loyalty, the library, and you the librarian

I’ve been sort of sitting on this story for a few weeks because I was hoping someone would do a more comprehensive “here’s what really happened” post about it, but maybe that’s not going to happen. The loose outline is this, from American Libraries. Library worker notices patron looking at material online that she suspects is not just offensive but illegal. Her supervisor tells her to give the patron (who is deaf/mute and may have developmental disabilities) a note telling him to stop, which she does. The next day she decided to alert the police who come and arrest the man and seize the library computer. The library worker revealed her part in the arrest to her supervisor. Soon thereafter, the library worker was fired right before her probationary period as a library employee was up. The county says the two events — the arrest of the patron and the firing — were unrelated. Privacy laws prevent this assertion from being tested one way or the other which is one of the things that makes this situation so vexing from a “what really happened” perspective. The library worker is suing. Here are a few more articles on the subject.

I really wish ALA had come out and made some sort of a statement on this, but I’m not sure what it would have said. For what it’s worth, I have not seen anyone leap to the defense of the library administrator/firing except in a “we don’t have all the facts” sort of way.

To me, the way this differs from the standard USA PATRIOT Act computer seizures and reporting is that in this case the assertio was that a crime was being committed. So, while going on fishing expeditions and seizing computers because you think someone might be doing something illegal is something that a library has the right to object to, saying “this patron is breaking the law in the library” is a different story altogether. I think even talking about child pornography issues online is difficult and complicated — an amusing side note is seeing which comments forms on the web people can’t type the word “porn” into — and intellectual freedom issues are tricky in a different way. I’m sorry this library assistant didn’t get better guidance and I’m sorry this is being tried in the media in sensationalist ways.

8 thoughts on “loyalty, the library, and you the librarian

  1. It has to be a violation of procedure for a probationary library assistant to call the police whenever she feels like it. No lives were in danger and she could have gone through the proper channels to alert the authorities, or if the library allows, to remove the patron from the library. To go from a note to calling the police, especially when the patron has other issues seems like the real problem.

  2. That’s a good point Beth. I notice that Library Journal added a retraction to their original article that had stated she was a librarian and not a library assistant. It’s really unclear what other procedures were in place that were or were not followed and while I toally respect that privacy laws keep us from having a fuller understanding of this whole series of events, it just seems like the pat answer “librarian fired because she called the cops on a criminal!” leaves out so much.

  3. One of two issues at hand:

    1) If her supervisor was not going to take further action/turn a blind eye to the problem, the library assistant had a sort of moral duty to report criminal behavior to the police. I find it bothersome that for a criminal activity, the supervisor had a lower-level employee draft a note and deliver it instead of doing it themselves. That’s sloppy management.

    2) If the library assistant disregarded procedure in this instance, there is probably a reasonable change they were equally cavalier about other library policies and procedures. Several of these could lead to a very justified termination.

    2a) I’m surprised she was able to get ahold of the police. I usually just get Stuart Copeland’s voicemail.

  4. First, I am a librarian I am not one of the crazy pro-family people who have been quick to jump on this. (That is not to say I am anti-family either.)

    Viewing child pornography is illegal. Period. Just like stealing a person’s purse is illegal. People cannot do illegal things within the library and it is the duty of the staff to act upon and call the police when a crime has been committed. A simple note is not the way to handle an illegal activity. To say that “No lives were in danger” is false. The children who were exploited were (maybe still are) in danger. A person who has had the purse stollen in the library would not be in danger, but the staff call the cops for that crime.

    Honestly, I don’t understand why a crime like watching child pornography is “ok” and that some librarians feel it is protected. According ALA’s own site the Supreme Court has ruled that certain narrow categories of speach are not protected by the First Amendment, child pornography is one of those.

    The supervisor should have called the police on the first occasion. I think it is entirely appropriate that the library staff person called the police on the second occasion once it was obvious the supervisor was not going to do the appropriate thing. If it was a stollen purse the supervisor would have called the police the first time the incident occured.

  5. I usually agree, but this time I have to disagree. Talking about child porn online should not be complicated nor difficult. It’s a crime. It is illegal. Patrons should not be viewing it…period. Anyone doing it and caught should be reported to the authorities as it is a crime. If the library worker caught the person doing it, then it was her duty to call the cops. Management should have done it, but it seems they were unwilling to do so, or at least to turn a blind eye. Like Sarah above, I am nowhere near the “pro-family” crowd (in fact, I disagree with them most of the time and passionately so), but that some librarians would even consider turning a blind eye is simply not right. This is the kind of thing that gives librarians a bad name.

    Such illegal acts should not be tolerated, and it should be nonnegotiable, and it has nothing to do with other instances of protected speech or objecting to the government simply seizing machines when they feel like it.

  6. Beth: If your first statement was rewritten to read, “it has to be a violation of procedure for a probationary library assistant to call the police when a crime is being committed“, it wouldn’t hold much water. And that is, in fact, what was going on. Libraries should be working to empower their employees and far from empowering this library assistant the library chose to send the opposite message – go through the chain of command or face termination. There seems to be little gray area here. A crime was committed – the authorities were called. The library’s actions can only be seen as punitive.

    Jessamyn: This is only one of many many things that I would like to see the ALA take a position on. They work to hard on avoiding controversy for my liking. I’d like to see some advocacy.

  7. I am honestly torn on this one. I think staff should be empowered to make decisions, but I can also see this escalating to the point where the police are being called multiple times a day by different staff people. I think there has to be the proverbial “proper channels” to handle non-emergency situations in the libraries.

    Here’s something that happened to me the same week this story broke: one of our regular patrons called me over to his computer to show me an email he received. It was entitled “World’s 15 Best Fountains” and had pictures of the top 14 grandest fountains in the world, and the patron laughed and laughed when he scrolled down to the #1 fountain – a picture of a little boy (maybe ten years old) standing naked on a rock peeing into a pond. Is that child porn? Should I have called the police? I made a judgment call and did not.

    I guess my problem with this case isn’t that the police were called, it was how they were called. I can picture myself working in that library, and when the police showed up, all of the staff looking at each other with blank stares saying “nope, no child porn here” because proper procedures for notifying the police and staff weren’t followed. That’s why I think procedures are important – for communication and documentation purposes.

    I agree with SovietBear that it should have been a non-probationary library manager that talked to the patron and called the police, and also with Jessamyn that the privacy issues keep us from knowing all the circumstances involved. If this happened in my library, I would definitely want my staff to come to me and not feel like they had to deal with it on their own.

  8. I’ve actually been in a situation where I looked up and saw a patron viewing child porn on a library computer. There’s really no mistaking it for “World’s 15 Best Fountains.”

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