Or, Private Eyes Are Watching You.
Everyone (paid or unpaid) who provides governance, administration or service in libraries has a responsibility to maintain an environment respectful and protective of the privacy of all users. Users have the responsibility to respect each others’ privacy. – http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/privacy
I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in public facebook groups dedicated to ostensibly professional purposes for librarians. It’s only happened once or twice–that I’ve noticed, and admittedly I can’t read every post in all the groups I peruse–but it’s been often enough and egrigious enough to get me back on my blogging soap box.
It goes like this: someone will pose a problem for which they seek advice or an answer, and many people will offer this needed advice. Then, somewhere in the comments, information is leaked–the name of a library. The date or time of the situation. And, recently, a patron’s first name, coupled with many specific, identifying factors. Like this:
If I knew that library, those librarians, and that person’s information, I know too much. I can’t un-know it, either. The situation I am most distressed by involves a patron who possibly has developmental delays. The tone used in the discussion was pretty disparaging.
I took a screen shot of it, which I won’t post or use. But it’s that easy. Your manager or HR department or the father of that patron could do the same thing just as easily. Most of these groups are public, and what many people don’t realize is that if your settings aren’t quite right, people can see these group posts or your comments in their own feed.
Listen: working in a library is tough. We need advice, support, a place to vent. But we also owe it to ourselves and our patrons to respect their privacy. I was heartbroken when, after initially tweeting about this nagging issue, a twitter friend of mine shyly spoke up, voicing that she sometimes worried about gossip or judgment from librarians or library staff.
Do I want to impede conversation and stop lonely librarians from getting help and support? Of course not. But I do want us to maintain our ethical integrity, and protect what’s worth protecting.
So what do we do? Not talk about these issues? No. I think there’s a way to do it without naming names or giving away too many details.
Here’s my strategy:
- Tighten up. Have a small, private, trusted personal learning network that you can complain, grouse, and bitch to. A group that will hold your confidence. Your most trusted inner circle. Everyone should have this. Even here, though, don’t name names. Never name names.
- Obfuscate. I get this strategy from Car Talk, when they would change puzzler details to make them more difficult to solve, and therefore more of a challenge. Do this with your library anecdotes and queries. Change the details to your scenario just enough so that you’ll still get appropriate advice, but no one will be able to figure out exactly when, where, or how this situation happened. Change names-all the kids in my stories are either Billy or Suzie, and those are usually the only details you’ll get about them.
- Wait. Is it a pressing, time sensitive issue? Then maybe talk to a colleague in real life instead, or your manager, or your smaller, private network first. After some time has passed, you can get more input from a broader audience (but you still must obfuscate even after waiting).
I’m passionate and uncompromising about this subject because I am a beast when it comes to ethical behavior (in libraries and in life), but I also screwed this up very badly in my youth, and know how much damage it can do to all parties involved.
When I was in college, I worked (briefly) in the health center, as assistant to the primary counselor. I was held to utmost privacy standards. I was not to talk about anything I saw or heard in the office. I did not fully understand this, and one night I related a story to my housemates about someone I’d witnessed having a severe mental crisis–he’d been yelling, throwing magazines, crying. I didn’t name names, though, so I thought it was okay. A college staff member happened to be visiting my housing that evening, and heard my story, and reported me to my boss. I was called on the carpet, and severely reprimanded, but I was given another chance, because I was seventeen and didn’t know what the hell I was doing. My boss made it clear to me how hurtful it would be if this student in crisis, pained and vulnerable, later found out that other people were
discussing gossiping about his private matters. I considered how much I disliked being talked about behind my back, especially about issues I had no control over, and I told her I now fully understood the policy, and would do better going forward.
I think of that story each time I read another post where patrons are clearly identified in everything but name, and sometimes by name as well. That kind of sharing doesn’t just hurt the person in the story, it hurts the teller, too. It might be satisfying in the moment to vent or cast aspersion, but in the long run–if your boss finds out, or your library board, or the patron–that satisfaction will be cold comfort.