Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Privacy, Shmivacy

We’ve all probably heard by now that Chesley Sullenberger, the USAir pilot who mistook the Hudson River for a runway (just kidding!), had a book checked out from his local library that had been borrowed from Fresno State. He asked for the fines to be waived because the book was lost in the plane. Instead of saying, "No way, buddy. We need every dime we can get to buy furniture for our library," the Fresno State library not only waived the fines, but decided to replace the book and put a dedicatory bookplate in the new copy. Most of you probably read the story and said, "awww, that’s sweet." I read the story and thought, "well, not much to get annoyed about there. Better move on." Turns out I was wrong, and damn the Wall Street Journal for beating me to the punch. In the Wall Street Journal "Best of the Web" last week, James Taranto takes on the ALA. I don’t normally read the Best of the Web portion of the Journal, so I don’t know if this is a typical thing or not. The relevant quote from WSJ:

"Well, speaking of professional ethics [the subject of the borrowed book], the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association provides:

    We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.

So, who leaked Sullenberger’s library information to KPCC? Unless it was Sullenberger himself–and that would be uncharacteristically immodest of him–it presumably was a librarian, which would make this a blatant violation of the ALA’s ethics."

To be fair, it didn’t necessarily have to be a librarian. I’m sure that Fresno State has all sorts of people with access to private ILL information, including some students and staff without the highly prestigious MLS. Thus, these people, no matter the work they do, are not entitled to the exalted title of librarian and are not bound by the ALA Code of Ethics, if anyone is in fact bound by that august code (see some of last week’s comments apropos that topic). Someone in the Fresno State library leaked the information, though, and it was undoubtedly a violation of the ALA Code of Ethics as well as all the privacy gobbledygook spouted by the the ALA Office of "Intellectual" "Freedom." For some reason the OIF hasn’t jumped at this bone the way they normally jump on any bone they think will get them publicity. It could be because the dean of library services at Fresno State, quoted in the NY Daily News article linked above, has already acknowledged that this was a violation of privacy and that Sullenberger’s name should have been kept confidential. However, the WSJ speculates that the ALA silence on the issue is a dangerous exception.

"Now, we know what you’re thinking: Surely in this case an exception is in order. Revealing the story didn’t do Sullenberger any harm, and it was an inspiration to us all. But this is a slippery slope. Today it’s Sullenberger, tomorrow no one’s privacy will be safe. Maybe the next victim will be some innocent terrorist checking out books on how to make bombs, or a poor pervert who just wants to look at porn. Once you start cutting ethical corners, you’re on the way to total moral breakdown."

Something tells me Taranto is being facetious here. I wish people would just stop it already with the sarcasm and the mockery and be serious for once. However, if you know how the ALA operates, you might see the problem in this analysis. A slippery slope is a logical fallacy. To suspect someone of using a logical fallacy, one often assumes the the person capable of using logic in the first place. There’s not much fun in criticizing someone’s fallacies when there’s never any attempt at logic or cohesion. Unfortunately for this analysis, logic isn’t exactly in the ALA’s bailiwick. This is the same organization that cries censorship (!) if some rube in south Georgia wants Touched by an Uncle removed from her son’s 6th grade required reading list. Although I did once analyze the ALA-APA Talking Points according to logical fallacy, that was back in my more naive days when I thought the ALA had a goal of providing more than just illogical talking points. Now I know that’s not the case.

