A discussion and suggestions on ethical barriers in librarianship: information privacy, controversial materials, and personal beliefs.

Author:Tsompanakis, Spyros

Table of Contents Abstract Introduction Limitations Definitions Information Privacy Literature Review Discussion Controversial Materials Literature Review Discussion Personal Beliefs Literature Review Discussion Conclusion References Further Reading Introduction

The ALA Code of Ethics mentions eight principles as guidelines for information professionals. These guidelines are general but clear. This means that they can be applied in any situation with, possibly, a small amount of flexibility. All of these principles are very important, but three stand out more in the everyday life of the library (author's experience). These are information privacy, controversial materials, and personal beliefs. These specific issues come up frequently, especially the information privacy issue, which is an everyday concern.

The ethical issues discussed in this paper have been a concern for this author since he became a student in the library program and started working at a library. As a student, the author has tried to find answers to these issues at the philosophical level, while as a librarian he has had to deal with them. He has plenty of experience in a little less than a year in his library career on the two of the three issues discussed in this paper, information privacy and personal beliefs. It is true that they have become the author's obsession. Some of the author's experiences are great examples that show how information professionals can literally struggle to do their job right. Some of these examples will be used without any reference to specific people or libraries.

Information professionals are human beings with their own personalities and convictions. They are not machines that apply principles, values, and regulations without thinking or feeling. The author approaches the three issues having the above statement in mind. In the case of controversial materials, as pointed out in the "Definitions" section, the author refers to both users and information professionals and their role in making this issue a barrier.

The author's goals is to provide a review of the existing literature on specific ethical issues and help colleagues reflect on their own experiences, compare their approach to the author's, and find ways to overcome the barriers. It is the author's belief that a common approach by all information professionals is necessary, in order for the library profession to move into the future without these barriers and a bigger support by the communities. Thus, this work becomes a medium for the increase of awareness on these ethical issues and the quest for solutions.


As mentioned in the previous section, this work includes only three of the ethical issues that exist in the library profession. The author's goal is not to break down and analyze the entire ALA Code of Ethics. There is an emphasis in this work on the specific three issues mentioned earlier, because the author believes that they appear more frequently in the everyday library environment. A discussion on all ethical issues would make this work too broad and it would be impossible to discuss thoroughly any of them. Furthermore, this work is not a study on the three issues. It is a discussion based on the existing literature and author's personal experiences, opinion, and suggestions.


Barrier: Will be used to express problems caused by the ethical issues discussed in the paper that do not allow the smooth function of the library and interaction between the library staff and the users. User: The author prefers the word user to patron, because he perceives patrons as clients of a for-profit organization. Information privacy: This term refers to the ethical issue related to the use of user information by the library, in order to improve services, programs, and the collection. Data mining and data analytics are included in the methods of collecting the information. Controversial materials: This term refers to the ethical issue regarding materials that cause reactions among certain members of the community. It also refers to information professionals who are too biased during their collection development duties.

Personal beliefs:

This term refers to the librarians' personal beliefs that may interfere with their duties.

Information Privacy

Literature Review

Caldwell-Stone (2012) defines users' information privacy as the right to read and inquire anything, without the fear of being judged or punished. Further, the library staff must keep their personal, circulation, and inquiry information private. The problem that Caldwell-Stone indicates is technology related. Ordering and downloading an e-book results in a significant amount of information about the user's preferences and even focus points in the book. As the author mentions, the proactive solution to this problem is the negotiation with vendors and agencies regarding the privacy of user information.

Cyrus and Baggett (2012) also discuss the changes that technology has brought to how information privacy is being handled. One of the issues that the authors discuss is that of entering personal information in search engines to acquire information. Search engines and social media are not protectors of personal information. Mobile technology exacerbates the problem, due to the agreement policies and applications (geolocation) on mobile devices. Cyrus and Baggett suggest three ways in which information professionals can contribute in the debate and finding solutions about information privacy: Becoming informed about technological developments and trends, creating user instruction programs, and assisting users in applying privacy settings on their devices.

Ferguson et al (2011) discuss the Radio-Frequency Identification's (RFID) contribution to the information privacy problem. The data about the item stored in its RFID can identify user preferences, which may lead even in the exposure of the user's religious and political beliefs. The authors argue that RFID's are useful, not only for security purposes but for circulation as well. However, their signals can be intercepted and used against the user.

Fouty (1993) discusses the risk to information privacy caused by the online circulation systems. The author states that both user and library related information in records is private. The author suggests the collection of limited data for the users' records, by authorized personnel with security access. Fouty takes the latter a little further, stating that limited personnel should have authorized access to users' records.

Klinefelter (2011) points out that only entering the library reveals information about a person and every action taken by the user from that point on increases that amount of private information released. Further, the author discusses the law on information privacy by libraries and states that violation of the law is punishable. Librarians are bound by the profession's values and standards to protect information privacy. Technology, once more, is challenged, since the risks of revealing confidential information, even unintentionally are great. The evolvement of technology forces libraries to revisit the issue and "adjust" their approach. Internet technology today allows for gathering information about user behavior. In public computers, the deletion of trails of information becomes more and more challenging.

Phetterplace (2010) discusses browser security issues. Knowing that users may enter personal information in forms and sites in many occasions and for many reasons, he suggests the use of Firefox and Chrome instead of Internet Explorer and Safari. The last two have been proven very vulnerable. The author also discusses browser settings and the restriction of search engines to the few known and legitimate. Finally, the author mentions the need for user training on Internet security.

Stover (1987) deals with librarian confidentiality. One of the things that he points out is that there are no legal consequences when a librarian breaches confidentiality. The reason for this is that confidentiality has not been defined properly by the profession and the law. The general suggestions are the following (p. 243):

  1. "Cases where the client has given written permission;"

  2. "Cases where research may be duplicated and privacy is not requested;"

  3. "Cases where dangerous criminal activity is suspected."

Sutlieff and Chelin (2010) conducted a study in order to determine the amount of trust that students have in the academic library, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and the government, as well as how students perceive the reasons for and types of personal information that libraries keep. The authors found that students generally have trust in the library but not the NICS and the government, and the library's approach on data protection. The latter happens due to the libraries' association with the NICS. The authors' suggestions are the improvement of the library policy, staff awareness on advocacy issues related to privacy rights, and the avoidance of association with the NICS.

Van Wel and Royakkers (2004) discuss ethical issues in data mining. The authors point out that in data mining and data analytics the data gathered may identify the users and their beliefs, be used along with different pieces of data in irrelevant contexts, or be misused, resulting in harming the user. The...

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