Monday, May 16, 2005

The Ethicist on Library Service: A Tragedy in Three Parts (with study guide)

A letter to Randy Cohen, "The Ethicist" Column, New York Times.
Re: Advice on library service in May 15, 2005 column.


The Ethicist on Library Service: A Tragedy in Three Parts (with study guide)


The Ethicist receives a letter from an aggrieved librarian who is upset that parents are coming to the library to do their children’s homework. The librarian’s questionable assertion that “the child [sometimes] accompanies the parent, but more frequently the parent comes to the library alone” is left unchallenged.

Part I in which the Ethicist gets it right.

The Ethicist hits the ball out of the park, informing the librarian, who should know better, that it is the public librarian’s job to provide information to library customers without judgment.

Part II in which the Ethicist gets it terribly wrong.

The Ethicist, perhaps needing a higher word count to fill out his column, keeps writing. He tells the librarian that she/he may “vigorously voice disapproval to the parent.” Uh oh. The Ethicist reveals a stunning lack of knowledge concerning basic library ethics or the reality of the customer service policies and practices of libraries. Furthermore, the Ethicist makes no effort to explain how a librarian can provide non-judgmental service while simultaneously voicing disapproval of the customer's question -- vigorously voicing it, no less!

Part III in which the Ethicist detours into the bizarro world where philosophy exists without any regard to the realities of human interactions on the planet earth.

The Ethicist, perhaps woozy from too much cough medicine, suggests that the librarian should tell the reference department head to tell the 35 schools in the district to tell the 500 teachers to tell the 5000 students that they should really do their own work, thank you very much. Oh, and the library and the schools should also send memos with a similar message home to the 5000 parents, five of whom have ever actually engaged in the prohibited behavior. Those five throw the memo away without reading it. The other 4995 parents question what kind of education their children are getting if the school system is wasting valuable time and resources sending out ridiculous memos like this. 250 parents call the school to complain.

Study Guide Questions

1. Does the Ethicist really believe that the majority of parents come to the library without their children to do their homework? If so, can you offer any theories as to why he believes this? If not, why did he print this questionable letter?

2. You are a responsible parent who actually takes the time to accompany your child to the library. While your child is researching in the stacks, you approach the librarian for assistance in finding a needed resource. The librarian finds the resource for you, but also assumes that you are “doing your child’s homework” and vigorously voices her disapproval of your behavior.

  • 2A How happy are you with your library service?
  • 2B How satisfied are you with how your tax dollars are being spent?
  • 2C How likely are you to return to this library?
  • 2D How likely are you to vote against the library’s budget in the upcoming election?
  • 2E How long has it been since an adult spoke to you this way?

3. You are a school principal. Your school is underfunded and understaffed. Every day you have to deal not only with standardized test scores and angry or uninvolved parents, you must also deal with drugs, suicide, violence, teen sex and abortion. You just received a call from the local public library telling you that there is a serious problem with parents coming to the library to do their children’s homework and you really need to have your teachers remind students about their obligation to do their own work. Also, you should send memos to all parents about this problem.

  • 3A How likely are you to take action on this?
  • 3B How has this phone call affected your opinion of the public library?
  • 3C How likely are you to work with the public library on joint initiatives in the future?



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