Tag Archives: ethics

Annoyed and Annoyed

8 Feb

I can’t tell you how angry situations like this make me.  You might love Annoyed Librarian, you might hate her (him?), but you can’t deny there are salient points in that blog post.  Go read it.  Seriously.


Ok, now that we’re all back here, let’s break this down.  In a list of 41 rules in 5 categories, we restrict people’s behavior in ways that clearly have no impact on the mission of the library, assuming they define that as “access to information.”  It’s designed, they say, for the “comfort and safety” of the patrons and staff.  Well, things like moving furniture could be for the comfort of the patron, but against the comfort of the staff – they’re the ones moving it back to where it belongs.  Here’s a thought: what about the comfort of the mother bringing in her two elementary school children for story hour or to do homework, and the children see a woman spread-eagle?  That’s not comfortable for her, and she’s just as much a patron as the viewer of the porn.  But viewing porn, in a public area, is “information” the patrons should have a right to access, according to the creators and defenders of this policy.

No, it’s not.

There is no informative value you derive from porn in a public setting.  The ALA and I have a disagreement (that they’re not aware we, specifically, are in, though they’d have to be nuts not to realize there are librarians out there who find their stance on porn access distasteful) on this in the worst way.  I don’t think there needs to be any access to porn in libraries, and Annoyed makes an excellent point: is there a law requiring libraries to provide Internet access to porn?  I rather doubt there is such a thing, but I do know there are laws about common decency and community morality.  I know that, because the ALA lost a Supreme Court case about just such a topic.  I know that, because it’s how police officers arrest non-intoxicated people for public urination.

So why is the ALA OIF and the ACLU pursuing this agenda?  I have no clue, and I’m not sure I want to understand why organizations so devoted to “access to information” aren’t devoting more resources to keeping libraries and librarians in schools, where students need the information provided and the help librarians can offer.  I can see that porn in libraries is more politically glamorous, but which is more heroic?

The more I read about eBook lending, and pornography in libraries being viewed in public, the more I’m convinced that access to information is a concept very badly misunderstood by those whose professional duty is to provide it.  Access to information is providing that which your patrons find of value.  The community informs the library about the material from which it derives value, and if you get people complaining about the type of information to which you’re providing access, then you are not doing your job.  By the way, every community I’ve ever read about that challenges the access to porn policy of a library has overwhelming patron support.

So, what can we do to change the way we perceive “access to information”?  My first thought is for librarians to stop assuming we know what will best benefit our community, and start listening instead.  What are your ideas?


Free speech and libraries

26 Oct

Normally I don’t get inspiration this way, but here goes!

A very interesting discussion recently took place on Facebook that I was able to be a part of, centering around the issue of discrimination and restricting membership to groups based on certain criteria.  After seeing where it went, the issue of free speech came up, and being a librarian, I introduced the notion of the “chilling effect” and watched the discussion get a bit ridiculous as those who weren’t familiar with it applied it incorrectly.  If you, an information professional, are not familiar with this concept….get familiar.  Now.  Find out what it is in general, and how it applies to libraries.  Theresa Chmara’s book, Privacy and confidentiality issues in libraries, is a phenomenal place to start.

For those of us that are familiar with it, what’s your stance?  Personally, I tend against anything that chills free speech, and would deny parents certain things they feel a right to getting (their child’s circulation records, for example) because the law makes no distinction on those who have a right to consume information based on age, with the notable exception of pornography being information minors may not receive.  That, of course, is when I would disallow free speech.

How do your libraries handle the issue of free speech and the chilling effect?  Are there any policies in place about it?  What are your feelings about it, and how do you think it affects your career?

Book burning, deaccessioning, and all the hatred

17 Oct

The background to this post is found over at Annoyed Librarian, and Cracked’s article on why we’re in a book-burning period of history.  You don’t need to read it, but I recommend that you do.

I read the latter article late last week, and AL’s this morning.  I like Annoyed’s writing and don’t take it too seriously, so I found myself nodding in agreement as I went through her very kind rebuttal.  I found myself shaking my head at the comments on Cracked’s article.  Cracked is a site I enjoy in my off-time, its wit bringing a dose of hard-bitten ire or misanthropy to my day.  It’s a shame the readers are such fools.

