Ethics in LIS

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?

Categories: Big Picture

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25 replies

  1. In my program at University of Washington, we were required to take a course called (LIS 550 Information in Social Context) in which my class focused on ethics – both personal and within ALA – and we read case studies and had lengthy discussions about what we would or should do.

    Each instructor of LIS 550 focuses on different aspects of information in social context, but I appreciated that ours always brought the question of ethics back to the forefront.

    I think that even if these types of decisions are case-by-case, it is still good to look at different scenarios and just THINK and DISCUSS with your colleagues what you (as a person or as a librarian – sometimes it’s difficult to separate these selves) would do. It prepares you for the real situation.


    • One of the new core requirements at UT is Information in a Social Context. I don’t have to take it because I’m completing the old core requirements, but I’m going to ask around and see if it discusses ethical stuff.


  2. We covered ethics in a “libraries & society” course but also within each individual course. E.g. in cataloging, you can consider the appropriateness of subject headings and implications of the hierarchy (homosexuality used to under mental illness, etc.). A good one from reference was: if someone came to you who had clearly been distraught and crying asking for a book on how to commit suicide, would you give it to them? That’s tough. Sometimes doing the right thing might go against free access to information.
    And yeah, just discussing with colleagues and ultimately making a judgment yourself is the only way to go. Not all cases can be cut and dry in public services.


  3. I took Intellectual Freedom at Rutgers, which is offered online and available through WISE as well for those non-Rutgers students, as well as Social Informatics. Both were fantastic courses that really have shaped my approach to thinking about and carrying out librarianship. Neither are required, but I agree that some sort of ethics of information and/or technology or intellectual freedom course should be more intentionally integrated into LIS curricula.

    I find that responsibility also falls on the shoulders of library admin to help shape policy, but also educate staff on current trends and questions to constantly consider. One source that I often refer to in my day to day work is the ALA Intellectual Freedom Manual: Perhaps some of the writer’s questions will be addressed there too.

    Great questions you’ve raised here – thank you.


    • Thanks for the resources! UT has a partnership with WISE so I suppose that is one more class we offer that addresses some of these. I guess I just feel like the subject is so tricky and broad it can never be covered enough.

      “Intentionally integrated” is a good way to put it and something that LIS curricula should strive for.


  4. Thank you for writing this, Rebecca. I wonder if a class built on ALA’s IFM would be a possibility for professional development on our own, in a wiki or hashtag? Each case is unique, but I believe hearing/reading and pondering them in a calm setting before something happens personally is the only preparation–even if those individual case details never match 100%. I read a story a year or so ago (anyone recall it?) about a librarian confronted with an ethical question. A patron asked for information on why homosexuality is bad. She presented the information that fit the question. I can’t remember if the rest was in the discussion of the blog post or the original event: She also offered information with other viewpoints. She wanted to come out to the patron as well, but remained neutral. Should one be true to one’s self and GLBTQ advocacy or true to the profession’s aim for neutrality? A lecturer in spring semester assigned readings on the concept of “professional neutrality;” whether it is possible or just a code-name for conservatism. Very thought provoking.

    Will Manley had a post last week about fresh-from-school-idealism clashing with reality (

    I wish there were “answers” rather than just varying shades of grey.


  5. In my program at CUA, Libraries and Information in Society is a required course which includes discussions of ethics and values. One class of the course was devoted to ethics issues. Also in the required course, Information Sources and Services (a reference class), there was some discussion of ethics as well.

    I agree with others that a separate ethics course should be included in LIS programs. I also think libraries and library systems should include ethics workshops in their staff development and training opportunities. These type of conversations need to continue beyond library school.

    It is important (and sometimes very hard) to separate our personal and professional ethics though. Regarding your situation, it may be helpful to read ALA’s interpretation of their Bill of Rights as it relates to children and teens’ access to non-print material ( It states: “ALA acknowledges and supports the exercise by parents of their responsibility to guide their own children’s reading and viewing.”

    So I interpret that as, parents have the right to monitor what their children and teens read or view online, and we as professionals should support that right. We don’t do it on their behalf (unless the child is involved in illegal activity inside the library). However, if the parent wants help with finding surveillance software to put on their home computer, we should treat it as a regular reference question. Even if I may not personally agree that surveillance software is the best approach to take, I don’t see it as unethical to help the mother find the product she needs.

