Ethics in the Library
Dr. Carolyn S. Ryan
Ethical Society Without Walls
Morgan is an academic reference librarian. He provides instruction for using the library's resources to individuals and classes of students on the undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate levels.
Not all students demonstrate the expected level of English literacy and information literacy skills, requiring Morgan to decide how much assistance to provide to students in areas that are not considered to be part of his responsibilities as a reference librarian. When he refers students to the appropriate department or tutoring centers, he is often told that no one will be available by the time required. Wanting to help these students, Morgan must be concerned with time management and setting priorities but there seems to be an inordinate number of requests for the reference librarian to provide non-reference assistance.
Many students ask Morgan to explain an assignment or research question posed by an instructor. He recommends that they review course notes in case the issue was previously discussed with the instructor, covered in a class meeting, or reviewed within an assigned reading. He also encourages students to e-mail or speak to the instructor directly to obtain clarification. Even though the above strategies may be considered, students with looming deadlines usually return to Morgan and he must use his experience and best judgment to answer the questions for clarification. Many students wait until they are desperate before asking a librarian or the appropriate individual for assistance. Morgan may hear that a student has an assignment deadline within the hour, which can seriously limit his options for best assisting the student or referring him or her to the appropriate department or individual.
As a librarian working in public service, Morgan always must be mindful about protecting the privacy of those he serves. He is quick to remind those he supervises that personal information, such as, the titles of the books that have been checked out to a patron and how much money a patron owes in fines can only be shared with that patron and no one else. After a book or other item is returned to the library, it is detached from the patron's record; only the patron is authorized to access his or her reading history.
At the main desk of the library where Morgan works, professional librarians are responsible for providing reference service, and non-professional employees are responsible for providing services related to circulation of library materials. There are times, however, when non-professionals are requested to perform some of the librarians' duties and vice versa. Some librarians object to performing some non-professional functions. Morgan is more concerned about the ethics of having non-professionals perform professional functions, such as answering reference questions and teaching classes about how to use the library's resources, for two reasons: 1) library users are not benefiting from the expertise of a professional librarian, and 2) the non-professional is not compensated at the rate of a professional. At best, awkward situations arise as a result of the practice.
Despite some of the challenges of being a reference librarian, Morgan enjoys working with his colleagues and a variety of students from various backgrounds. He thrives on the daily feedback from those he assists and gains great satisfaction from the knowledge that he has contributed to helping patrons reach their educational and professional goals.