Ethics in Librarianship

Ethic– regardless of the context– is a tricky subject. Ethic  is the word used to describe a set of rules or moral that guide behaviors or attitudes. To be ethical means that you have an understanding of which behaviors will help or harm you and you try to avoid acting in a way that will harm you. Ethics is a difficult topic to discuss because not everyone shares the same morals and different culture have a different understand of what ethical values people should adhere to. Ethics in the context of librarianship is also difficult and the reading for this week tries of outline what ethical responsibility librarians should have toward their patrons. The first reading is “Dangerous Questions at the Reference Desk” by Mark Lenker which was published in the Journal of Information Ethics. While reading one quote really stood out to me:

“Should the librarian refuse service on the grounds that assisting the patron may result in harm to the patron and to others?” (Lenker,44)

This is a question I have asked myself and others and truthfully I don’t know what I would do. I’d like to think that I would fulfill my duty as a library and assist the patron with there query, after all Google wouldn’t block or stop a search just because the query seems like it may cause harm. But I am not an algorithm. I am a compassionate human that may not feel comfortable helping someone find information that may cause harm. But I think this issue has two sides that need to be address: how much ethical responsibility should a librarian have and how much ethical responsibility does the patron expect. How much distance and privacy do library patron expect from the librarian? In 647 we were taught to be as interested in the patron query as they are because it will allow you to help them better, but in a situation where someone could get hurt or needs help–how much should the librarian remove themselves and just do the task.

I remember a few weeks ago I was at work and overheard a group of student discussing dangerous behavior. I had no idea what to do. Technically they hadn’t asked me anything at the desk, they just happened to be speaking loud enough that I could hear. I immediately wanted to offer them some help, a list of resources they could utilize and ways in which they could get help. I wanted to help them, not just as the librarian, pulling up a list of people and places they could get help, but as a human, who didn’t want to sit back and do nothing while these girls discussed their issues. But instead I did nothing because they hadn’t come to me at the desk..but does that matter? If a librarian walks pass a patron using the computer to look up how build an explosive that it powerful enough to destroy a home, or overhears two patrons discussing how to do it, is there also a responsibility for the librarian to do something? Or does the ethical rule to interject limit itself to the reference desk?

The ALA has a Code of Ethics that are meant to be a set of principles that guide the profession and assist librarian when their personal ethical values conflict. The code is very important and it allow for consistency among the behavior of librarians.There a three that I try my best to embody every day:

I. 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.

III. We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.

VII. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

These three are important and at times can be difficult. These three are why some situations are tricky and complex to handle. It is not easy yo set aside a bias or to remove your personal beliefs. And in a world of constant communication and over-sharing, at times it can be hard to respect someone’s privacy. Although it may be difficult, I can and will continue to do my best.

I’m really looking forward to this weeks discussion.

Til next time…shhh



  1. “But I am not an algorithm”. What an excellent way to understand how librarians handle the ethical dilemmas of each new situation. There is no formula for decision making for information professionals in a respective library environment. The formula for public librarian decision making may not be the same as an academic librarian’s decision making process for the same situation. However, just because there is no formula, does not mean we [librarians] may not still be held responsible for the decisions we do or do not make.

  2. Wow your experience overhearing the library patrons’ conversation sounds very difficult. I imagine you would have felt these same conflicting feelings even if you overheard them in another space like a coffee shop. It’s so challenging to know when we should insert ourselves into other people’s lives–weighing a desire to help with people’s right to privacy. In cases like these, I think it’s ok to follow what your heart is telling you and then debrief with a supervisor to help process.

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