A Reference Dilemma

A few months back, I was doing my shift at the reference desk when this gentleman approached me with a question for which helping him has kept me pondering to this day. He asked me for assistance in locating a program that he had heard about which gave free cell phones to low income people. I had never heard of such a program and offered to show him how to do an online search in the course of trying to find this program. (Sometimes people want to learn how to find it themselves online, so I always make that offer when it is appropriate.) He agreed and off we went to the library computer he was using.

In typing out what we knew into a Google search, he had enough information to get the website he was looking at the top of the results list. However, in glancing down the rest of the list, I couldn’t help but notice that they were all websites which proclaimed the program as a scam, rip-off, and other terms that fired off alarms in my head. I pointed out these other results and told him that he might want to do some research before giving any information to this program. He ignored me, clicking on that dubious program’s website, and then started searching the visually intense welcome screen for the sign up link. When I repeated my concerns in extremely unambiguous terms, he looked at me and gave me a reply that I will paraphrase:

“I don’t care. I just want a phone. I don’t have anything, so what can they can they steal from me?”

At this point, I walked away. It was clear that he had made up his mind and was going to sign up for this program even if it wasn’t clear as to whether it really existed, how it worked, or what problems other people had with it. To this extent, at the time I decided that I wasn’t going to help him any further because I could not do so with a clear conscience. Since that day, it’s been one of those puzzlers to me as to where my fiduciary duty begins and ends (or if it even exists), the limits to which people can be helped or stopped from putting themselves in harm’s way, and what my role is as a public librarian as it relates to educating people about the information, resources, and materials that fall into this grey category.

Personally, I’ve subscribed to the idea that personal responsibility plays a major role in terms of information seeking behaviors. I want to leave it up to the individual in placing as few restrictions or obstacles as possible on people using library resources, no matter what I or other people think of their inquiries. It is none of my business nor my judgments and I try to keep it that way.

In terms of controversial online access, I am bound by policy to shut down access to pornography when discovered (and the law when it comes to child pornography or exposing minors to pornography), but no such bureaucratic or legal requirements when it comes to depictions of violence. I do have leeway in terms of discretion for computer use, but it seems internally incoherent to me that someone who is watching two people have sex gets automatically shut down while another watching a video of a mujahidin fighter slitting the throat of captured Russian soldier during the Soviet-Afghanistan war yields a “You’re making people uncomfortable, please stop” style of conversation.

Back to the issue at hand, I wonder at whether it was my place to stop someone from doing something that set off danger bells. Suppose instead that he wasn’t trying to sign up for a free cell phone, but was signing up for cancer treatments. Instead of going with his doctor’s advice, he was going to sign up for a program that yielded the same search results calling it a fraud and a scam. Do I stop him then? Do I refuse to let him use the computer? Do I refuse to give him further assistance? Do I beg and plead for him to do more research before giving his personal information?

Where is the line?

I would reckon that this would make a good class discussion for an MLS class, but I’m wondering how other reference librarians think about this situation. I felt that I did the right thing that day, but it’s the days afterward that having me wondering. What do you think?

22 thoughts on “A Reference Dilemma

  1. I had a similar situation but it was an email scam. I didn’t want the guy to get ripped off if I could prevent it but at the end of the day, it was his decision to believe the scam or not. I told him that it looked shady and that the World Bank doesn’t normally give out money to random people who didn’t apply for it. It seemed like he understood but I’m not sure what he decided to do after that. I felt that I did all that was ethical to do in that situation.

    Question: Do many public libraries offer classes on Internet Safety? How to spot a scam? Etc? I don’t think I’ve seen one. Do you get into swidgy legal territory with that?

  2. You did everything I would have done. You pointed out the other results, you strongly stated your concerns, and he made his choice. While it may be painful to see people make self-destructive decisions, I believe that your role is to provide access to information. I wrote a paper about ethical dilemmas librarians face in library school, and found some interesting stuff — this situation reminds me of a couple of studies I read about.

    In 1976, Dr. Robert Hauptman conducted an experiment to test the behavior of reference librarians when facing an ethical dilemma. Hauptman visited 13 libraries and asked each reference librarian to assist him in finding information on a highly explosive chemical compound, while strongly implying that he intended to use this chemical to blow up a suburban house. As the previous year had seen more than 1,000 bombings in the United States and Puerto Rico, Hauptman expected his subjects to balk at handing over the information; he was “astounded” to find that none of the 13 librarians refused to give him the information on ethical grounds. Hauptman viewed his results as a deplorable instance of librarians blindly following their commitment to their role as disseminators of information without giving thought to what he considered to be their greater responsibility to society.

