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Librarians: Gatekeepers or Guides?

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.

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