The ALA, especially the ALA OIF, doesn’t have logic, they just have ideology. Little thought goes into this, as must be obvious. Some ALA folks have a knee-jerk reaction to parents trying to protect their children from smut. I don’t know why. Maybe they just like smut over there at the ALA. I don’t blame them. I like a little smut now and again, especially if it’s printed in a nice font on a thick creamy bond between discreet covers; it’s just that I think smut has its place, and that place is not the public library. They see a rube reacting to Polly Wants a Cracker and to be Taken Roughly From Behind on public library shelves, and they go bananas. They see the attorney general of a presidential administration they don’t like defending the confiscation of suspected terrorists’ library records, and they go bananas. But until they know that Sullenberger is a registered Republican or something like that, of course they’re not going to say anything about a violation of his privacy, just like they haven’t denounced that Obama nominee because he would enforce the Patriot Act and seize library records in terrorist investigations. Privacy doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Here’s where I have to disagree with Safe Library Guy, who commented upon this story and sent it on to me. He dislikes the inconsistency of the ALA, especially the OIF, and opines that "maybe the ALA’s leadership had no ethics in the first place." This is much too harsh, Safe Library Guy! Of course the ALA has ethics, they just aren’t the ethics they claim to have. For example, they claim to uphold intellectual freedom and patron privacy. Personally, I think these are worthy ideals. They’re just not the ideals the ALA OIF actually upholds. For example, there’s nothing remotely intellectual about Internet porn, but they defend its presence in public libraries. Thus, they like porn in public libraries. Point established. It may not be a morally palatable position to some of us, but their consistency in applying it does show some sort of ethical gesture, no matter how crude. Oh, and they don’t like Republicans, thus they don’t like things Republicans do. This isn’t anything unusual. Most people tend to judge actions by who did them rather than by their results. If our Democrat friend steps on our toe, we assume it’s an accident. If a Republican steps on our toe, we assume he meant to step on our throat and missed. This gives us the comforting illusion that our enemies are both evil and incompetent. There’s nothing particularly sinister or hidden about it. It’s always been right there out in the open, so there’s not much point in getting upset about it. We should just accept it for what it is, whatever that is.



  1. We all need a friend says:

    From a Washington iSchool course description:

    Also, we will be using Facebook for postings and discussions. So, if you don’t
    already have an Facebook account, please set one up at Then,
    please send a request to me – Mike Eisenberg, Seattle WA – so that I can add you to
    the IMT 525 group. If you only want to share a limited profile with me, that’s fine.And, please include a standard picture to make it easier for us to get to know you.

    It also includes the following statement on privacy:

    To support an academic environment of rigorous discussion and open expression of
    personal thoughts and feelings, we, as members of the academic community, must
    be committed to the inviolate right of privacy of our student and instructor colleagues.
    As a result, we must forego sharing personally identifiable information about any
    member of our community including information about the ideas they express, their
    families, life styles and their political and social affiliations. If you have any questions
    regarding whether a disclosure you wish to make regarding anyone in this course or
    in the iSchool community violates that person’s privacy interests, please feel free to
    ask the instructor for guidance.

  2. Dr. Pepper says:

    Interesting article. I don’t have an MLS, and I am not a “librarian” (at least my title doesn’t say so). I have worked professionally in a library though for many many years. I abided by the code of ethics until it didn’t suit the higher ups in the library for me to do so. I was spanked (figurative of course), and told that it doesn’t apply to me since I am not a librarian. There fore I must collect patron data and hand it off to the powers that be. Try figuring that out.

  3. gag, using facebook for class? I’d die. that is not what facebook is for! use blackboard!

  4. I thought the new mantra was that libraries are supposed to be “transparent.” Can’t be transparent if you’re hiding patron information.

  5. How can one be required to join Facebook and friend the instructor and also have an “inviolate right to privacy”? And why should anyone be forced to join Facebook for a library school class anyway? Is this a class about how to use Facebook?

  6. Dr. Pepper says:

    Having to add a professor as a friend and classmates as a friend as *requirements* for a class is counterintuative. If they don’t have access to blackboard, they should use something like a private yahoo group or a private Ning community.

    If the idea is to learn about social networks, why not let students join facebook and explore by themselves?

  7. Youth librarian says:

    The Facebook bit is unbelievable. And just what do you do with those “Friends” after the class is over? Dump hundreds of people? Why not Blackboard. It works fine for online discussion groups.

  8. For The Record says:

    Code of Ethics of the American Library Association As members of the American Library Association, we recognize the importance of codifying and making known to the profession and to the general public the ethical principles that guide the work of librarians, other professionals providing information services, library trustees and library staffs. Ethical dilemmas occur when values are in conflict. The American Library Association Code of Ethics states the values to which we are committed, and embodies the ethical responsibilities of the profession in this changing information environment. We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations. The principles of this Code are expressed in broad statements to guide ethical decision making. These statements provide a framework; they cannot and do not dictate conduct to cover particular situations. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests. We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources. We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted. We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders. We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness, and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources. We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.

