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?