Fact-finding: Not an ethics-free zone

Hey folks – I’m popping back in here to guest-post today. Still doing the PhD student thing and still won’t be back around regularly. But here’s something I thought we in libraryland should be thinking about. -Greyson

Canadian author/storyteller Ivan Coyote recently published an article about the importance of respecting people’s preferred names and pronouns. The article opens with the following anecdote:

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a young woman, a college student, who claimed that her professor had assigned her entire class a special little assignment, for extra credits, for students who could track down my legal name and bring it to class. This young woman had tried and tried, she said, to find it online, but couldn’t, and she really wanted those extra marks. Would I be so kind as to just tell her?

I took a deep breath. I was flabbergasted, skin crawling with chill fingers at how totally creepy this felt, an entire college English or writing or queer studies or whatever class assigned the task of violating my privacy for extra credit at school.

Go read the article, really. It’s good. But not what this post is about.

This post is about another article, “Teaching Students to be Rude,” that was written in reaction to Coyote’s column. In this response article, journalist Bert Archer does two noteworthy things that we need to discuss.

  1. Asserts that fact-checking (or, in LIS-speak, information seeking) is a nearly “ethics-free zone” and certainly impolite and invasive
  2. Argues that librarians are very useful because we can and will find anything

You may be wondering what the connection is between librarians and some alleged college student trying to find out Ivan Coyote’s birth name. The connection is Bert Archer’s mind. Although Coyote doesn’t say that the student was a library student (and, in fact, implies the contrary, as library science is a grad degree in North America), Archer assumes it.

Why would Archer assume that it was a library student doing this invasive information-seeking? Because, in Archer’s words,

“I think this sort of assignment is exactly what I expect from librarians.”

Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in. Teaching students to dig up people’s private personal information is “exactly what I expect from librarians.”


We may need some librarian PR here. But not the usual kind. Archer got the “not everything is on the Internet” memo. His experience as a journalist has taught him to value the information retrieval expertise of librarians. He knows that, even in the era of Google and Wikipedia, “Unsearchables remain.” He writes,

“Reporters at the Toronto Star, for instance, know how useful librarians can be. They can ask their in-house librarians anything, and get an answer back quick.”

I am flattered by Archer’s (only nearly true) assertion that librarians can find anything. However, librarians also have ethics and are both students and creators of information policy. Library associations have taken more than one major professional stand in favour of protecting personal privacy.

Skill without ethics is not my librarianship.

It’s not the American Library Association’s librarianship, either. Yes, “Access” is the first of the ALA’s listed Core Values of Librarianship, but it’s immediately followed by “Confidentiality/Privacy.” Also among the core values on the list are diversity, the public good and social responsibility – all items that might give pause to an information professional digging up the birth name of a gender variant individual just to feed the public’s curiosity. The Code of Professional Ethics for Librarians is also offered for guidance when values – e.g., the free flow of information and patron privacy – may conflict with each other.

Archer implies that, were he writing a biographical dictionary entry on Coyote, he could ask a librarian to find out Coyote’s birth name. Honestly, many librarians (especially given a decent research budget) probably could obtain nearly anyone’s birth name, medical histories, library borrowing history, and various other bits of private information. However, would we provide that information to be published? I’d like to think that most of us would not. I would sincerely hope that if Archer asked his librarian to find Ivan’s birth name to publish, the librarian would contact Ivan and subsequently let Archer know that it was inappropriate to include such information in the entry.

Digging up and/or publishing someone’s private personal information isn’t, as Archer states, “Rude.” It’s a violation of privacy. Rude is interrupting someone, or not saying “excuse me” after you belch. Librarians are not known for being rude. They’re particularly not known for violating people’s privacy. And I think it’s a matter of concern that Bert Archer, and now perhaps many people who read his column, think they may no longer be able to trust their librarian with that potentially-embarrassing health or legal question they have.

Let me set the record straight here. Dear world: If you disclose to your librarian, in her/his professional capacity, something private about yourself, we are duty-bound to keep your confidence. Even if you are a public figure, famous author or movie star.

Not because it would be “rude” not to. Because we have professional ethics.

I understand that I will likely differ from Archer on many questions of ethics, as he also thinks it’s just fine and part of the job for a journalist (or, presumably, a librarian) to “ask a heaving mother for a picture of her just raped and murdered child.”

I hope I don’t differ from the majority of librarians on such questions, though.


Disclosure: Ivan Coyote is an acquaintance of mine. Don’t know if having met in person, or having overlapping social circles, makes a difference here, but there it is in case it does. 



Filed under ethics, gender, research, The Profession

8 responses to “Fact-finding: Not an ethics-free zone

  1. willimen

    Other professions, such as the National Association of Social Workers, have created a code of ethics for their profession. Is something along those lines also needs for information professionals? Or wait a second, are should we refer to ourselves as a profession?


  2. brie

    Really great post! I’m going to tweet it—I hope you don’t mind. You’ve articulated this so well. Good luck with your PhD!

  3. willimen

    So, should I follow ALA, CLA, or CILIP? Should this be guided by national association or international (IFLA)?

    I am not sure why I responded in this way, other than I used to be a social worker in the good old US of A. The code of ethics was drilled into us, from day one in school – in part because of fear of litigation and potential loss of accreditation from state social worker associations for not following it.

    I am not sure if the current code of ethics are give the same weight by our profession.. and as a friend of mine alluded to, this is in part because we are not a ‘true’ profession…



  4. Thank you for posting this. Having worked with librarians professionally for many years, I have a very high opinion of them and the ethics and professionalism they hold so highly. Your post only adds to my admiration. As a journalist, I’m appalled at what some do in the name of journalism, my journalism is of a higher ethical quality and questions of privacy are not brushed aside to entertain the seemingly insatiable ‘need to know’ appetite being catered to by some so-called journalists. As a gender binary non-conforming individual, the recent rash of affronts by so-called journalists is appalling and threatening. The lack of respect for privacy, lack of respect for gender identity and pronoun choice, lack of respect for people of non-binary gender identity by some in the media needs to be addressed directly and clearly by all who value integrity and journalistic values. Not to mention by those who value individual determination and personal boundaries. Thank you for being on the side of integrity.

  5. greyson

    Baby, bathwater? Or maybe just baby, without bathwater?

    While my comment to the original piece was not approved by the moderator at the Toronto Standard, Archer has subsequently removed nearly every reference to librarians from the article (including some I quoted above).

    Librarians have now been replaced with “professors” and “researchers”
    (e.g, “Reporters at the Toronto Star, for instance, know how useful crack researchers can be. “). While librarians are no longer being portrayed as complicit in unethical information retrieval practices, the practices are still being promoted, and the expertise of librarians as information professionals has been erased.


  6. The Toronto Standard missed the point, obviously. It’s not just about how librarians were being portrayed, it was the whole notion of ruthless fact finding as something above ethical boundaries, as if pursuit of a certain kind of truth were reason enough to toss ethics aside. Grrrrr.

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