It’s been an emotionally tumultuous month in my professional life. My profession is all about making information accessible and about encouraging the responsible use of that information. Most of the time this feels like an uncomplicated position to take. Some of the time, it feels impossible or even dangerous. Here are three vignettes that come to mind.
Libraryland is currently wrestling with news of Joe Murphy’s 1.25 million dollar defamation lawsuit against two librarians who spoke publicly about his (long-standing) reputation as a womanizer. Barbara Fister, Meredith Farkas, and Laura Crossett have all written excellent, thoughtful pieces about this issue, so I won’t even try to recreate that here. What I will point out is that they make it clear that sharing information about sexual harassment seems to be off limits in our society. If nobody can speak out, it’s no wonder that harassment continues to run rampant through our society, but speaking out is hard. And right now we’re coming to grips with exactly how hard it can be.
Yesterday I was pointed to a change.org petition from one of my institution’s now-former students. Her claim is that she is being punished with expulsion as an indirect result of calling for help and thus sharing the information of her roommate’s drug overdose. I don’t know any of the students involved, or any information beyond what’s in the petition and in this morning’s student newspaper report, but it’s clear that this incident is sitting right in the center of issues about the relative social benefits and perils of sharing compromising information.
Finally, and on a much less dire scale, my own blog is a continuous example of decisions to share and not to share. I write less often than I once did in a large part because I’m in many more leadership positions than I was before, leaving me feeling uncomfortable sharing some kinds of information for fear of losing the trust of people I work with, not because I have bad things to say but simply because I don’t own these groups’ ideas so they may not be mine to share, and people may not share ideas with me if they feel like I might report things prematurely.
Responsible transparency is hard. It has always been hard. And while the three examples that are bouncing around in my head right now have very little else in common, they’re reminding me pretty forcefully of how unendingly difficult it is to manage appropriate balances of transparency and secrecy. There are very real dangers associated with NOT speaking out. (Well, there’s nothing life-threatening about me deciding not to blog about some committee I’m running, but it might be a slight disadvantage to other people who will then reinvent the same wheels.) I only wish there weren’t also real dangers associated with speaking out. I wish our professional mantra about information wanting to be free weren’t so fraught in real life. Give me a straight up copyright or licensing conundrum any day. This other stuff is far more society-shaping, and there is so much at stake.