I work as an intern for a youth program in a public library. Most of my time is spent planning or implementing programs or leading book clubs, but every once in a while I encounter a parent with questions about books or technology issues for his or her teen.
A few weeks ago I had such an encounter with a parent: she approached my desk and asked me if the library had any kind of surveillance software installed in the teen computer lab. I explained that all of the library computers have an internet filter, but I don’t personally monitor what the teens are doing on the internet. I will only intervene if the youth is watching something that is actually illegal for them to watch, for example, pornography. The parent then asked if I knew of any email surveillance software she could install on her home computer to better monitor what her child was doing online.
I was immediately struck with an ethical quandary. On the one hand, as a public librarian I shouldn’t judge the information a person wants and should therefore help the parent do an online search for email surveillance software. On the other hand, as a youth librarian I should advocate for young people’s privacy rights and should, instead, encourage the parent to talk to her teenager about responsibility and expectations and tell her about the programs we offer in internet safety for young people. This patron’s question had me face-to-face with two opposing concerns: one of the patron’s, who should have access to whatever information she needs, and one of her child’s, who probably doesn’t want her email read. Frankly, neither of these options felt particularly good.
While there are places to look for guidance for the “right answer,” none of them seemed to address this particular question. ALA’s Library Bill of Rights clearly states that “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues” which leads me to believe I should just give the woman some search strategies and move on. The Bill of Rights goes on to state, though, that “Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.” In this case, the absent young person would be the one whose free access to ideas is in jeopardy. To further complicate matters, young people are not necessarily protected from censorship, particularly when it comes from a parent. What are we to do when advocacy conflicts with service?
My information science program does not specifically offer any information ethics courses. There are a few courses in children’s librarianship but since I haven’t taken them yet, I don’t know if they address privacy/censorship/ethical concerns. There are a handful of courses that likely do address some issues of privacy and ethics, but they aren’t geared towards a particular branch of librarianship and they aren’t required. I know that my school isn’t the only one without these courses. Shouldn’t LIS education be talking about this sort of thing? Is it just too complicated, too case-by-case to offer a general course? Other than the ALA’s guidelines and whatever policies are in place at your particular information center, what else can LIS education offer us in terms of developing some intuition about how to tackle these sorts of interactions? To start with, programs should require a course in ethics that investigate privacy for young people, distribution of information, and conflicting needs. It would also enhance reference courses to discuss situations where advocacy and service are at odds.
What are the guidelines other information professionals follow? Do archivists, information architects, or programmers faced with the same kinds of ethical concerns? What do you think I should have done in this situation?