Librarianship as a Moral Juggling Act

EDWARD: Mister Liddell, you’re a child of your race, as I am. We share a common heritage, a common bond, a common loyalty. There are times when we are asked to make sacrifices in the name of that loyalty. Without them our allegiance is worthless. As I see it, for you, this is such a time.
ERIC: Sir, God knows I love my country. But I can’t make that sacrifice.
Chariots of Fire

Situational ethics are messy. It’s not always as simple as a binary decision on whether or not to throw a trolley switch. And that’s the problem with applying any rigid imperatives to real-world conditions.

Consider the prevailing principle to always be truthful. Now think of the combat medic who mercifully tells a mortally injured patient “you’re going to be fine,” or the caregiver of someone with dementia responding to being asked “where’s mom?” by tactfully avoiding causing the unnecessary anguish of disclosing that their mother died thirty years ago. These are cases where bending common conventions appears to be warranted.

Many of the thornier issues in our profession have to do with exactly how we rectify conflicting values:

  • Should we be stronger champions of open access and cancel subscriptions to for-profit journals, or is it nobler to avoid the presumed wrath of faculty members by continuing to pay for them?
  • It’s widely accepted that we should protect the privacy of our patrons. But shouldn’t tiny exceptions to this be made so that we might obtain assessment data related to learning analytics or in support of a vendor’s new so-called “seamless” access service?
  • Are we adherents of free speech absolutism, or do we stand our ground against giving a platform to bigotry? This relates to how people frame the “Are libraries neutral?” debate.
  • How do librarians strike a balance between the right to privacy and the right to access information?

As someone in a Library Systems department, one of the more questionable practices that I’ve encountered along these lines involves my parent institution’s in-house phishing campaigns. To those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of being involved in one, this tactic involves deliberately sending out deceptive e-mails to your employees as a test of their ability to ignore malicious spam.

One of these messages included a bogus link to supposedly new rules from the campus parking department, which not only caught us unawares, but our actual transit office as well, who had to put up a warning notice on their site. Aside from the questionable trade-offs involved when doing something like this—the whole affair makes me think of Dwight Schrute’s fire drill for some reason, or the real trauma caused by active shooter training—it just seems wrong to purposely spread misinformation, no matter what the context.

There’s an old adage about how some people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices. [I have distinct memories from a previous career of my fellow loan officers deciding whether or not to approve an application and afterwards running the numbers in such a way as to justify their decision. The branch manager even went so far as to often proclaim how, “doing loans is an art, not a science.” We didn’t get along very well. I wasn’t broken up to hear that they were fired for pulling some shenanigans with a mortgage.]

When it comes to applying our professional values, there’s an appealing tendency to make an instinctive decision on whether or not to do something, and only then to retroactively gather evidence (whether it be cherry-picked usability data, fudged collection use metrics, a selective interpretation of our code of ethics, or what have you) in support of your actions. This is not a sustainable practice, however.

Looking back at recent cases where public libraries have asserted their principles against bad vendor behaviors (see for example: Kanopy; LinkedIn Learning; and OverDrive), academic libraries appear to be lagging behind. All too often I hear variations of, “Well the price went up again, but what can we do? We have to keep our subscription.” I’ll also warrant that the news from earlier this month about how LexisNexis willfully collaborates with ICE didn’t faze most collection management decision makers in the least.

It might initially constitute the path of least resistance, but there is little long-term survival value in complacency when faced with such threats to what sets our profession apart from agents with interests that run contrary to the promotion of a free society and the open dissemination of knowledge.

It feels increasingly possible that we’re approaching a digital dystopia where, “By 2047, libraries offering free public access to scholarly literature were a dim memory.” As the publisher Macmillan’s CEO wrote in a letter to authors a few years ago: “Historically we have been able to balance the great importance of libraries with the value of your work. The current e-lending system does not do that.”

The right to read is unmistakably under assault. It is our responsibility to defend it. Otherwise we may as well pack it up. We should therefore do better than taking no more actions than rolling our eyes over industry trends which constitute an erosion of our core beliefs. Libraries may yet still prove to be growing organisms, but only if we remain true to ourselves.

Further Reading

Librarian at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee