It really all comes down to ethics.

In considering my information community, socially anxious college students, I initially had a hard time thinking of a legal or ethical issue that I could research and write about for this post. Then my mind turned toward privacy issues. In order to better serve any group it becomes important to assess what you are accomplishing. But in assessing, where do you draw the line? What is okay and what is fringing on the privacy rights of the patron?

With these thoughts in mind I began to search on topics that included students, libraries, privacy, assessment, and ethics. The search results was varied and included things like library instruction and plagiarism awareness. I felt a little validated in the fact that even the literature attested to the fact that “it was difficult to define issues of ethics and integrity that are specific to what we do as instruction librarians… there is little about ethics and integrity in academic libraries” (Jacobs, 2008, pg. 212). But, ultimately what I found was that, though little may be written, in the end it really all comes down to ethics.

I find myself looking at this information community from two perspectives. First, obviously, from the point of view of the group of students who are actually experiencing library, or information, anxiety. But, secondly, from the point of view of the academic librarians and other information professionals whose job it is to work with and for this community. The issues are both the same and different.

From the perspective of the anxious, overwhelmed student it may be terrifying to ask for research help, or easier to quickly take the first information handed to them than to spend time with a “scary” librarian learning how to delve deeper and find their own answers. It may also be easier and less intimidating to “copy and paste” that information than to try to explain something in their own words that they were too embarrassed, confused, or intimidated to truly research and learn about. And it may be simpler to just not fill out that library survey or to give feedback you think the librarian wants to hear rather than to admit to feelings of inadequacy and ignorance.

From the perspective of the librarian it may be that though “we know that it is not ethical to do the research for a student…it is difficult to determine the appropriate balance between answering a reference question and answering a research question” (Jacobs, 2008, pg.224). When half the battle seems to be just getting that student to even interact and ask their question, it may be simpler to hand them their answer than to teach them to find it. The same holds true with making the students aware of plagiarism issues. While it is the role of the instruction librarian to educate students on properly citing and using information (Jacobs, 2008), it is also about instilling in students “the understanding that plagiarism is an ethical rather than merely an issue of proper form and function” (Strittmatter & Bratton, 2014, pg.746). That can be difficult for the librarian who is struggling to engage students in library instruction. It may end up seeming like an accomplishment just to address proper form. Academic librarians may also struggle with how to go about assessing their services. What is the best approach? What is too broad/ What questions breach privacy? “Assessment should include a sampling of undergraduates who use library services and those who do not” (“Guidelines”, 2014, pg. 95), but how do you reach those students who do not? General library knowledge surveys, evaluation checklists, student journal entries, information literacy diaries, and focus groups can all be useful and appropriate forms of assessment (“Guidelines”, 2014), but when and how often? How do you chose to apply the feedback? How much is shared and with whom? It can be fraught with ethical concerns.

Ultimately, no matter the perspective, no matter the issue, really even no matter the community you consider – it really all comes down to ethics.


Guidelines for university library services to undergraduate students. (2014). College & Research Libraries News, 75(2), 93-100.

Jacobs, M. L. (2008). Ethics and Ethical Challenges in Library Instruction. Journal Of Library Administration, 47(3/4), 211-232.

Strittmatter, C. , & Bratton, V. (2014). Plagiarism Awareness among Students: Assessing Integration of Ethics Theory into Library Instruction. College & Research Libraries, 75(5), 736-752.

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