In my Community Relations & Advocacy class, we are currently analyzing and discussing ethical dilemmas. One of the problematic situations is this:
“A parents’ group, concerned with recently publicized accounts of children being stalked in the library by pedophiles, requests that the Children’s Department of the library be off-limits to everyone except children under the age of 12 and their biological parents.”
The moral dilemma of this situation involves the necessity of choice between either protecting child library users from harm or providing equitable access to library resources and upholding the right to read. We want children to be safe in our libraries, but limiting access to the children’s department to everyone but children under 12 and their biological parents limits access to numerous people with legitimate needs for children’s resources. Children may be accompanied by grandparents, older siblings, step-parents, foster parents, legal guardians, teachers, day care providers–must these people be denied access? What if these adults come to the library alone to check out children’s materials for their grandchildren/younger siblings/step-children/students? What about adults who are learning to read, or mentally challenged adults that can only read and enjoy children’s materials? What about grad students who want to be children’s librarians and need to study children’s resources?
From the deontological perspective, allowing potentially harmful individuals to come into proximity with children might be considered evil. Another deontological perspective might be that denying taxpayers access to public resources and curtailing customers’ right to read is evil.
The parents who have proposed restricting the children’s department may be operating from the teleological theory of ethical egoism: restricting adults from the children’s department would best meet their needs and desires. However, those holding with the teleological theory of utilitarianism would favor the action that guarantees the most good for the most people. Since most people are not pedophiles, protecting intellectual freedom by allowing equitable access to the children’s department would provide the most good for the most people.
My professional stance is that restricting equitable public access to any library resources purchased with tax dollars is against the ALA code of ethics and the Library Bill of Rights. Customers who are following library rules cannot be denied access to public resources. Librarians should not be acting as the Pre-Crime Dept. in Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. The ALA code of ethics states that librarians will provide equitable service policies and equitable access; librarians will uphold intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources; and librarians will not advance private interests at the expense of library users. The Library Bill of Rights states that a person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background or views. These fundamental principles of librarianship are diametrically opposed to the proposed restriction.
Besides, the proposed restriction is not guaranteed to protect child library users. Some pedophiles are parents. Some children molest other children (usually because they have been/are being molested themselves). Children could be attacked in any area of the library–not just the children’s dept. Children are more likely to be safe and protected if their parents/guardians supervise them at all times. To show the parents proposing restriction of the children’s dept. that the library does care about their children’s safety, the library may institute a rule or a strong suggestion that children should be accompanied by parents/guardians at all times. The library could have a security guard walk through all areas of the library periodically, or if this is not financially feasible, librarians could rove through the library to offer customer assistance and keep their eyes peeled for suspicious behavior.
Another ethical dilemma posed is this:
“When a library customer overhears a librarian waiving the fines and charges of another customer, he asks that his fines also be waived. His request is refused based upon the fact that he has the resources to pay his fines while the first customer did not. The offended customer files a grievance with the Library Board of Trustees, claiming that the collection of fines by the library is arbitrary, subjective, and capricious. He demands that the policy be enforced in an all-or-nothing manner, with all customers held to the same standards.”
Clearly this is a very difficult ethical situation, and it doesn’t help that we don’t have all the information we need to understand it. We know that patron 2 overheard the librarian waiving the fines of patron 1. We know that the librarian refused to waive patron 2’s fines “based upon the fact that he has the resources to pay his fines while the first customer did not,” but we do not know how the librarian determined that patron 2 can afford to pay fines and patron 1 could not. If the librarian simply made an assumption about the financial status of each patron, clearly this is not right. But perhaps the librarian knew patron 1 well–perhaps patron 1 is a repeat customer who talks to the librarian often about their life and their difficulty finding a job… Perhaps the librarian also knew patron 2 well as a repeat customer. We don’t know.
We do not know exactly what the librarian said to patron 2 about patron 1’s resources. Obviously if the librarian disclosed anything to patron 2 about patron 1’s financial status, this would be highly unethical and a violation of privacy. We do not know if the librarian was following a clearly defined library policy for waiving fines in certain circumstances, or if the librarian did not follow policy, or if a policy exists in this hypothetical library, or if the librarian just made an arbitrary decision.
We do not know the amount of each patron’s fines. We do not know if each customer’s fines are simply for late fees or if either customer is being charged to replace items that were never returned. Waiving late fees is not a big deal, but waiving replacement fees is more serious.
We can make recommendations about what should have been done in each situation. Certainly library policies should be in place about when it is proper to waive fines. Policies should also be in place as to how to deal with irate customers. If a policy was in place, and the librarian really did have knowledge about the financial status of both customers, and the librarian was following library policy in waiving one customer’s fines and denying the other, then the next appropriate step would be to explain to patron 2 the library’s policy about waiving fines in certain extenuating circumstances.
But here’s a problem: how can you explain to patron 2 that the library waives fines for customers who cannot afford to pay them without disclosing private information about patron 1’s financial status? Even if you don’t refer specifically to patron 1, by saying that it is the library’s policy to waive late fines for customers who cannot afford to pay, you have revealed private information about patron 1’s financial status. I don’t have an answer for that one.
If patron 2 is unhappy with the librarian’s explanation of policy, the patron should be given the opportunity to discuss the situation with the manager. The manager should be able to smooth things over with the customer while the librarian is freed up to continue helping other customers.
If the manager cannot convince the patron of the fairness of the library’s fine-waiving policy, and assuming patron 2’s fines are simply for late books and not replacement of lost books, I think it would be better to waive patron 2’s fines than to allow the situation to continue to escalate and become a nasty PR issue.
My understanding of this sort of situation comes from a public library perspective, so what works in a public library may not work as well in an academic, school or special library. I know that in the Tulsa City-County Library, fines for late items do not add up to much money, even if you add up all the late fines paid in all 25 branches in a year’s time. Waiving a fine now and then is not depriving the community of library materials. However, fine collections might be a lot more important in a smaller library, so this deserves some consideration. I think there are legitimate reasons for waiving late fees, such as when a customer has lost his or her job and needs to use library resources to find a new job, create a resume, etc.
Maintaining good customer relations may also be a good reason for waiving fines. If a mother is going to stop taking her kids to the library because she can’t pay the fine on her card, maybe it would be better to forgive the fine or part of the fine in order to keep the customers? I once served a very elderly, hard-of-hearing lady who had a 15 cent fine on her card for some late books. She was adamant that she had returned the books on time. I figured it was possible that the library made a mistake, and even if we hadn’t, 15 cents is no big deal to the library, but it was clearly a big deal, perhaps a matter of honor, to this lady. It seemed more important to me to preserve the library’s good relationship with this woman than to wring the 15 cents out of her. I also didn’t want to potentially damage the reputation of the library by having a loud discussion with this hard-of-hearing lady about such a miniscule amount of money. We don’t want the library to be seen as wringing the desperately needed social security money out of someone’s little old grandmother. Certainly customer privacy and the library’s image is at stake when fines must be collected in a public place, and I’m not sure how to resolve this problem.
Maybe fines could be deferred, so that customers who can’t pay now could be allowed to use library resources in the mean time, and asked for payment again in 6 months? In terms of public libraries which are most needed by those with limited financial resources, I think flexibility is imperative.