Category Archives: gender

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

Sex, Gender & Librarianship

This is likely just a brain-dump of a teaser post, as it’s a topic I’ve just gotten started on, which could really grow into multiple posts as I explore it further in the future.

I ran into Dean at my favourite local coffeeshop the other day and we got talking a bit about gender issues and librarianship. Given that I’m a gender studies teacher, and a librarian, it didn’t take much prodding on his part to get my head spinning in that direction. It’s actually more surprising that – while certainly I talk about gender isues, pay equity, library cultures, and the like a lot – I hadn’t sat down and seriously thought about the intersections in a methodical way before. And wow, once you start thinking there’s a lot of interesting stuff to explore in terms of sex, gender and LIS, isn’t there?

Here’s my brainstorm list of topics to play with, as of this morning. All of these thoughts are themes to explore with an eye to sex & gender, race & ethnicity, socio-economic class, and ideally also attributes such as age, dis/ability, sexuality, etc.

I’m super interested in poking my mind down these paths, so if you’re reading and thought on these bullet points, or other suggestions for related topics, I’d love to hear them:

  1. Pre-Dewey librarianship, and the historical Western masculinity of literacy
  2. Melvil Dewey& the feminization of library education & professions
  3. Modern (past 100 yrs) images & protrayals of librarians
  4. Studies of library cultures/subcultures (including “guybrarian” “gaybrarian,” the systems vs public services great divide, corporate librarianship vs non-profit, school teacher-librarians, IT in libraries, etc.)
  5. LIS research and gender/race/class assumptions and approaches
  6. Information behaviour & user groups
  7. Technology uptake & influence among user groups
  8. Social issues in design of info & communications systems
  9. Techie & g33k culture(s) and accompanying masculinities and semi-masculinities (this can probably be divided up into eras, like the library bullet points above, but I’m not yet knowledgable enough to brainstorm how – other than to say that:
  10. OSS and other “open” movements should probably be their own bullet point here

Dean suggested this topic area might make an interesting grad course, and I have to completely agree. With the right framing (including critical sex/gender 101 for LIS folks and LIS 101 for non-LIS folk), it could be cross-listed between LIS and gender studies at any given institution with both grad programs, as a “sex, gender and information issues” or “gendered aspects of information” or some such.

Why would this be important? Well, to me it’s clear that diversifying LIS work is essential. I don’t mean “attract more men to librarianship” because if that was the only goal, we could probably do it by raising salaries and changing language. I mean real change, that will make libraries representative of the populations we serve, and help information services or various types understand user needs as well as employee strengths and needs.

And in order to make change we have to understand what’s going on now and how we got here. Anyone who supervises other workers can really benefit from a critical analysis of race/class/gender issues in their profession. Anyone who is setting the agenda for the future of a profession must understand such issues, or their agendas will lead down the path of diminshing returns.

More on this topic after I’ve had time to explore further. Feedback is welcome.



Filed under gender, LIS education, The Profession

Tomorrow’s History & the Role of Public Libraries

I’ve been thinking about digitization and history; specifically the trusim that history is written by the victors (aka the privileged), and what that means for our current era.

With literacy and war-conquests-slash-oppression on the part of literate groups, orality became devalued as “official” history in most of the mainstream, dominant, Western societies.  Non-literate or illiterate people and groups have largely either been written out or written *about* in what we now deem to be literature and history. (Please forgive my rushed-through and simplistic history of the conquests of literacy-based-culture here…this is just the context part of the post!) With mass printing, the privilege bar to produce, distribute and preserve was reinforced, perhaps nudged a bit, right?  Certainly by the 20th century just writing something down was rarely enough to incorporate it into official narratives of “history”; the writing had to be adjudicated and then reproduced by a professional publisher, preserved by an archivist, or otherwise selected by someone with societal power.