    In the 1980’s, Robert Dowd, then a library student, recreated Hauptman’s experiment with an issue he saw as more timely: drug abuse. Dowd made some modifications to Hauptman’s methods, asking fewer questions and making a greater effort to act like a shady character, but his results paralleled Hauptman’s: when asked, “I want to know how to freebase cocaine,” the librarian subjects provided Dowd with information, and none questioned his reasons or motives for wanting it. While Dowd’s findings were similar, his conclusions were drastically different. According to Dowd, since both he and Hauptman had no intention of doing either of the illegal activities about which they were inquiring, then “what better argument in favor of wholesale information dissemination could there be?”

    I was fascinated by these studies and some of the others I read… it’s such a challenging question you’ve posed, Andy, and I’m not sure there’s an easy answer.

    • Thank you, Erin, for posting these things. I can see a significant difference between the two experiments; one (drug use) is generally considered a victimless crime while the other is not (explosive making). Yes, there should have been some sort of ethical pushback the bomb making librarians, but I’d be curious as to how the question was presented to those reference librarians.

      Considering this post 9-11 world, it would be very interesting to see how such an experiment would work today.

      Overall, I see it as a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. Librarians would be slammed by their peers for being judgmental and (somehow) interfering with the librarian-patron trust relationship, which others would be aghast at the unquestioned level of help provided. It’s not an easy one, that’s for sure.

  3. In similar situations, I’ve pointed out the scary results, said something like, “Be careful with your information; you don’t get something for nothing,” and let them make their own choice. One reason for this is that, like your patron, they may want the freebie enough not to care (or have nothing to lose). Another reason is that what I believe is sometimes just my own opinion — and every other website you found might have been of the same stripe. Finally, I consider it my job to be fairly impartial. Maybe my values or interests or means are different from someone else and influence my choices and thoughts.

  4. If you use your librarian superpowers to stop someone from screwing up on the internet (presumably because “we know better than them”), then some other librarian gets to use their superpowers to stop someone from visiting the “wrong” religious website, and gets to stop a teen from visiting a sexual education website. Patrons also get to blame you for NOT preventing them from becoming identity theft victims.

    Patrons get to make mistakes. That’s one of the many wonderful things about libraries, and though I don’t have a list laminated in my wallet, that would be one of the precepts had I a chisel and tablet.

    • Yeah, I can see the slippery slope argument here. “If I stop X, what is to keep me from stopping Y?” But I don’t think it means total abdication of any responsibility either. Like the case studies Erin mentions, I think there should be a moment during which a librarian should evaluate the context of the request and take steps. Sure, I don’t want to be the librarian who stopped someone from accessing a particular website, but I don’t want to be the librarian who helped someone abuse drugs or build bombs either.

  5. As an MLS student, the members of my cohort and I talk about this all the time. At what point do we have an obligation to protect patrons from themselves? If they come right out and say that they intend to use the information to harm themselves and/or others, then we can act. It becomes harder when they might not even see that they could harm themselves through their actions. Your patron might have thought they had nothing to lose, but if this was indeed a scam then they might be surprised.

    My impulse is to say that you handled it as well as anybody could have. But I know how much I have to learn, so I certainly couldn’t have handled it any better. Do you think there was an alternative you could have pointed him to, or would he have even listened to you at that point?

    • For this particular encounter, there was not an alternative. He was set on doing it. That’s why I disengaged; the battle was lost.

      I think Erin’s case studies hit it right on the head; there is a difference between being non-judgmental and completely abdicating any judgment. Ideally, there should be no limits to legitimate intellectual inquires. Realistically, context plays an important part of determining what is legitimate and what is not.

  6. Andy,
    Your question is a great one. I’ve had many situations like this. But if they’re intent on following through there’s nothing you can say. most of time, as in your example, when looking for dubious websites google will also pull up shame-alert sites. I always suggest that the patron look at those sites also before continuing. Therefore, they can access the information and at least have a balanced look at what they’re about to get involved with. They most always continue on, so goes the power of media suggestions!

    I can not nor do I want to stop them from accessing what they want. But I do want to give them information that informs them of possible outcomes.

    I’ll have to look at our library’s web searching course and see if it includes scam tips. But it’s so hard to convey the idea that if its to good to be true, it probably isn’t.

  7. Andy, I understand your concerns, but its not a new dilemma for librarians. Its been the same for years, but just on different topics and with the source of the information then being books. I have concerns when teens ask for books on occult topics, or when people indicate the information they seek is to get around doctor’s advice. As you did, I can only help them find what they are looking for and hope that my words of caution manage to help them as much as my searching skills did. I can’t take away their personal choice though, as you said its a slippery slope.

    • Oh, it’s certainly not a new dilemma. But with the ease of personal data transmission and the ability to reach out to others, it certainly poses a bigger imminent danger. It would be one thing if they had to fill out a paper, get a stamp, put it in an envelope and mail it; it’s another when they can send that same information in a few keystrokes and a SUBMIT button.

