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Privacy and Caring: entanglements

Image licensed for reuse from Pexels.

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.

Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition, for EndNote and Zotero

I haven’t tested it extensively yet, but Zotero has released an updated Chicago style. I see that my version of Zotero automatically updated itself to include this new style, but if yours doesn’t for whatever reason you can always load it from the Zotero Style Repository.

Meanwhile, EndNote hasn’t yet released Chicago 17, so I spent some time this week developing that. Here’s a zip folder with an EndNote style for Notes & Bibliography and another style for Author-Date. In the style description for each one, I’ve also added some help text for how to manage a couple of things that weren’t very straightforward in the EndNote style coding. Feel free to use, share, and improve upon these styles.

As always, if you notice something that can be improved or that I got wrong, please let me know!

Proving non-existence, and other impossible things

If someone knows something has been published, either a specific thing or a category of things on a topic, I’m pretty decent at pointing them toward that thing. I’ve had a whole lot of practice with this set of skills — I’ve been doing this day in and day out for twelve and a half years, now. I’ve done this more often than I’ve done nearly anything else in my life, including things like “go to bed at night” and “eat a meal.”

But for a whole category of things, all this experience simply means that I have a slightly better sense of when to give up and suggest that maybe the thing we’re looking for doesn’t exist. I’ve looked enough times for biographical information or for the personal papers of even relatively famous people to know that many, many people just don’t have much of a textual/audio/video/pictorial footprint after they die, even in relatively recent times and in pretty developed countries. Lots and lots of organizations don’t maintain extensive records/archives, especially not records we have access to. For that matter, many governments don’t share much information, or if they do it’s not guaranteed that it’ll be available online.

But this is such an uncomfortable outcome for a research question because how can I be sure that the thing doesn’t actually exist? How do I know I’m done searching? How do I know we’ve looked in the right places? It’s utterly nerve-wracking to be faced with potential non-existence, especially these days when we’ve grown so used to more and more and more being available. We’ve grown so used to living in a world where we have to deliberately keep personal information private that the world of our grandparents, let alone our great grandparents, is almost incomprehensible. Depending on particularly socially conscious family members to submit birth, wedding, and death announcements to local newspapers, or partnerships between families and archives to preserve select family papers — all of this simply doesn’t make sense to most of us in our current lives.

So I spent quality time last week trying to figure out if the blind reviewer on a faculty member’s manuscript simply mis-remembered the number of articles by a particular author in a particular publication, or if our lack of indexing for that publication was keeping some of this potential treasure trove of publications from surfacing. This week I’ve spent a few hours trying to figure out if a relatively famous Jesuit priest and Hiroshima A-bomb survivor left behind any letters or other writings before he died. In each case I found something, but nothing like the amount I had hoped for, which felt like failure, but also felt like the kind of failure I’ve experienced over and over in situations like these.

I wonder what other librarians’ criteria are for declaring a thing “likely not to exist.” I wonder how much subject knowledge vs how much knowledge of publication processes someone needs to do this well.

I know that for me there’s a weird circular logic involved in which if I can’t find the thing and I also can’t find people citing the thing, then I’m more likely to declare it non-existent. This is true even though I know that there are plenty of things that haven’t been cited but that do indeed exist. So I’ll start with the likely places (depending on the thing, this could be one or more research databases, or my good friend Google, or with a human expert). Then I’ll move to the less likely places and/or strip away anything in my searches that might have been mis-remembered or misspelled. (At this point there’s usually a whole bunch of paging through really weird result lists in hopes of finding anything that would point me in the right direction.) And I’ll search for anyone writing about whatever I’m hoping to find, hoping for clues about what they saw and where they saw it. And finally I’ll search through more context-less citations, first trying Web of Knowledge citation searching, but always also moving through Google Scholar, Google Books (you get different results if you go to Google Books rather than relying on just regular Google), and our free-text-search databases like JSTOR and Project Muse and the like. And at this point I always strip things down to just the author’s last name (if known – some citation styles don’t include first names) and other things that are less likely to be changed or abbreviated. This usually includes paging through tons of completely wonky results.

So basically, this mopping up of possible citations can take a whole ton of time, most of which is spent wondering whether you just have the wrong information about the thing, or if the thing actually doesn’t exist. And I haven’t figured out any way of speeding up this process or of predicting the outcome in less than several hours. So I guess in the absence of better strategies the only thing I can do is reframe the experience for myself. Maybe I can start thinking of the skill it takes to decide a thing isn’t findable rather than concentrating on the failure to find the thing.

What works for you, fellow searchers?

Microfilm Whimsy

Last year one of our microfilm reader/scanners bit the dust, and we know that our ancient analog reader/printer is one service call away from the junk yard. And oddly enough, our microfilm gets fairly regular use here, so being down to one machine was going to be a pinch. So now, as of last week, we have a new machine.

Our dear old T-Rex

Gemini wasn’t exactly this, but it was a lot like this. (Image from here.

This means that we had to come up with a name for our machine, of course. We’ve been naming our machines for at least the last decade when a former colleague said that our first reader scanner should be called Gemini, because it looked like twins.

Then I said our ancient analog machine should be called T-Rex, because it’s ancient but powerful and a fan favorite.


My first year here, we got a fancy new machine┬áthat had a silhouette that reminded me of Yoda meditating on a rock, so we called it Yoda. This machine was also mostly a mystery to all who tried to use it, not least because it had no less than 7 on/off switches. Plus a light made to look like a mouse, but wasn’t a mouse, and was actually completely unnecessary unless you were looking at opaque microcards. But nobody could ever remember that. So being simultaneously powerful and utterly mysterious also fit with its name.

You can see Yoda sitting on a rock, right? Right??

Time passed. At some point Gemini was beyond support. And eventually we got a new machine.

Our next machine reminded one of our campus IT folks of the character Crazy Frog, and the name stuck.

And now, as of last week, we have this new machine which looks almost exactly like Crazy Frog, but it isn’t Crazy Frog, and it will be taking over for both deceased Yoda and (eventually) T-Rex. So we spent some quality time this week naming it, and we ended up merging ideas from another campus IT person and from a librarian in my department. The new name? Yandu-Bot. It’s a robot version of a Yandusaurus. It merges the old and the new. It’s way more automated and powerful than our other machines. And as an added bonus, because it has the letters Y and D in that order in its name, the desktop systems administrator doesn’t have to make any changes to the computer and related systems it’s hooked up to, which all have the letters YD for Yoda.