There were no readings this week because my group is busy preparing for our one-shot workshop. As with the Socratic seminar, I do not want to give away too much information before we hold the workshop, but I can give a brief outline. We are discussing the recent Pew study Library Services in the Digital Age and how the results of this study will impact our professional practices as librarians. One thing that I have taken away from this survey is that people expect a lot out of their public libraries. They take advantage of the services that libraries offer, expecting both cutting-edge digital services and the traditional model of the library as a quiet refuge. With my two groupmates, we will lead a discussion of how we can reconcile these public demands (and if I know librarians, we will definitely try our hardest to reconcile seemingly competing demands!).
I see this one-shot workshop taking the form of an academic conversation on some level. One trend that I have noticed in library instruction as seen through the lens of SI 643 is that librarians seem to take a much less formal approach than full professors. I know that I am more comfortable with this approach. I think that part of the ethos of librarianship is that we are the pathfinders, we start people out on their journey but do not claim to have all the answers. The one-shot workshop as we design it assumes that the participants’ answers may be just as good as ours, and we do not want to presuppose a “right” answer in our presentation because that risks limiting the conversation. This may, however, be a weakness. One of the comments on our group’s Socratic seminar presentation was that we should not be afraid to insert our own opinions into group discussions. What do you think? Is this just me, or is this reluctance to insert one’s own opinion a characteristic of librarians?
In class last week, we also discussed issues of ethics, particularly whether it is ethical for the Toronto Public Library to allow advertisements on due date slips that are printed when patrons check out materials. My knee-jerk reaction was “No!” because I personally am tired of being bombarded with advertisements everywhere I go. Thinking about the recent Pew study, wherein many participants want the library to be a place of refuge, the presence of advertisements also seems invasive. My discussion group tried to think of this issue from a purely fiscal point of view, but even there it does not look as though having the advertisements is worth it. The library would not save enough money for it to make a major difference, and the companies that advertise would probably get the most out of advertising. You can read the article here. It states that the library would save $20,000, but in the context of the budget of a large public library, that is not very much. Most of the commenters on that article appear to agree.
I really enjoyed this week’s readings, which deal with ethics in libraries. The American Library Association’s Code of Ethics reminds me of the reasons I wanted to become a librarian in the first place: to ensure intellectual freedom and freedom of access to information. I am glad that in reading our professional code of ethics, I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly; it shows that I have picked the right profession.
As with most philosophical considerations, however, the issues are often thorny. Mark Lenker’s article Dangerous Questions at the Reference Desk examines where he believes our professional standard of helping patrons no matter what the request could lead to hurting others. He argues that we must consider the virtues and vices inherent in a potentially “dangerous” reference question and decide what action to take after taking these virtues and vices into account. While this is an interesting thought exercise and it is always useful to fully examine where our ethical standards are coming from, I believe that there is too much room for Lenker’s system to be abused and ultimately put librarians in a paternalistic mold where, directly contrary to the ALA’s Code of Ethics, we are restricting information rather that helping people access it. You will notice, for example, that I put the word “dangerous” in quotation marks. I did so because I take issue with the idea of a dangerous question. Libraries are, after all, places of learning, and the idea of branding certain questions as dangerous strikes me as authoritarian.
In the article, Lenker uses the example of a patron asking at the reference desk about the explosives needed to blow up a small suburban house. He sees the fact that most librarians helped this patron as showing “a disturbing lack of concern for the consequences of their actions.” This would be true if the librarians knew that the man was actually planning to blow up a house, but this is not the only possible explanation for why somebody would want that knowledge. He could, for example, be writing a story where a house is blown up, and wants the details to be accurate. In each case, if there is a possibility of danger, the librarian must use their judgment to figure out whether to help the patron, which is what Lenker argues. Making assumptions about a patron’s motives, however, ultimately does libraries a disservice by making them places where information is kept from people rather than accessed. Also, if the library were really concerned with this possibility, why would it have books about explosives in its collection in the first place?
Lenker’s example of a patron asking for information on how to grow marijuana plants also made the article somewhat difficult to take seriously. Perhaps this is because I live in Ann Arbor, but it seems like such a mild example of illegal behavior. I was surprised to see such concern over marijuana in an article from 2008. While there may be times that the greater good is served by not helping a patron, those times are so few and far between that for the most part, this discussion is purely academic. It is so subjective what an individual librarian would consider a dangerous question that, in my opinion, there is more danger of creating a chilling effect in libraries than there is of catastrophic events happening as a result of what people read.