2006 Midwinter Meeting Minutes

2006 Midwinter Meeting Minutes


RUSA Reference Services Section

Ethical and Legal Issues in Reference Discussion Group

San AntonioConvention Center, Room 206A

San Antonio, Texas

Saturday, Jan 21, 2006, 1:30pm


Theme:  Gathering of Ethical Concerns



             The discussion on reference and ethics actually started last June at ALA Annual Conference in Chicago; an article appeared in RUSQ, prompting the discussion. Jan Fryer (Iowa State University) took notes, which were distributed at today's meeting. Interest in this topic came out of a proposal to reorganize RUSA, to consider how a new section (of RUSA) should look vis-à-vis legal and ethical issues (limited to the general practice of reference). At the 2006 annual meeting in New Orleans, the topic will be plagiarism.   Some volunteer opportunities could arise as the discussion moves along.



Anne Cottongim, and Chip Stewart served as co-chairs at the original discussion with help from mentor John Hepner. Chip made up a handout/outline for distribution at today's meeting. Chip began today's discussion, and served as facilitator. Self-taught in reference ethics, he indicated that there is a body of literature on reference ethics, and if one searches Academic Search Premier™, articles are there and have been around for 30-40 years. Many articles start with a "code" of ethics for reference. One author dismisses the code approach. Another author advances the legal approach, i.e. the "case study". In either case, they lend themselves to wide interpretation. Gregory Koster (1992) suggests a "values based" approach, seeing ethical dilemmas as expressioins of  values conflicts.

             What is ethics in reference? Does the subject belong to librarianship? Education? Society? This is a very hot topic with no easy answers. To start the discussion, Chip led off with his "simplified" outline.

             Ethical dilemmas beg certain questions: (1) what is the "context" of the situation? (2) What are our "issues" or problems, perhaps emphasizing the need for human relations skills? (3) Why am I here, and what is important to me? There are individual values and group values. There are conflicts within librarianship as well, such as privacy versus open access is a professional values conflict. In the end, some set of guidelines for ethical decision making may be needed.


Round Robin:  examples of ethical issues.

             Chip next facilitated a round robin discussion of the topic, "Why Ethics Aroused My Curiosity or Interest". Responses ranged from personal to professional concerns. The following is a listing of those concerns:

  • professional reasons (#1 response; the note taker took this to indicate that the professional discussion of reference generally would not be complete without ethical considerations)
  • Librarian as the  "vehicle" for plagiarism by "giving" students the answer(s)
  • Personal or religious objections to the reference transaction (can or should a religious librarian censor or step away from a transaction s/he finds objectionable?)
  • Students using our reference desk phone, whiteout, etc.
  • use of personal information at reference
  • immigrant population, computer-illiterate and needs INS help (one library's concern, to assist or not to assist)
  • medical help
  • legal help
  • worst examples: bill collectors and Polk City Directory, landlords seeking help with evictions notices, issues with e-mail use (public library reference issues for years)
  • interpretation, application of ethical issues is fascinating
  • Cell phones; students have no concept of personal privacy (putting their business out there with no care about who hears it; in response, Chip mentioned social responsibility--what is our role and how do we interpret it?)
  • Privacy and Google: where did it go?
  • BI for the tough stuff: how does one teach difficult issues (ADA, for example)? Perhaps librarians need to self-disclose, regarding his/her personal biases
  • Question came up: how to be "authentic" and still give good service? Chip noted that to be an ethical librarian we may need to sacrifice some of our privacy, disclose who we are
  • Children left unattended in the library (what if something happens?)
  • library staff helping students fill out financial aid [forms] online (higher-ups in the administration got the idea to foist this on the library without telling librarians first)
  • Students taking tests and logging into virtual reference for the answers (students actually say to the virtual librarian, "that's not a choice on the test!")
  • Why are librarians doing the work of the parents?
  • adult services librarian: how far to go in helping parents doing research for their kid's project (involved an image of a nickel--found the image, helped her blow it up, then the client started to ask the librarian's opinion on what type of fabric should be used, etc.)
  • balance between good customer service and client confidentiality
  • case where the librarian was sued because student didn't get a good grade
  • giving students the answer straight out is plagiarism
  • reference interview is not being nosy
  • getting students to think critically
  • when students believe in something that you don't
  • proctoring exams (when librarians get involved)
  • Chat reference: how far do we go?
  • library school students (2): topic is interesting, educational
  • Students asking for font help (to possibly change grades?)
  • personal interest
  • Students who use personal topics to complete BI assignments: how to handle it (but they get the topics from the Opposing Viewpoints series!)
  • teacher turned in the librarian; wanted lots of patent information (want us to make decisions)
  • students wanting us to do the work for them
  • look directly at the child, and let the child know they matter
  • medical information; "what would you do?" type questions
  • when to refer, when to help

Chip summarized the discussion and indicated that he is partial to the "overview," but sometimes there isn't one!


What to Do Next.

             After brief discussion, it was decided that the next step will be to establish separate subcommittees for public, academic, and special libraries, to develop the issues arising from today's discussion. Volunteers for the Public Libraries Subcommittee are Jennifer Shelly and Patrick Wall. Volunteers for the Academic Libraries Subcommittee are Chris Stempinski, Jan Fryer and Phil Howze.  Volunteers for the Special Libraries Subcommittee are Lise Dyckman and Anne Cottongim.


Respectfully submitted,


Phil Howze

Southern Illinois University Carbondale