    Just my two cents. Thank you for raising these questions! 🙂


  6. Wow. What a difficult situation, Rebecca! My specialization was in youth services, with most of my research being in young people’s privacy/IF rights in the library, and even with that I have no idea what I would have done if I was in your place. But what I particularly like about your post– and what I think should be part of the model for ethics in IS ed. (it sounds like some programs do this already from comments above)– is that it poses this situation in a way that I’m now going to be thinking and pushing through it all day, and trying out different lines and responses, and seeing how they sit with my professional (and perhaps, personal) ideals. If this situation or something similar ever comes up, I can be better prepared to address it.
    I’d also like to see a discussion in IS ed about professional ethics vs. institutional policy vs. state/federal law (and when you throw service in there, it gets even harder!). A lot of times these things are in conflict, and for IS professionals to decide where they stand in a lot of issues we need to have access to resources that break these differentiations down. This is a both theoretical and practical issue that concerns our everyday work, and perhaps there should be a call for a mandatory ethics course to be a requirement for ALA certification. Although: my program has a required ethics course, and unfortunately I didn’t get very much out of it in terms of establishing professional ethics. A lot more of that came from my youth services and IF courses.


  7. Where does that fact that the child is a minor come into play here? The parent has every right to do what she believes is the right thing to do to keep her child out of harm’s way, including sensor what that child views on the internet, watches on the TV, reads in books, etc.


    • So true. Even ALA acknowledges the parents’ right to censor their own children.

      This mother asked for help finding a surveillance software that she would use inside her own home. I think this should be treated like a regular reference question, the same as if a patron asked for help finding a website to buy anti-virus software for their home computer.

      I can understand feeling confused though. The professional principles and codes of behavior can be very general (and overwhelming) sometimes, and it’s only through conversations like these that we learn how to interpret them and apply them to specific situations.


  8. What a dilemma, Rebecca! We covered this at the University of Maryland’s iSchool in a core course, LBSC 601 Users of Information, devoting a whole class, paper and exercises to ethics. We also offer a course on Information Ethics at the iSchool. I would feel obligated to assist the parent with the research, with value added information about speaking to teens about internet use and online profiles, and information about where parents can go to learn how to speak to teens about these issues, and parent-teen online contracts, which are also available. I would also refer them to the school guidance counselor, and offer to teach one-on-one instruction about how to safely use the internet. The people who suggested a wiki or site for ethics questions in a safe environment and ethics policy had great ideas!


    • I like your ideas for value added information. Would you ask the parent first if she was interested in the other information about communicating with teens, or just go ahead and present it all at once?


      • Well I wasn’t going to reveal what I actually did, but you nailed it on the head. I did a little reference interview and came to realize that the parent was mostly concerned about the youth receiving pornographic or explicit emails and wasn’t really all that interested in going through and reading her personal stuff.

        So before I helped her with a search, I told her about our internet safety class and some tips she could give her youth to keep her email free from spam (such as not signing up for mailing lists, never opening something from a stranger, etc.). Before we even got to the search, the parent said she’d try that first and come back if she suspected any malfeasance.

        What’dya think?


        • Rebecca, I am so glad it worked out so well for you! You contained what could have been a really unsettling interaction with a reference interview and were able to drill down to get to the heart of the matter. I bet the parent also felt more in control because you armed her with information and good practices. I love it!


        • Glad everything turned out well. It is interesting how patrons come with a question about one thing, and their information need is actually something else. I’m glad you were able to help her, and resolve the ethical dilemma.


  9. First, I think you did a good job of handling the issue. I think the reference interview is the best idea in many situation because often patrons say one thing when they really mean another, and it seems that this situation once again confirms this.

    Second, while it seems a difficult choice at first, it really isn’t too hard to decide. You have no real obligation you have to information access within a private home. If it was blocking for the library or for a public forum, that would definitely be different. Further, not only does the patron have the right to privacy/restriction of access of information within their home, they are acting responsibly – even in as drastic a step as surveillance of the child’s correspondence – as they are responsible legally and ethically for the health and safety of that child. Without more information, of course, it could be perfectly possible that the child has engaged in dangerous or irresponsible activity that the parent is trying to address.

    So you give the information to the patron and hope that they make an ethical choice with that information. But as others have stated, you can give them other kinds of information or offer to provide helpful services if they are willing. Depending on the kind of personality, the patron may rethink their position in light of a new pool of information or new avenues for engagement (i.e. online safety courses).


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