Ethics and sticky situations

Library ethics is important to me as a librarian, especially since I plan on working with children and teens. As gray as the gray areas are in answering what Lenkes calls “dangerous questions” for adults, it gets even murkier in dealing with children. This came out during our book club discussion on young adult books and appropriateness, where Sarah talked about the responsibility that school librarians have to act as the makeshift parent to children and try to protect. them. It’s something that makes me a little uneasy; I’m a firm believer in the freedom to read, and yet I don’t want to risk the safety of others or my job to give a student any information they could possibly want. We discussed ethics in a previous class, but I felt like in that discussion we were encouraged to just follow the ALA Code without any potential concerns over what can happen when we give readers certain information. It really bothered me; again, I think everyone should be able to read what they want to read and the information they are looking for, but I also don’t want to be a part of someone’s self-harm or harm towards others or their property. It’s a really dicey issue, and there are no easy answers, but as librarians we need to know what we would do in certain situations.

I really liked Lenkes’s approach to “dangerous questions” in his article, looking at all factors of the situation in order to come to the best decision. The ALA Code of Ethics is great; I think it’s crucial that we have a document that protects the freedom of our patrons. However, in some ways I don’t think it accounts for every possible scenario, which would be impossible in one document. Lenkes considers the idea that it’s not always best for a librarian to give certain information to a patron. There’s a fine line between giving a patron the information he or she asks for and protecting people who might be hurt by that information. There are legitimate reasons for people to look up certain explicit or potentially harmful information – for example, they could be doing some sort of research. But at the same time, we can’t know for sure what a patron’s motives are, especially since we are supposed to protect their privacy and we don’t want to make patrons uncomfortable by delving into their history. And as I mentioned, it gets even more complicated with minors and what their parents’ wishes are and whether we as librarians know what the parents may want for their children and whether we should act in place of the parents.

The ethics of reference service are tricky – trickier than how they were discussed in previous coursework. As always, I wonder where our class will take this conversation. I think it’s something that I will need real-world experience in before I can really get a feel for how to make the right decisions, but it’s important to be thinking about it as I learn about librarianship so that I can have a solid foundation upon which to base such decisions.


4 thoughts on “Ethics and sticky situations

  1. “I also don’t want to be a part of someone’s self-harm or harm towards others or their property”-This is a huge issue for me too, Mollie. It’s hard to know if/how a patron might use a material to gain information for self-harm or harm towards other. Is it our job are librarians to help steer patrons away from upsetting materials or ones that might lead to emotion harm and distress? I think this pulls us a bit too far into the therapist/counselor rabbit hole.

    I think you are right that ethical issues with regards to what materials can/should/will be accessible to children are even dicier than considering ethical decision-making options for adult patrons. The Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine ( has many research veins which examine issues related to minors ( My small knowledge bank of centers for ethics are very heavily populated by medically focused discussions on ethical considerations in patient care and clinical trials. In the past, when I have taken Institutional Review Board training, most of the modules are focused on the ethical issues dealing with participants and information about participants, not necessarily ethical considerations for dealing with information on its own (I hope the distinction is clear). It is interesting to note that most universities, including Michigan, have two IRB counsels, one for Medicine ( and the other for Health Sciences and Behavioral Sciences ( I believe library research would fall under the latter.

  2. You bring up some great points, Michelle. And I think I get what you’re saying about “the ethical issues dealing with participants and information about participants, not necessarily ethical considerations for dealing with information on its own.” I think it makes sense. As I said in my post, I don’t want to keep information from people, but I still worry (I think it’s just my nature). However, as librarians, we can make an incredible difference in someone’s life by giving him or her the right information at the right time, and I might not be able to do that if I’m worrying over what they might do with the information.

  3. You both bring up interesting points. I don’t think that its a librarians job to judge or steer patrons in any particular direction. I recently found myself in a ‘sticky’ situation at work and I had to ask my manager who reminded me that it is not my place to answer questions but rather just to point people in the direction of resources and allow them to use the material to find answers to their questions.

    • That’s something that I don’t always think about – how we are there to provide information moreso than answers, and to allow people to find the answers themselves. It’s especially tough when I’m working online reference and students expect an answer from me that’s more than pointing them toward a resource. I actually worked with a patron recently who wanted me to match articles to some strategies he or she was working with in a class. I kind of just tried to deflect the question for a while and just send articles that might fit, and then I realized that I can just ask him or her what he or she thinks about it. That seemed to please the patron. It’s probably a tangent, but it’s what your comment made me think of.

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