Library Ethics: Sophisticated Confusion

From the closing of

Mark Lenker (2008). Dangerous Questions at the Reference Desk: A Virtue Ethics Approach. Journal of Information Ethics 17 (1):43-53.:

Although virtue ethics provides no easy answers, the “sophisticated confusion” that students come away with should elevate their awareness that the librarian’s path must be traveled with care.

I appreciated learning more about the Virtue Ethics framework via Lenker’s writing. He walks us through several case studies which highlight how there is not one “real question” with other issues sinking into the background, but how indeed a lot of difficult situations and questions at the reference desk involve a complex weighing of multiple factors, not one simple formula that leads to “the right thing to do.”

I concur that students in LIS or iSchool programs should indeed have some practice walking through a few case studies (or sharing their own on-desk/on-chat, etc. experiences with others) in order to get a feel for the intricacies and difficulties of addressing ethical questions in a reference context.  However, at the end of Lenker’s article, I left feeling that “sophisticated confusion” was my main take-away. Although I think that acknowledgement of confusion, of ambiguity and of grey areas can be extraordinarily important, I couldn’t help but still feel like I’d been left hanging.

I have a feel that I would have gleaned a bit more meaningful-feeling knowledge if I had been able to attend our class session last week.  However, I’m thankful that discussions like this have also come up in other courses such as SI 647.  I’ve already been in classes where there has been a lot of talk about the tangle of potential issues and sensitivities necessarily for handling tough reference interactions. I’ve found that the more helpful sessions have definitely involved hearing from those who’ve had real world situations to relate (librarians or those already working on reference desks), or even just from some role-playing exercises (even though I often cringe at the words role-playing).

I feel like bringing up “dangerous questions” or tough situations within a classroom environment should leave students with more than just “sophisticated confusion” — that is only a first step to encourage thoughtful reflection.  However, I think one other strong point I took from Lenker’s article was simply the fact that he highlighted the conflicting demands/expectations of what “the right” thing to do might be. In reading this, I got the sense that he felt it irresponsible in certain circumstances to simply say “the policy is the policy/I don’t make the rules” and abdicate any personal agency/responsibility. I think that reassurance of some agency on the part of the librarian is reassuring to me. As he mentions, we are not merely “robotic” or cogs.


2 thoughts on “Library Ethics: Sophisticated Confusion

  1. I had a bit of the same reaction to the article that you describe, though I think my discomfort with the ambiguity is part of the lesson here, too. For me, the most important takeaway was, as you say, not to oversimplify difficult situations in order to make it easier to respond — my natural reaction! It’s interesting to think about how growing up in institutions — schools, for one — help train us to respect and follow policies, but then we’re faced with working in institutions and shaping policies, or outright challenging them. It’s a leap that feels uncertain but necessary.

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