2007 Midwinter

Minutes of RUSA RSS Ethical and Legal Issues in Reference Discussion Group
Saturday, January 20, 2007--Seattle, WA--ALA--Mid-Winter

Co-chair, Chip Stewart, called meeting to order.

Chip announced the new section chair, Deb Van Patten. Deb is looking for a vice-chair.Meeting attendees introduced themselves and stated 1 issue that brought them to this meeting. Issues raised included (issues brought up by more than one person are bolded):


  • collection development
  • workload overload
  • plagiarism
  • how students are treated at the reference desk
  • online research techniques
  • pressure from Tort liability
  • patron “triage” – how to allocate resources
  • accessibility of information
  • copyright implications and policing
  • supporting staff at different career steps while avoiding favoritism
  • academic integrity
  • alumni database access
  • role of ethics in development of library professionals
  • disputing prisoner rights and access to info with the department of corrections
  • confidentiality vs. Family rights and, of patron/librarian chat,
  • different ethics for public libraries and academic libraries
  • age appropriate material, dissemination of
  • ethics of evaluating reference work
  • scholarly success
  • sources – good, bad, and indifferent
  • misinformation propagated in popular non-fiction
  • banning/ejecting patrons
  • effect of consumerism on higher education
  • access/affordability – haves vs. have-nots
  • Verifying sources on purchased papers – right to do
  • professionalism and ethics with respect to tenure
  • volunteering of desk copies to reserves and mediating copier use
  • balancing bibliographic instruction with simply giving information away
  • assisting public patrons with financial services; government documents
  • fair use – congress’ muddying of the waters
  • providing information that represent all sides of issues
  • Patriot Act and intellectual freedom
  • Access issues for mentally ill, indigent and the economic impact of providing access.

All the meeting participants were then divided into 3 groups, one each representing public libraries, academic libraries, and special libraries. Each group was led by a moderator in 20 minutes of discussion: Patrick Wall leading the public library discussion, Phil House leading the academic library discussion, and Chip Stewart leading the special library discussion.

Discussion group debriefings:

The special libraries group discussed a scenario in which a patron acquired information about a government agency in order to sue that agency. The agency in turn became defensive and attacked the library. Also discussed was the image of librarians as professionals.

The public libraries group discussed checking out inappropriate material (erotica in this case) to minors. The overall consensus was that this was permissible and that library staff should be discouraged from actively blocking such circulation.
Another scenario discussed was that of providing service to the mentally ill when they approach the reference desk and have no legitimate information need. A group member with social work experience pointed out that acknowledging these patrons is very important even when no information is being sought.
It was asked of the group what ought to be done if a reference librarian knows information sought could be used to affect suicide or other self-harm. The group consensus was that it was important to provide the information without bias – as one group member put it, “we are a taxi – we get patrons from point A to point B without needing to know why.”
Finally, this group reported an overall consensus that parents have a right to know what minors are doing/checking out.

The academic libraries group discussed scenarios involving an academic demanding a letter of apology from the librarian who refused to buy a requested periodical, and a second in which a university president accepts a lemon of a gift and sticks the library with it.

Following the group discussion reports, Chip asked Deb Van Patten to talk about her impressions of the day. She observed that some issues are perennial, namely privacy, reference interactions, and plagiarism. On plagiarism, Chip suggested that attendees view minutes from the last meeting particularly for the Valdosta University treatment of plagiarism.

The full body of the meeting was given a final opportunity to raise issues of concern. A new discussion broke out on privacy issues with respect to virtual reference transactions. It was observed that since most platforms/software for the delivery of virtual reference require some identifying patron information – often an e-mail address at the very least – there are privacy concerns that cannot be ignored.
Someone observed the differences between the generations known as Boomers and Millennials in their handling of personal information – Boomers value privacy more strongly than Millennials.
Immigrants often need to give share their personal information with librarians in order for librarians to provide much needed assistance with immigrant services. It seems somewhat unavoidable for librarians to encounter patrons’ personal information!


Submitted by Eric Zino, PALINET
April 2007