Friday, May 2, 2014

Robot librarians

This is another post about the ethics of being a librarian, specifically the tension between good service and patron privacy. It follows a previous post about whether you should be 'friends' with patrons. This one is about how the ideal reference librarian is a robot, and the second-best reference librarian is a human effectively disguised as a robot i.e. a human with a robot facade.


If we had the technology to replace human librarians with machines of comparable skill, library "science" says that we would. Why? Having to confide your "information need" to another person is an inherent invasion of privacy because we know that that person, being human, is going to judge you and make assumptions about you. Giving the same information to a computer isn't an invasion of privacy because the computer doesn't 'think about' you. The ideal librarian is a very sophisticated machine for getting you information. Any personality or emotion that intrudes as a result of that machine being a human is an unfortunate side effect.

Currently, some level of privacy invasion is unavoidable because robots aren't sufficiently advanced to replace human librarians. Given this circumstance, librarianship tries to limit collateral invasions of privacy as much as possible, basically by making a human behave as much like that hypothetical robot as possible. This is done in two ways:
1. The librarian pretends not to care about you or about why you want the information you do, so even though you are feeding your personal information to a judging entity, you don't feel like you are doing so. I.e., the librarian creates a robot facade.
2. The librarian is trained to believe that it is actually part of her duty not to care, and that she should strive to erase any inclination toward caring from her personality.

#2 tends to be a total failure, because why would you dedicate your career to finding information for people if you weren't interested in information or why people needed it? Unsurprisingly, curious people become reference librarians who are not very good at being uncurious.

In a lot of cases, violating rule #1 is pretty harmless. For example, someone might ask you to add him to the waiting list for the newest James Patterson book, and while you are doing that you notice that the library has already ordered copies of the next one even though it hasn't been released yet. Even though in theory you are supposed to behave as though there is no correlation between wanting the current Patterson and wanting the next Patterson (unless someone explicitly asks you for advice, which is a different story), you say "Hey, I see that the library has already ordered the next one even though I think it doesn't come out for a couple of months. Would you like me to put you on the list for that one too?" Technically, you're putting a crack in your robot facade by admitting that you are inferring something about the patron as a person (you want one James Patterson book so you are probably the kind of person who would like this other James Patterson book), but I've never had a patron who is angry or offended by an offer like this.

However, there are potential cases in which offering unsolicited help might not go over as well. The classic, if hyperbolic, case is a teenager who asks you for "books on committing suicide." The biggest case that gets me, though, and a more realistic one, is when I know what the patron is trying to accomplish but the resources she is requesting are not the most efficient or effective way to achieve that goal.

A common type of this case I see in my library is people trying to win their own legal conflicts without professional help. They come and say "My landlord blah blah blah..." or "My ex-wife blah blah blah..." "...can you get me 'the form' for suing someone/'the book' on tenants' rights" etc. The typical patron with one of these requests is not college-educated (let alone law-school-educated), already under a lot of stress, and often somewhat mentally unstable. She is not going to resolve this legal problem without professional help no matter what printed resources I can give her.

Now, we used to host a legal help clinic for low-income people and I often wanted to tell this type of patron about that resource, but I was afraid to for three reasons:
1. The patron may be offended that I assume he is low-income
2. The patron may be offended that I don't think he is smart or capable enough to solve the problem on his own
3. My library school training tells me not to offer this information unless it is solicited, and that if I do offer it unsolicited I am violating the patron's privacy i.e. breaking the robot facade

#1 and #2 seem like practical reasons to restrain myself, if not very good ones (at worst a stranger will get mad at me, at best a stranger's legal problems will be solved). But the key idea in #3 is "facade." Is a patron's privacy really more respected if I know things about them but just pretend not to? Given that, no matter how hard I try, I will learn more information about a patron than what that person explicitly tells me, wouldn't it be better if I at least used that information to my advantage so that I could provide better service?



  1. maybe you're being too strict. could you confine the roboticism to patron stuff that seems as if it could potentially be confidential/private? I think you have to let the legal aid thing go. But the Patterson thing is innocuous.

  2. frankly i think patrons would be better served by most attempts at helping them rather than keeping quiet out of a sense of librarian ethics. are utilitarian ethics overriding here?