I went to undergrad in 1994.  It was a heady, exciting time, especially if you worked in a library, as I was fortunate enough to do.  The Internet had just gone public!  Netscape and Mozilla were battling it out!  Web 2.0 was already being foreshadowed by innovators like Crayon (remember CraYoN – Create your own newspaper?  Early mashup, back in ‘95!). All the street-level activists in my circles were xeroxing radical zines on their temp job office photocopiers, and the Internet was going to democratize the world! Anyone could publish their work and reach the whole world! Well, anyone in the portions of the world that had electricity at least.  Or at least the literate portions of the world that had electricity…

< – -time warp here- – >

Now, we have these amazing Open Access repositories forming, and we have increasing numbers of people creating and sharing content online. I’m particularly excited about and interested in the community-based archiving projects that are popping up. (**Note to self: write a post about some of these cool projects soon**)

BUT, I have a big concern. I think we’ve all outgrown the “the Internet is going to democratize the world!” phase by now (yes? no?), but I don’t think we’re paying adequate attention to the fact that this migration of “scholarship” and preservation – basically the bulk of what will be tomorrow’s “history”  – is reinforcing the exclusive nature of historical preservation.

We are beginning to see documentation of the same type of hierarchical dynamics in online content generation as we do in printed matter.  I’ve seen recent scholarship focused on the male-female gender gap both in scholarly self-archiving and in creative digital media sharing.

I know most of us aren’t purposefully torching the libraries of our enemies and competitors.  And I don’t want to question the very sensible move of scholarly communication into online, open access format.  But I would like to talk with more folk about how we can hark back to our idealistic 1994 mentality and regain those ideals, if not the naïveté, relating to the potential that digitization holds for the whole of society.

Academic libraries are working fast and furious toward digitally archiving their institutions’ scholarly output.  I think there’s a place for public libraries to serve an organizing function in the community in terms of creating public history. A public history project, perhaps.

Public History Project…I kind of like the sound of that.  Too bad the acronym’s already pretty much “taken.”  Maybe if we slap a “Canadian” on the front end or some such…

Of course, it’s easy to spout off about, and much harder to actually figure out the nuts & bolts: How to you ensure broad community representation?  What do you do with communities that don’t want to participate? How do you select what is of long-term value – or do you at all?  Is that up to the communities themselves, perhaps?  Do you allocate more space to groups under-represented in formal histories and scholarly communities?  Is there content that is unacceptable? What about illegal stuff?  Who’s responsible for the maintenance?  And where does all of this…stuff…reside, anyway?  What formats can reasonably be accepted and preserved? Should the government be involved in this?  What about private funding?  How do you keep things impartial?  Should you strive to keep things impartial?

Despite all of this chaos in my mind about the details, I do think that public libraries are uniquely suited to facilitate a public history project: something technically based on open source software, and developed in coalition with community groups.  And, frankly, perhaps in collaboration with academic libraries, who are doing TONS of work already getting Institutional Repositories up and running.

What are your thoughts?



Filed under academic libraries, archives, censorship, community development, digitization, gender, globalization, media democracy, OA, preservation, public libraries, publishing, racism, technology

Irresponsible health news reporting redux: the CBC on bone density & breast cancer

Can you stand to hear me kvetch again about irresponsible health reporting?

Today it’s the CBC (among others), whose health headline screams: Bone density level may act as predictor of breast cancer

It’s one of those articles without a byline, and the nameless reporter who penned this brief article clearly has no idea what they are talking about. But I guess fearmongering is always a good story-seller, so they wrote an article anyway.  They must have been in quite a rush, however, as not only is this yet another article written based only on a press release about a forthcoming article, the press release isn’t even quoted correctly.

The article begins:

In addition to mammograms, ultrasounds and blood tests, doctors may have a new tool in their breast-cancer-screening arsenal.

Off to a bad start. Bone density testing is not used like a mammogram or ultrasound, both of which are used to detect masses that may indicate cancer. I mean they’re all imaging tests, but there is nothing in bone densiometry that can indicate a suspicious lump in your breast for investigation. It seems that the article in question here is about screening for risk factors, which one could liken to blood tests if you’re talking about the small minority of breast cancers that are linked to the BRCA 1 & 2 gene variations found in 0.1-0.6% of the US population…but even that is a stretch.

The article about the unseen-article states that:

In the study, 10,000 post-menopausal women with an average age of 63 were studied in 40 health centres in the U.S.

without mentioning the critical context that this study was done on Women’s Health Initiative participants and is part of the WHI study backlash/follow up wave we are currently riding.