  8. I had a similar situation and felt equally stymied by it. The patron was registering for an online job search website and came to ask for help when pop-ups appeared. Having just heard about the wave of job search site scams I warned her that pop-ups like the ones she was seeing were a red flag and that she should be careful when entering her information. Quite frankly she looked at me like I was the stupidest person she’d ever encountered and told me that several of her friends were using the site so she was sure it was safe. I repeated the warning to be careful and left her to it. When it comes down to it, all we can do is give our best information when asked for it, we can’t force them to take it. I was nervous for her but ultimately it’s her information and her responsibility to protect it.

  9. One of the main things to be valued in a library setting is the professional expertise of the librarian. We have training in evaluating materials, including websites, that the average user does not. I do think it is our job to let users know when we have doubts about the validity of a site, so I think your response was correct. Once you have done that, in no uncertain terms, explaining your concerns, it’s time to back off. Unfortunately, our patrons have the personal freedom to do stupid things, and it isn’t our professional or moral responsibility to stop them by turning off the computer, etc.

  10. I would have made the same call.

    It is tough to site by and let someone do something that seems like it will hurt them. If I had seen the site reported as a scam on more than one site, I’d tell the patron what I knew and strongly advise against it as gracefully as possible. If they didn’t want my advice I’d back off.

    I think the best we can do in these sticky situations is advocate for the patron in the sense of offering to check on companies using the Better Business Bureau, Consumer Reports and the like. On the tech side, we can make sure the browsers setting have high security to prevent going to some of these bad sites.

    This site might be of help in the future http://www.unmaskparasites.com/security-report/

  11. Once I had a parent ask for information on science projects. Simple question, no problem, but then he started telling me how he was going to modify the experiment he’d found on electricity. What he was suggesting was potentially very dangerous, even fatal. I made my concerns clear but he assured me he understood the risks and knew the necessary precautions. I spent the next week feeling a bit nervous every time I read the paper.

    When I was in high school, we had to read “Bartleby the Scrivener.” At the time I thought it was a stupid and infuriating story. Now I think it’s a wise and infuriating story.

  12. Andy, I had a similar situation too.

    An elderly woman who did not know how to use computers or internet, came in to ask for help in filling out an online form for a pay day loan. She had already made up her mind, and had chosen one that is endorsed by a celebrity. I often help walk customers through online forms (such email accounts or job applications), but I was leery of the pay day loan. However, I decided to help her this once. But she kept coming back day after day when she didn’t get an immediate response from the company. And she started asking my advice, and she wanted to start submitting applications on other payday loan websites. I drew the line there though. I told her I could not give financial advice and that I was not familiar with any of the pay day loan companies or processes. My suggestions were that she 1) call the company’s phone number, 2) seek financial help from a professional (I even offered to look up local community services), or get one of her family members to help her with these onlne applications.

    I also invited her to sign up for our adult computer classes. But when she signed up, she kept making excuses for why she couldn’t come. I finally realized that she had no interest in learning how to navigate the internet on her own, and just wanted someone to do things for her. So I made sure I was “busy” whenever she came around, and eventually I stopped seeing her in the library.

    I have felt conflicted about this situation, and wondered how I could have handled it better. Maybe, I shouldn’t have helped her with the first application at all. Because I don’t think she really understood internet safety and that some of these companies might not be telling the truth.

    I like your idea of Googling reviews and showing them to the patron. I’ll keep that in mind for the future.

  13. This is such an important post for new AND experienced librarians. It seems that there is pretty much a consensus in the posts on how things like this can and should be handled. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how far beyond these that this consensus applies and that is the difficult part for me. I firmly believe that librarians do not (and should not) define, validate or deny (reference) questions, rather users do. However, I see that this is not black and white. As you said, where do our fiduciary duties begin and end (or even exist). This is a conversation that should be taking place now and continuously. So often the role of a public librarian as it relates to educating people about information, resources, and materials varies and this leads to disparities in service and access.

    I also believe that personal responsibility plays a role in terms of information seeking behaviors. Unfortunately (or is it), we can do our best to help inform our users and help them to inform themselves, but they can then leave the library and perform the action somewhere else – do we have the same accountability if they don’t do it in the library, are we responsible at all or how much?

    Thank you for posting this and to those who have responded. I do plan to use this in the courses that I am teaching. It will be very interesting to hear and see what others have to say.

  14. Remember that your comments, however well-intentioned, may not be appreciated. I once had a patron with just enough computer skills to be dangerous, but not competent enough to really navigate email. When she required my assistance and I saw she was responding to a “Nigerian fortune” type scam, I cautioned her. She yelled at me for a while, then went and reported me to my boss since “I was looking at her personal business” and “she knew for a fact” that the mail was from a legitimate source. She continued to use the library computers regularly and never looked any richer, so I presume her money is still on the way.

    • Yeah. There’s some great science about how people will rationalize or otherwise dismiss facts or data that interfere with their viewpoint. (Most notably in political ideology.) Your situation sounds like right up that alley.

  15. Pingback: SI 643 Reflection of Readings week 08: Code of Ethics « Jungwon's SI 643 Blog

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