the community (ibid., p. 92). Whereas we want conferences to be inclusive of many viewpoints (a concession to the marketplace of ideas doctrine), harassment compounds as an environmental toxin that undermines group dignity and, hence, undermines inclusiveness. A fair marketplace requires that all agents involved are assured equal standing but, to take just one example, harassment on the grounds of sexual identity serves to undermine that assurance among the LGBT community, thus removing them from the marketplace. This winds up not just harming the LGBT community but also harming the entire community who would otherwise benefit from the additional perspectives. Put another way, if we really want a marketplace of ideas, we have to assure all community members that their ideas will be heard.

Third, although regulating to prevent this dignitary harm may have some costs, the benefits justify the adoption of anti-harassment policies. Yes, we want a marketplace of ideas but, just as there are regulations over economic markets, there ought to be regulations curtailing abuse of the intellectual market. Think of the ALA Code of Conference Conduct as a sort of intellectual Glass-Steagall Act maybe. Given that the most frequent types of harassment are based on “race, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, appearance, or other group status” it only makes sense to expressly prohibit those types of harassment in order to improve the intellectual market (there’s a long conversation we could have here about identifying “vulnerable groups” but we can save that for later). I don’t really know if this is even making sense, but in a nutshell, we need the ALA Code of Conference Conduct because it is our best way of assuring librarians of all backgrounds that the library community respects their basic dignity. And we need to provide this assurance because without dignitary order we lose out on the public good of inclusiveness. This isn’t about restricting intellectual freedom, it’s about restricting all and only those actions and words that undermine dignity. So Manley’s fear that Richard Pryor wouldn’t be allowed at an ALA conference is completely unfounded: Pryor may have been offensive, but he didn’t undermine people’s dignity.  Anyway, that’s the quick version of the dignity argument.


I’m just putting these theories out there for people to think about. While I do tend to lean towards the dignity argument, I do have some purely philosophical concerns about it. Likewise, while I’m not convinced of the libertarian argument, I’m not going to think poorly of those who invoke it. Whatever the case, I’m glad that the ALA has a Code of Conference Conduct and I hope that the discussions at Midwinter (in particular Andromeda’s panel on gender issues, which will probably touch on the code of conduct) are more thoughtful than what happened yesterday.


* that’s ‘libertarian’ in the philosophical sense, not the “your crazy 9/11 truther uncle who reads Ayn Rand” sense

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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


Thanks for commenting!

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Photo by dbnunley on FLickr. (CC BY-NC-SA )

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.

“Also, can I borrow your phone? My mom needs to know where to pick me up.”

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.

by beITRON on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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!).
  3. 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.)
  4. 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!

This is ethics.
(by Steve Rhodes on Flickr, CC BY-ND)

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.

by kasperbs on Flickr (CC BY)

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..

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