The CBC delivers the article punchline that:

Higher bone mineral density, which is governed by hormonal levels in a woman’s body throughout her lifetime, may lead to a higher a risk of breast cancer.

Without mentioning the CRITICAL fact that the study was funded by the Eli Lilly Company.  Lilly, incidentally, makes Raloxifene (aka Evista, Keoxifene), a newish bone density drug that – unlike the older bisphosphonate class of bone density drugs – may reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Wait, you mean to say that a study that says that high bone density could be linked with higher risk of breast cancer, funded by a company making a drug that builds bone density while allegedly decreasing risk of breast cancer might be victim of conflict of interest? Crazy.  </sarcasm>  Of course, we can’t evaluate for ourselves because the full article isn’t available…but we’ll get to that later.

Raloxifine, of course, has been struggling to gain market share against the older bisphosphonates in the face of a black box warning (for Increased Risk of Venous Thromboembolism and Death from Stroke) and multiple FDA warning letters for direct-to-consumer advertising practices in violation of federal guidelines (and if you know how rare it is for the FDA to actually send these letters, you know these must be rather egregious violations!). Not hard to imagine that the maker of such a drug might wish to have some studies encourage new prescriptions.

It would have been nice – ethical even – to have some context for this article’s findings: not only the study’s funding source, but also an idea of how prevalent the problems of osteoporosis, breast cancer, and cardiovascular disease are for postmenopausal women.  Want it?  It’s not hard to find (pdf here). Almost 39% of deaths among women 65+ in the US are due to heart disease or stroke.  19.3% are due to all cancers combined.  1.8% are due to unintentional injuries, and even if you attributed every single pneumonia death to a fracture and hospitalization (common but certainly not the only way to die of pneumonia) that only adds an additional 1.6% of all total deaths.  While personal and family medical specifics make a lot of difference in terms of the weight given to risk factors, it’s a no-brainer that cardiovascular events should be a bigger concern than bone fractures as far as preventable deaths in postmenopausal women.  It’s not rocket science here; I’m a librarian not a doctor.  Finding this info took only a mere Google search, not even a single subscription database.  A health journalist should be able to provide this context too.

Finally, in case you were a CBC reader who happened to be health literate enough to question the, er, thoroughness, of the news clip and wanted to go to the full article to read it, the CBC includes a final sentence:

The study is published in the July 28 issue of Cancer.

This would be quite helpful, were there a July 28 issue of the journal Cancer. However, Cancer is published on the 1 and 15 of each month.  As of today there are not any “early view” articles released on the 28 either, nor does this article appear in either the July 15 or August 1 issue. Way to fact check, CBC.

(For those who are interested in the actual study, please note that this article should be found in the September 1 issue of Cancer.)

A better example of quick but accurate health reporting from a pre-publication press release can be found here. CBC, please take note. You’re supposedly the national public broadcaster.  I expect better.

Is it too impolitic for me to say that I hope the good folk over at Media Doctor let the CBC have it over stuff like this?  Hmm…perhaps what I ought to be doing is talking with fellow health librarians about how we can better reach our health beat journalists in order to make it easier for them to write accurate articles. Okay, okay, I’ll do that.  But I’m still gonna kvetch about irresponsible reporting in the meantime.



Filed under gender, Health, media democracy, publishing

Further thoughts on the POPLINE debacle: what went right?

Rachel Walden’s follow-up post on POPLINE has given me a kick in the pants to get moving on my own follow-up post. (Yes, the one that I alluded to months ago…)

I’ve been thinking about the POPLINE debacle. While Rachel rightly points out that all is not perfectly resolved, and we await more answers, in general I’ve been wondering about what went so darned right.

Yes,I know I’ve been one of many ranting about what went wrong – i.e. USAID anti-abortion policies interfering with access to information – but what went right is a different question all together. Considering the positive is something I don’t get to ponder a lot on this blog, so indulge me here.

To recap, for anyone not following along in April: A librarian noticed that abortion was no longer a searchable term in the database and sent out an email about it. The email was passed along on various health librarian and feminist listservs and public outcry was raised. Who-knows-how-many of us emailed the POPLINE admins and blogged it with outrage, and within two days the dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health issued a public statement assuring the world that this would be rectified and investigated.


