This post is part of the Hack Library School’s Library Student Day in the Life week. For those of you who are here because of that, thanks for visiting! I’m an online University of Maryland MLS student, the social media manager for UMD’s iDiversity organization and a library clerk on a public library’s reference desk. Come back every day this week to learn more about what it’s like to be a MLS student. And be sure to visit the LSDITL page for a list of everyone participating this week. And read all of my HLSDITL posts here.
Today I spent pretty much the whole day reading some ethics assignments and drafting notes for my Sunday discussion. This week was all about privacy and the ethics involved in the topic.
Following the Patriot Act, debates over privacy were everywhere, especially in libraries. Even as a lowly student assistant at my undergraduate library, I encountered its impact on my institution. We all were told what the rights of students were and that we should refer any request to a supervisor. I got the distinct feeling some felt that student assistants would be asked for patron information, thinking we would automatically give it out when a badge was flashed. Of course, none were, but that doesn’t mean invasion of privacy through the request of library records wasn’t a reality.
But a discussion of the Patriot Act was only one reading on the issue. The thing I love about my ethics class is the professor always seems to find a way to bring in new angles on an oft-discussed concept. For example, she shared a game which intended to reveal all the ways that our personal information is shared and bought and stolen online. It’s called Data Dealer and is mildly addictive, at least for the first hour or so.
On a more serious note, she offered up a thought-provoking read about a parent’s invasion of his daughter’s privacy. I admit I had a diary and a decoy diary to fool my parents, but I don’t think either was ever looked at, nor did I ever write anything worth spying. And, I grew up before the widespread use of the Internet to share personal information. Privacy wasn’t an overwhelming issue to me growing up. But in this day, I can see youth and their parents being quite concerned. But why should this angle matter to librarians? The question becomes, do parents have the right to know what their children are reading? Should a librarian share that information with a parent if he or she asks? The quick answer is no. Like any patron, that information is for the patron only. But as with any ethical situation, there is more than one way to look at the situation. What if the child is reading books on the best way to commit suicide? How do you make such decisions?
The point is this: Ethics is incredibly complicated and difficult to apply consistently in every situation. It boggles the mind how many different right answers there are to a single question. But that’s why we need courses on ethics, at every level of schooling. Not because we need to learn THE code that will help us solve every dilemma (I contend such a thing is impossible). We need to recognize that our opinions are not the only ones out there. We have to learn to foresee how a decision we make that we feel is ethically right could turn out so wrong. And we need to learn to have an open mind, more so now that we can so easily encounter those of differing ethical standpoints thanks to the Internet.