Sunday, September 16, 2012

Librarian/School Employee Privacy Dilemma

There are codes of ethics that you follow when you are a librarian. There is also a set of responsibilities that you legally must adhere to when you work in a school. Being a high school Librarian (assistant in my case - status not important), which set of guidelines do you follow first.

Here is the situation. A student walks into the school library and asks for books on satanism. O.K. I'm open minded. I tell him that we will most likely not have very much and that most of our nonfiction books try to be curriculum related. He didn't want to know about satanism, he wanted books with instructions and rituals. We don't have that type of material in the library. I told him that we are a high school library and that we can't afford to support, nor do we have room for all materials. He may be able to find some of the information at the larger public library. Then he asked for books on the development of hatred and anger, what makes people violent, etc.

The kid seemed nice enough, polite, quiet, but wore long black zip-up gloves to his elbows, black satanic t-shirt and the black nail polish to finish the look. I've known nice kids like that who were just trying to make a statement. This kid just seemed different. You could feel it in the air you breathed around him.

The dilemma:
As librarians, we should not judge what people read, and everything should be confidential. You don't know what he is using the books for. It may be for a project.
As school employees, we are obligated by law to report any suspicions we have about a student who we feel may be in some form of trouble. It does not necessarilly need to be reported to the state, but it should at least be reported to the counselor.

I was told by the school library coordinator that we are going to act as librarians and be nonjudgemental, not report anything, and leave it at that.

I wanted to tell the counselor that the student was interested in some books on some very serious topics (not tell what they were) and say that it might be worth checking in on him to make sure everything is alright.

What should have been done?

I would actually like to hear several opinions on this question. I don't know how to spread this to more than my group. If someone knows how, can you please spread it?



  1. That is an interesting dilemma, and I would be perplexed as what to do in that situation as well. As librarians we should remain neutral and provide any information, but when children and difficult topics arise things can get murky.
    After some deliberation, I think that school librarians should provide the information students ask for. However, I would draw the line at if the patron becomes hostile or seems intent on pursing illegal activity. That is when I would notify a counselor that the student is acting suspicious or violent.

  2. This is a difficult position to be in. As a school librarian I believe it would be perfectly acceptable (and warranted) to report suspicious student behavior. However, I do not believe it is the librarian's place to report as student based on suspicious reading material. Based on the account above, I would be hesitant to report the student based on his reading choices; however, I would be ok with mentioning to the counselor about the students' odd behavior (if any was seen).

  3. Hi Mark,

    This is a riveting dilemma that you present. I understand that it can be tricky working in the school environment where there are laws dictating certain codes of conduct, but in this situation, I am inclined to agree with the school library coordinator and believe that your allegiance should reside with the library profession. First off, as we have learned in class, just about every adolescent is struggling with identity formation and part of this process entails seeking out information on alternative points of view. As librarians, we are obligated to provide the best and most accurate information that we can and to not judge the patron based upon his or her information needs. As you mention above, he could have been working on a school project; however, even if the information was for personal use, this alone does not mean anything. It seems to me as though this student trusted you enough to open up to you about a very, shall we say, "unconventional" information need, so I think that you should try guide him through the information-seeking process, and perhaps he will feel comfortable enough to tell you if there is anything bothering him. Even though the school does not provide many materials on this topic, I still think you could have pointed him to some quality electronic resources on the subject. Considering the bullying epidemic currently plaguing our country, I am certain that there are endless resources devoted anger, hate, and violence. It is hard sometimes when you just have a bad feeling or an intuition that something is not right, but I think that the best thing you can do is to try to form a relationship with the student. If you look back at Columbine ( I highly recommend Dave Cullen's book on the tragedy if you have not read it), it is evident that many adults noticed something off, but few tried to do anything meaningful about it. I think that fear dominates our culture, but a lot of what is really missing is one-on-one personal interaction and forging genuine connections.

    Hope this helps, and thanks for the compelling post,