I don’t say that lightly.  But their comments are, by and large, clearly from the perspective of someone who’s never had to work in a library or deal with excess stock.  Books are treasures, and I am a person who will hold out against e-readers for the foreseeable future (or until I need large print books).  But saving every book because it’s a book, because it’s old, or because it might be worth something, is idiotic.  The library is in fact a type of business, albeit a non-profit and publicly funded one.  Well, technically public libraries are government organizations, but they run more like businesses…so if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, I’ll call it a duck regardless of nomenclature.  The readers of Cracked don’t seem to grasp that as they complain about noise level, or lost books, or weeding, they also demand more hotspots for their phones, free Wi-Fi, subscriptions, and an ever-evolving presence on the internet so they don’t have to come to the library itself.  You cannot demand both left and right simultaneously.

Perhaps it’s our profession at fault: have we done ourselves a disservice by encouraging a certain view historically, that minimized the fact libraries are susceptible to politics and government?  Was it a defense, where we endeavored to convince others we were independently valuable and that we were not at the mercy of government, so if need be the public would be outraged at meddling by politicians?  I don’t know, but I suspect the answer is at least partly “yes.”  When you create an ideal and then don’t live up to it (as no organization can), there’s outcry and indignation.

I understand what the readers at Cracked, and many library patrons around the world, feel when they discover items have been weeded.  But the point remains that librarians, archivists, and curators of collections, need to make decisions based on the needs of the whole, with input from the whole, and with a degree of professional knowledge developed by training in subject matter.  That’s what makes librarians, archivists, and curators, uniquely qualified to decide which books to deaccession, and our love of knowledge transcends a single volume.  We take the biggest picture possible: if it’s preserved out there in a format of some kind, and the current format isn’t inherently valuable (think Gutenberg Bible format), then we have done our duty to information and we must make way for new ideas and exchange.

So I toss the question to you all: what do you think of weeding?  What do you think patrons think of it, and what would be the best practice?

What’s the Buzz? – The Shadow Scholar (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

7 Apr

The Shadow Scholar – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The topic of plagiarism is one any information professional should be well-versed in; however, that does not change the fact that companies selling essays (individually written ones, not mass-selling the same ones) can get around the law, and that students use them.  I’d venture a guess that in some colleges, this service is wildly popular.  Clearly this is legally and ethically wrong on the part of the student: where do these companies fall, and how do we address them?

As I said, the companies can get around the law by stating they sell these essays for “research”, and that the essays are not meant to be turned in.  Often they offer other services as well, of the benign variety: editing, reviewing, peer reviewing, and tutoring, as well as legitimate research assistance.  Ethically, it’s obvious they are doing wrong, but there is little we can do to prevent it.  I personally am also hesitant to restrict access to these sites from a network because of the legitimate services.

Paramount is the responsibility of the student to do his or her own work.  Next comes the responsibility of the instructor to investigate, if the paper seems out-of-keeping with the student’s previously demonstrated ability.  The university/college has a responsibility to enforce the plagiarism policy.  Should a business do the “right” thing and only engage in ethically acceptable practices?  Ethical by whose standards, by what philosophy?  In my opinion, a business has the right to operate in any way it can, within the bounds of the law.

My other concern with restricting access to this type of site, assuming there are legitimate services being offered, is that in the ever-increasing technology era, the library faces a struggle to prove itself relevant to users, and to move into their space.  We want to create an environment conducive to the exchange of ideas and like the idea of “learning commons” as a way to structure ourselves.  We shouldn’t pass up any opportunity to do this, even if it means the patrons may do something we disapprove of.  Personal responsibility matters, and we cannot take the burden of the patron as our own, ensuring the use all materials in ways both legally, and ethically correct.

The First Amendment

2 Mar

The profession we are in demands that we given equal consideration to views we personally disagree with and help all patrons without regard or bias toward the nature of what they are asking us to do for them (within the bounds of the law).  However, sometimes this results in a professional/personal conflict and those are difficult to deal with.

This is one of those conflicts. I feel comfortable saying that nearly all people in America have something they disagree with the Westboro Baptist Church about, and many are opposed to almost everything they say or do.  When the story about protesting at military funerals and the subsequent court case made it to the national news, I know what I was hoping would happen, what I thought was morally right and just.  Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that Westboro Baptist Church was within its rights to protest and the First Amendment applies to them in this case, my feelings are largely irrelevant.  Their reasoning seems to be that the church is not singling out any one person but rather are demonstrating and speaking about their views on “issues of public concern.”  This makes logical sense.