So…as I asked before, what went right here? Why were we successful in calling attention to this issue, and getting it addressed so swiftly? Why did this work fairly well, when in comparison the Canadian Health Network was shut down after months of protest by health librarians, a petition, multiple high-profile newspaper articles, and various other media attention? I’ve been pondering this, trying to figure out what we can do in the future to make our information resources more like POPLINE and less like the CHN, and these are the elements that I’ve come up with thus far:

  • US vs. Canada: The US is generally more political & inflammatory, and Canadian librarians will jump on a US database issue, while 99% of the US generally forget that Canada exists or is within the scope of the ALA
  • POPLINE is housed at/maintained by a single institution with important people who could be embarrassed at the top of the chain of command vs. the CHN, which was, as I understand it, purposively built on a distributed model
  • Specific interest vs. general resource: It’s hard to argue than another resource could easily replace POPLINE, as there aren’t really other reproductive health focused databases like it (are there?), and – however their scope or quality (attirbutes understood by librarians but not everyone) may vary – there are other websites that aim to be broad consumer health resources. It may also be significant that POPLINE is not really for everyday use of the general public, but more for scholars and health professionals.
  • The scope of POPLINE, while specifically focused, had broad interdisciplinary appeal (while reproductive rights info access was damaged by CHN removal, as shown in my previous “ABC” post, POPLINE is obviously related to reproductive rights, and thus feminists signed on the campaign en masse: POPLINE was discussed on WMST-L, while the CHN never was)

I know there are more differences that may have been important in determining how things went down. Feel free to tell me what I am missing. My mind is now spinning on how future projects can be built in a way that helps a threat play out in a POPLINE manner, not a CHN one.


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Filed under censorship, gender, Health, The Profession

Childbirth may not be suitable for minors

A family friend had a baby this morning! Yay! My five year old was quite put out that he was not able to watch the baby being born. As a consolation prize, I promised to YouTube some birth videos for him in lieu of tonight’s bedtime stories. I had a nice set of links emailed to me for my women’s health class by a local birth attendant, so I started with those. I vaguely knew that some of them required you to click through and say you were not a minor in order to watch – a fact about which my students rightly grumbled. Tonight after the kid’s bedtime, I did a little more investigation into the “potentially inappropriate” YouTube content situation.

What was it about the childbirth videos that made them potentially inappropriate?

To divine the answer, I tried searching for non-human birth videos. Cat, dog, monkey, elephant, sheep, panda, dolphin, seal, killer whale, angel shark, royal white tiger, and kangaroo, all came up just fine and barrier-free.

But when you search just childbirth or “human childbirth,” the videos tend to be marked with:

This video or group may contain content that is inappropriate for some users, as flagged by YouTube’s user community.

To view this video or group, please verify you are 18 or older by logging in or signing up.

Then – and this is the best part, in my opinion – once you are past the warning page and watching the video, there is a header that says

This video may not be suitable for minors.

Irony, much?

Is there any other event that human beings universally experience (as minors, nonetheless) besides being born?

You can do it, you just can’t see it/learn about it? This is a problem. Especially considering that a lot of people give birth before the age of 18.

What makes human birth potentially inappropriate? Is is the semi- (or sometimes full) nudity? The presence (sometimes clearly seen, sometimes just clearly implied by the fact that a baby came from that general area) of a human vulva & vagina?

Going with the vagina theory, I tried searching “Caeserean.” Caeserean birth videos carry no warning. It’s totally fine to show major surgery, blood & guts, seemingly-headless bodies with babies being extracted through large incisions by bloody gloved hands (often also from seemingly-headless medical staff). But not *gasp* a vagina through which a baby us naturally passing the way babies have passed since the beginning of humanity!

Like most of my stories, this one gets weirder still. You know how YouTube lists “related” videos to the one you’re watching, along the sidebar? I linked from Ceasearean birth to “toddlers nursing,” which I was pleasantly surprised to find free of the above 18-or-over warning.

