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Privacy and Caring: entanglements

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There have been a few points lately where I’ve wished it didn’t feel like a violation of professional ethics to step out of my service character for a while and be a whole human with the person I’m helping. There are plenty of times when a research consultation turns into a something more personal, sure, but for me these have been times when the patron opens up voluntarily without me initiating that aspect of the conversation.

But I’ve also worked with people who were clearly not ok, who may have even wanted me to show that I’m not oblivious to their struggle and open that door. But I’ve felt that if I did so I’d be crossing a privacy line that’s there for a reason in libraries, and that I value deeply. Information seeking is a time of vulnerability already, and it’s drummed into us in library school that if we value intellectual freedom (and we do!) we must also value and fight for patron privacy protections — even protections from ourselves. Our professional organizations put a lot of thought into codes of professional ethics for exactly this reason. I don’t tell professors which of their students I’ve met with, I don’t share what I learn about people based on the questions they ask, I don’t pry into people’s motivations for studying what they study beyond what I need to know to help them find information, and I don’t ask “why do you come here all the time” to the guest patrons that come back over and over (even though I’m extremely curious).

Besides, what if I get it wrong and the person really doesn’t want me to say “You seem like you’re in a lot of pain right now. Are you ok?” What if stepping out of the professional and into the personal makes them wish they’d never asked for my help? What if opening that door makes the library seem less welcoming rather than more? Sometimes keeping things utterly professional is the best way to show that you care.

And maybe I’m over-thinking this. Re-reading the library Code of Ethics it says, “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 that really doesn’t preclude me from being a whole human when my concern isn’t about the information sought or retrieved — when my concern is for the human behind the information need. So maybe outside of the actual information need, seeking, and retrieval, maybe this is just like any other interaction between two humans, where I have to figure out what you’re ok talking about, and vise versa.

‘Tis a conundrum.

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