Sunday, October 11, 2009

Making assumptions about patrons: thoughts on my readings for library school

“For example, Hauptman queried whether reference librarians would provide information on building a car bomb, and Dowd questioned whether reference librarians would or should provide information on freebasing cocaine. The underlying question was whether reference librarians can be totally neutral in the performance of their duties, or whether social consequences of the information should be considered." (Rubin, 2004 p. 325)

I was surprised to find this passage in Rubin. In my opinion not providing information to the best of your abilities in the above situations would violate the first two principles of the ALA code of ethics:
We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.
We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.

In addition, maybe it's just my tendency to want to believe the best of people but if someone approached me at the reference desk asking me how to freebase cocaine my first thought would not be that the patron intended to use the information to get high. There are legitimate research reasons as to why someone might want to know this, as well as just basic human curiosity that can be purely intellectual without leading to any action.

For example, in my undergrad I took a folklore class and I wrote a paper about the graffiti found in the study desks of the University library. The paper included observations based on my recording of the graffiti as well as delving into the study of graffiti in general. I have never engaged in the activity myself nor do I have any intention of doing so, and I was not condoning the act in my paper. I worked at the library and I naturally wanted it to look nice and be free of many of the vulgarities written on the desks. However, by studying the graffiti I was able to discover many interesting things about the student body of the university.

Given that there could be reasons other than a proclivity towards criminal activity that may provoke such questions, how is the librarian supposed to determine whether or not the information should be provided? By stereotyping based on the appearance or other characteristics of the patron whether their intentions are good or bad? By requiring a note from a professor supervising the paper? By asking the patron (in which case what kind of idiot would admit to intent to commit an illegal act)?

The first method would clearly not be acting in an ethical and unbiased way. The second and third method would violate the third principle in the ALA code of ethics, dealing with patron privacy. If this last method is employed what is the likelihood of the patron returning to the reference desk for help in the future if they know they can expect invasive personal questions as to why the information is desired and accusatory looks? Given these difficulties regarding determining what a patron intends to do with information and the commitment of librarians to provide equal access to information and fight censorship I personally do not see how I could justify doing anything other than answering the patron’s question to the best of my abilities. I understand that there are conflicts here, but there is the potential of violating the first three principles of the ALA code of ethics, principles which I value highly and have contributed to my desire to join the profession. I don’t see how a vague, possible, harm could justify breaking all three of these principles. Am I prioritizing different values in doing this? I just don’t get it.

Rubin, R. E. (2004). Foundations of library and information science. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

American Library Association (2008, January 22). Code of ethics of the American library association. Retrieved from

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