The ALA Code of Ethics, what a wonderful document – carefully crafted, succinct, and pointed. I appreciate that the code of ethics is clear not only about the standards of the profession but also includes distinct points about how we treat our patrons and how we treat our colleagues.

One could say, “Why do we even need a code of ethics? We’re all after the same things here.” I suspect that these same people don’t see the point in naming a secretary, instructor liaison, project manager, and client contact in group work. I feel it’s extremely important not only to name job roles in group work but also to be up front about ethical expectations. When you announce your intentions in this way no one can claim ignorance, and ultimately the time spent in codifying a working structure (whether it is temporary like in group work or somewhat permanent as in a code of ethics) saves everyone time in the end. Things just run more smoothly when everyone knows where they’re headed.

I do have some frustrations, however, with the way that “dangerous questions” of the type that Lenker poses are typically handled in reference classes. I understand that these questions are not meant to represent the totality of a patron interaction and are intended to provide a starting point for a discussion. This is valuable and important. We should be trying to understand and develop a framework for handling “dangerous questions” before we head out into practice, if only to make what is bound to be an uncomfortable exchange slightly less panic-inducing for a new librarian.

I am bothered by these questions because they are presented in a way that completely ignores the possibility of a reference interview. The questions are asked and then we are expected to report back on what we would do. Never is the answer to what we would do, “I would give the patron a reference interview.” We don’t discuss the value of answers to questions like “What in particular do you want to know about bomb making?” or “Are you looking for books or journals?” to finding out what the patron is really after. While the exercise is important, are we teaching new librarians to overreact initially to situations that aren’t nearly as bad as they sound? Why aren’t we engaging new librarians in the practice of crafting thoughtful questions to find out potentially sensitive information without asking directly “Who are you bombing and when do you plan to do it so I can call the police?” There must be a way of doing this that allows us to engage in valuable ethical discussions about our obligations as librarians versus personal moral compasses while challenging us to create a meaningful line of questioning that could be useful at a reference desk.

4 thoughts on “Ethics

  1. Naomi says:

    I completely agree with your point about reference questions and basic conversational skills! I know that it can be an uncomfortable position to be in, but I would hope that as we become librarians we do not alienate ourselves from the skills we have developed as human beings in a community.

  2. linguomancer says:

    I think you make a good point, and that a good reference interview might help determine if the question is dangerous or not. I don’t think it will always be the case, though. A patron might be evasive or could even lie outright, and I think there is only so much pushing a librarian can do. In the situation I wrote about on my blog, my friend did conduct a reference interview, but the patron’s responses were pretty vague and not very revealing either way.

  3. Kristin says:

    One possible answer to, “Why do we need ethics?” comes from how society defines professions. In general, one of the ways we know that a job is a profession is that it has a set of ethics. If librarianship is a profession, then it “needs” a code of ethics, just as doctors, lawyers, etc., have.

  4. Tyson says:

    You make a good point about reference interviews. As usual, I as an archivist was thinking about the implications of Lenker’s article in an archival setting. In archives, we don’t usually focus on reference as much when we talk about ethics; bigger issues tend to be dealing with controversial or personally sensitive materials (which is a big issue when most of your collections are unpublished), dealing with donors’ requests for access restrictions (again, a big issue with unpublished materials), and also questions related to collection development (you can ask the Labadie about this one).

    One reason reference isn’t as big of an ethical issue in libraries is because archives generally hold more specific types of materials and reference questions don’t involve general information (like, “give me information about suicide”). More broadly, though, reference interviews are pretty much essential to archival reference in a way that they’re not for libraries all the time. In order to help somebody in an archives, you really need to know the purpose of their research. Of course, people can still lie or be evasive, but it’s not going to be to their benefit at all to do so. I’m not sure I have any larger point here except that thinking about ethics in archives as it relates to reference led me to the same conclusion you’re drawing: reference interviews really help mitigate a lot of these concerns. In particular, they can help us tell really quickly when a situation that seems suspicious really isn’t. And of course this isn’t a catch-all, but it is a point that doesn’t seem to get brought up in a lot of discussions of the issue (like Lenker’s).

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