I don’t want it to make logical sense.  I think they employ tactics no reasonable person need resort to and that they demonstrate a lack of respect that is not beneficial to any community.  But legally I am bound by the ruling that states they are allowed to protest.  Free speech is tricky in that way – it doesn’t have to be respectful, correct, or intelligible, much less intelligent.

This is, in my opinion, the largest dilemma our profession faces: what do we do when our duty demands we give respect to those who have none, help those who seem to do only harm, and protect the rights of people who want to take others’ rights away, as our conscience demands inaction?  There is no easy answer, if there is an answer at all.  Unlike medical professions, we do not have a clause allowing us to refrain from helping patrons; we may be able to avoid it if our coworkers and management are understanding but it does us ill service if we develop a reputation as unhelpful or judgmental.

The only coping mechanism I have developed is to try and maintain as strictly as possible a divide between my personal and professional minds.  If I can make a reasoned, respectful, legally-grounded and intelligent argument for an action that agrees with my personal beliefs, I will make it.  But in so many cases, like this one, I don’t have a legal leg to stand on and I can only hope I never confront this severe a dissonance from my patrons.

Custer’s Last Flag

11 Dec

As you can see from this article, Custer’s flag from the Battle of Little Bighorn is being auctioned off by the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Their reason is that “as a purely historical object rather than a work of art, it falls outside the museum’s mission and expertise.”  Someone on a listserv I am on asked this question:

Wondering if any archivists/curators have seen this and wondered whether or not such an item should be transferred instead of sold?  Ethically, I feel like such an important piece of America’s history should be transferred to a museum, archive, or other institution rather than to a private collector that may pay $2-$5 million for it.

A professor at Kent State University’s School of Library and Information Science, Dr. Kiersten Latham, responded that it is indeed fair practice even if it seems unethical to some.  She does acknowledge that while deaccessioning because of mission change or collection weeding is standard, it’s still controversial in American museums.  She also points out that places like Sotheby’s and Christie’s exist in part because of these collections.  A last thought from her was that it is possible a wealthy benefactor may purchase it and donate it to a museum; it does happen, if rarely.

My thoughts on this march with Dr. Latham.  Perhaps it’s the archivist in me, but since I’ve had to construct mission statements for projects before and have seen them applied at places I’ve worked, I completely understand why the DIA would deaccession this item.  It’s not art, and the article mentions they have a big money problem.  If they cannot care for the items under their scope, then weeding the collection is a good step and a responsible one.  Putting the item up for auction also allows for, as the article states, funds to be obtained from the sale and directed toward acquisitions of items under the DIA’s scope or for maintenance of current items.

This also overlooks the fact that while it is a piece of America’s history, there is no law against private ownership of historical artifacts.  Similarly, I see nothing wrong with putting an item up for auction to a private collector, as the collector who pays millions of dollars for artifacts is likely to care for it correctly.  I don’t think this is a solution to be applied in all circumstances, all of the time, but in this instance I find it the best practice possible.  It allows the DIA to weed its collection, obtain funds to preserve what it has, and offers the opportunity for the preservation of this artifact.  Many times I’ve heard stories of archives that weeded their collections and after being unable to find another institution to take them, threw out the papers.  I find it more ethical to offer items for sale than to throw them away, assuming they have enduring value.

Sometimes I wonder if we as a profession look down on private collectors for no reason other than they’re private collectors.  Certainly we can argue that rare books, unique manuscripts and artifacts with historical value ought to be owned by public institutions instead of a single person who has the discretion to restrict access unreasonably.  Private collectors deserve more from us, since it is often by their grace we get donations of import, financial and material.

An update to the story of Custer’s Flag: it sold for $2.2 million. The DIA plans to use the funds to “strengthen [their] collection of Native American art”.  The DIA also makes a valid point that while they acquired the flag during an acquisition period of natural history and historical items, for much of its life it was not on display and access was restricted.  They got calls angry they were selling the flag but people didn’t even know they had it!  That’s absurd, and now that it’s owned by a private, American collector, the flag is in no different a situation than before: owned, not on public display.  I urge you to read the comment by rob neighborhood on the second article; it smacks of lack of understanding about the way our institutions operate and highlights the need for libraries, archives and museums to continually perform outreach and education to the community.

WikiLeaks: An archivist/librarian’s perspective

11 Dec

WikiLeaks is quite the controversy, isn’t it?  Some people think it’s great, other people want Assange drawn and quartered.  I’ve seen a lot of people in my profession come out on the side of Assange, and wanting to defend what WikiLeaks is currently.