  9. Dan Kleinman of says:

    Why thank you, AL. As you know, “Smut!” is the ALA’s anthem. See, listen and learn here:

  10. Detached amusement says:

    “The principles of this Code are expressed in broad statements to guide ethical decision making. These statements provide a framework; they cannot and do not dictate conduct to cover particular situations.” This is the escape door to deniability. It essentially says, “We’d like to see it done this way, but we can’t say to do it this way.” In another true “profession”, like law, or health related services, teaching you have regulatory boards and licensing/certification. You also have courses specifically about professional ethics. Step over the line and you get suspended. To give you an example, taken from real life, there was an attorney who took clients’ money, then failed to prepare for the case. This individual was suspened and warned – DON’T DO IT AGAIN. The attorney had further complaints and had his license yanked indefinately. He was trying to survive selling real estate. Lots of luck…
    I know of another case, in an East Coast library, where a “selection committee” was put together to interview candidates for a position. People who applied for the job went to time and expense to come over to interview. The “committee” suggested candidate A for the job. The head librarian hired candidate B – it was an inside deal and the person “selected” had an inside track from the get-go, and the others came all the way over and unknowingly window-dressed the situation. Apparently the woman running the library was not taken to task, and probably retired in the slot years later. Such is the state of things. I am sure there are people here who could relate other episodes. Censorship cases are ALA’s stalking horse. Trot out Judith Krug when the news media calls with a case of a book being challenged as a part of a library collection.

  11. says:

    Dan, when you say there is “smut” in the library, are you suggesting that the ALA supports the use of the black colloidal substance consisting wholly or principally of amorphous carbon and used to make pigments and ink? Because if so I fully agree with you that this substance is harmful to children and that the ALA is anti-American as a result of their continued support of this nefarious substance.

  12. Wow, talk about assuming facts not in evidence. But as we all know, AL has never met a straw man argument she didn’t like.

  13. Now this brings back memories of my old MLS Ethics course!!

    If I have learned anything in the process of becoming a librarian, it is that librarians love making rules and then finding excuses not to follow them.

    I do believe this law of exemptions would mean that the ALA follows a Utilitarian code of ethics…though today I forget precisely why that is such a bad idea. If I recall right, it is because eventually you simply run the course where EVERYTHING is an exemption and the rule no longer means anything.

    What I do know for certain is that my ethics course was as frustrating as the two philosophy classes I took as an undergraduate. What I understand today is that this school of thought loves to first tear apparent everything you ever thought you knew, proving it false or incongruent by their logical thought. Then by some magical means they add in a little exemption, or a piece of circular logic, or some argument they say is always right, no matter what – even after they have just finished explaining how that conclusion itself is unacceptable. And then they build their entire universe on that shaky foundation.

    I think the simplest way to go about things is to throw out these complex ideas and accept the universe for what it is. Any social construct implemented in that universe will only stand for as long as people believe in it. For this reason it becomes apparent that while you and I have the freedom to breathe, others can freely take that breath away unless we do something to prevent them from doing so. And this goes for all things including those things we think are rights, including life, liberty, the pursuit of property, intellectual freedom, the equality of races, the equality of genders – so on and so forth; these idea are not natural! Our ideals only exist for as long as WE CHOOSE TO BELIEVE IN THEM!!!

    All I have to say is that in the end, modern philosophy truly frustrates me to no end. At least the religious guys can claim possession by a supernatural being! Modern Library Ethics took the cake, however, once it came time to taking all we had learned in 15 weeks and used it to compose our own ethical stance in the last week. Somewhere along the line we got too complicated and committed a number of logical fallacies.

    The Utilitarian Ethic comes the closest: take each case as a case unto itself, and do what is best with what you know. In this case, though I disagree with HOW Fresno State handled the case [The pilot should have reimbursed them for the book AT THE LEAST!!] this story warms the cackles of the hearts of library lovers everywhere. And in the interests of getting libraries into the headlines of the world in what is a tough economy, we have to make every bit of positive growth we can out of what the world gives us!

  14. Is anyone concerned with the section of the stimulus bill that will requires the Dept. of Health and Human Services to electronically collect and create a centralized database of every citizen’s medical records, so that they can be the final arbiter of medical treatments allowed?

  15. I was raised on a state helth welfare system. It was swift, neat, and efficient. The democrats have been pushing for a universal healthcare system, so this does not surprise me in the least.

    A government centered system might be the best way to control and minimize liability issues. If it weren’t for liability insurance each provdier carries, our health costs might be significantly less.

  16. What about privacy? Is anyone troubled by a centralized database of everyone’s medical records?

  17. nerfballsRannoying says:

    very short comment, Annoyed Librarian: I am trying to join the Annoyed Librarian Association and there is no longer a button from which to send you a note saying just sign me up. Are there plans to add a contact me button to your blog?

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