Than, I linked from toddlers nursing to “breastfeeding video,” which – for some reason – has the videos titled “shaved asian has multiple orgasms” and “I’M 15 AND I’VE SLEPT WITH MEN OVER 300 TIMES!” listed as related. Hrm…social tagging is great and all, but someone needs a little authority control or something there.

Neither of the above videos (“shaved asian…” or “I’m 15…”) carried the 18-or-over warning. Neither shows any full nudity or uncovered vaginas, just plenty of sexual talk and innuendo; perhaps that is why. Would I rather have my kindergartener watching a video of someone’s homebirth, or a talk show excerpt in which a 15-year old girl is interrogated about her sexual activities? Are my values that out of touch? If I ever needed a clear example of the old “what is offensive to you is a miracle to me (and possibly vice versa)” principle, there it is on YouTube.

On principle I don’t like making anyone register with a site to be allowed to watch certain videos. It’s like hiding the sex books behind the desk, even if you allow them to circulate to those who come ask for them, making then technically “available.” I understand that websites may have liability concerns, though, and why they might attempt to have some sort of nominal barrier to underage viewing of certain types of material.

I’m aware that YouTube has this process wherein viewers can tag a video as potentially inappropriate for minors, and then eventually someone on staff is supposed to review those videos and remove them if they truly are offensive. I was vaguely aware of this from previous allegations of censorship of certain political views. Apparently they also took down a bunch of birth and breastfeeding videos last fall, but are perhaps no longer doing so now? I guess just keeping the kids out of birth is now a satisfactory solution. Hrm.

It just makes me feel sad to see where these lines get drawn. Sad, but also fortunate, to be in a library community that generally supports its members in resisting such line-drawing. Um, so remind me not to go work for YouTube/Google, okay? I like my intellectual freedom. And my kid’s.



Filed under censorship, gender, Health, Intellectual freedom

POPLINE and government barriers to information on “controversial” topics

I saw it first at Rachel’s blog, but you may have seen it any number of places by now:

Making the rounds of librarian emails, listservs and blogs in the past day or so is the news that POPLINE, “the world’s largest database on reproductive health, containing citations with abstracts to scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports in the field of population, family planning, and related health issues,” has made abortion (and all abortion related terms) a stopword.

Yes, a stopword, like: a, an & the.

Because “abortion” is semantically empty, just like “the,” right?

According to the “About” page, “POPLINE is maintained by the INFO Project at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health/Center for Communication Programs and is funded by the United States Agency for International Development. (USAID).”

Presumably, if a democrat is elected president in the US in November, the Mexico City Policy (scroll down to the last in the list) will once more flip back “off” and abortion will no longer be a dirty word for USAID-funded folk anymore.

Can we wait for that, though?

In the immediate, let’s join in the chorus leaning on POPLINE to deal with this asap (Comment form here:

In the longer term, can we talk about what seems to be happening right now in terms of government clamping down on access to controversial health issue information? Bush II reinstated the Mexico City Policy in January 2001. Why is POPLINE being altered in April 2008?

I mean, maybe I’m putting on the tinfoil hat here, but, in light of my previous post about searching for public health sources on the myth of an abortion/breast cancer link, it kind of spooks me that right when the CHN is shut down, POPLINE also effectively blocks access to abortion information. (Yes, we library-heads can bypass the search box by using the subject hyperlinks in the records, but you can’t get a very sophisticated search going without limiting it beyond “abortion” – and to do that you need to use the text boxes.  Or to open up IE and browse to the various keywords you want to combine, copying/pasting them in and combining with boolean operators.  Still somewhat limiting, although I was actually able to combine abortion and breast cancer this way and get only 211 records.)

Oh, and don’t forget that, nearly simultaneously, Bill C-484 – the so-called “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” – surprised many of us by actually passing a second reading in the Canadian House of Commons (Requisite petition link:

Coincidence? I’m not saying this is all a big woo-woo coordinated conspiracy. But what I am saying is we should be careful not to view the POPLINE kerfuffle as an isolated incident, but as a high-profile indicator of our current climate, in which governments are converting relatively balanced comprehensive health information sources into platforms from which to promote and advance partisan agendas, a la the new Healthy Canadians website.



Filed under censorship, gender, government, Health, Intellectual freedom, Other blogs, Uncategorized