Those in favor of it argue that WikiLeaks is important because of its exercise of the first amendment, and that those people submitting information to it should not be viewed as criminals per se but as people who had an error in judgment (this only applies to some of the people and no one can seem to agree on who all these people are).  They correctly contend that the US Supreme Court has made rulings in the past related to the first amendment that guarantee not only free speech and the right to essentially create information via free speech, but also the right to receive information.  This is why librarians in a public or school library won’t disclose a child’s circulation history to parents; the law makes no distinction between minors and adults on the right to receive information except in the case of pornography and other common decency exceptions.  This applies to WikiLeaks because the American people are “entitled” to receive information about the workings of the government and that WikiLeaks can serve an important function: ideologically, it would be an outlet for inside sources to alert consumers/the public to underhanded or illegal actions taken by entities that they would want to know.  That would include things like a toy manufacturer using lead paint or cadmium in the toys, or a charity diverting 70% of its funding to pay people in the charity instead of using it for good works.  The fact it has moved to secret government documents is regrettable but now that we know what the government is doing we are able to hold them accountable – some good has come from it, and Assange and the people who feed him information or documents are really cultural warriors standing up for the rights of the people.  Vive le France!*

*If you don’t understand that reference, I’d suggest a brief history of the French Revolution and its impact on libraries and archives.

My professional opinion is that those taking this approach are incorrect at best and hypocritical at worst.  The first amendment rights I discussed earlier also extend to something referred to as “chilling free speech”.  In a nutshell, as library/archival professionals we are not obligated to comply with information requests that would impact others’ right to receive information.  Take the example of a teen’s check-out history at the public library.  A parent wants to know what their teen has been checking out, and any librarian worth his or her salt will deny this request because if the teen knows his or her parents can see their history, that teen becomes less likely to use resources in the future.  The teen’s right to receive information is harmed.  That’s what is meant by “chilling free speech”.

Those who are well-meaning but incorrect are those who recognize that information has intrinsic value.  They believe this information is valuable to the public and that because of its value it ought to be disseminated.  The reasons for this could be that people are entitled to know, they favor transparent government, they believe accountability is in order, or any combination of many factors.  I argue that this information is valuable because of its secured nature and that once it becomes public it is less so, even in some cases becoming actively dangerous.  The documents released contain information on the identities (names, addresses, etc) of Arabic informants to the US government on Al-Qaeda.  They contain the same information for spies working domestically and abroad.  They contain information about government workings that are necessities but that would be unpopular.  The government does not operate strictly on diplomacy, and anyone who thinks it does or should is a hopeless idealist; posturing and consequences are a vital part of making one’s country as strong as possible.

Those who believe Assange is acting in the best interests of the people are hypocrites; Assange’s actions are chilling free speech in the worst way.  Organizations might be afraid to create documents that contain trade secrets lest they end up on WikiLeaks, individuals working as operatives may not create reports lest their real names and homes end up on WikiLeaks.  The neat thing about chilling free speech is that it doesn’t actually have to be chilled – there need only be the threat of it being chilled and then those actions impinge on someone else’s first amendment rights.  I cannot as a professional support the actions of a person or group of persons who take away rights from so many people.  Librarians and archivists extend to patrons and donors the respect due to them – why would we do any less for someone who works for the government?  Why would we defend a chain of illegal actions that resulted in exposure of operatives and endangered families?

There’s a joke that the “l” in “librarian” stands for liberal.  I’ve certainly seen that to be the case in my experience.  But in this instance, I don’t think it should come down to a political ideology.  This is a simple case of protecting the rights of people the way we do each day.  Any information professional who supports the actions taken by Assange and his group and uses professional reasoning to do it, needs to re-read what the first amendment is all about.

Personal opinions are just that, and any type of reasoning is fair game.  I have my own on this issue.  But my professional opinion consists of reasoning based on court rulings and professional ethical standards, and nothing else.  Our jobs deserve no less from us.  Personal politics often factor into the way you apply reasoning, but fortunately in this case there are plenty of court rulings that are in no way ambiguous and universally accepted standards of behavior as set out by the American Library Association and the Society of American Archivists.  There is no reason not to uphold those, and I expect nothing but the best from all information professionals.  Extend impartially your defense of these rights to both patrons and people whose right to receive or create information is chilled.