Looking after College libraries: librarians lift the lid on the key ethical issues

David Porter, Academic Liaison Librarian, Bradford   College

David Porter, Academic Liaison Librarian, Bradford College

This entry comes with a sound track.

Click on the orange arrow to be transported to the main reception area of the Bradford College Grove Library, a large, refurbished Victorian building. Talking is permitted. But you will also hear the sounds of technology. Books and journals are on the shelves, but the modern library is resolutely electronic and online.

I met up with three of our College librarians. They each found librarianship – happily – after graduating, as they tried out different things. Catherine Callaghan moved from hotel work to a wonderful job as trainee at the Institute of Education library. Chris Martin initially aspired to be a medieval historian, but decided librarianship was more rewarding. And David Porter became a librarian through an interest in teaching and information. Along the way they have gained professional qualifications and many years of experience, and between them they have worked in public, academic and commercial libraries – with one month (Chris) in a mobile library.

These are the ethical issues we discussed:

What is made available:There are always issues about what you make available in a library,” says Chris. “Robert Mapplethorpe, for instance, is a photographer whose work causes offence to some. In 1997, police officers seized one of his books from the library of the University of Central England on the grounds that it contained obscene material. The Vice Chancellor faced going to jail, though in the end the charges were lifted.”

So there is material in the College libraries that is not out on the shelves, either because it can cause offence, or because it is of particular religious significance, or because it is very expensive. Some of the very high demand books are also held in this way, to ensure fair access.  Anyone registered with the College can take these resources out, but they have to request them. There are also some items which have an age restriction – for example where you have to be 18 or over to have access.

“There’s another side to this,” says David, “which is that people ask for what they think you will have, not necessarily for what they really want. So the librarian’s role can be to help widen horizons, otherwise there can be a form of self-censorship.”

Potentially dangerous information: I mentioned a 1970s study where a researcher in the US went into several libraries and asked reference librarians to give him ‘information for building a bomb, a bomb big enough to blow up a suburban home’. The issue here is that public safety overrides individual right to anonymity, but it can be a difficult judgement call. “If that happened here, I would ask which course you are on, and I would check with the tutor,” David says. Catherine adds that she worked at a school where a teacher who set a task on this topic was suspended. “I’d want to know who you are, why you want to know, and I would report dubious behaviour,” she says. “Nowadays you would be very foolish to ask a librarian for this,” Chris comments. “With the emergence of the internet, there are other ways of finding such things out.”

Chris explains that many years ago, when the College had a building in Ilkley, the police asked the College for information about what an individual student was reading. “We didn’t divulge this until the police secured a warrant. We can only breach confidentiality when there is a warrant to do so or in very specific circumstances relating to risk of harm or illegal behaviour.”

This brings us on to the issue of anonymity and confidentiality. “If you have a book out, that information is confidential,” David explains. “You have a right to anonymity. The teaching staff in particular will ask to know who’s got a book that they are waiting for. But we don’t say.” Catherine points out that data protection is an important issue in libraries: “Contact details have to be protected. We are careful about our channels of communication as well – we only use people’s College email accounts.”

Ensuring the right balance of resources: All three librarians were alert to the pressures of providing the best possible service on a tight budget. “Some curriculum areas produce long lists of books they would like us to stock,” Catherine states. “But we have to use limited resources to ensure materials are available across all curriculum areas. We have to avoid a bias towards one area that would disadvantage other students. So as a team, we work to ensure balance.”

Copyright and plagiarism: David and Catherine are both Academic Liaison Librarians, working with tutors to ensure the right resources are available, and helping students access what they need. They and other library staff offer training and support, and work to raise awareness of the importance of copyright and related issues among staff and students.

“More and more you find that people have developed bad habits in searching,” says David. “There is a strong reliance on Google, but with GoogleDocs you cannot be certain that copyright approval has been given. Once, if you breached copyright law in a library, it was the librarian’s responsibility. But nowadays it’s down to the individual.” “Knowing how to access and use information ethically is key,” says Catherine. “The College can be penalised if it gets this wrong,” adds Chris. “The Copyright Licensing Agency visited us last year and were happy with what we are doing. But with so many different kinds of resource available through so many different channels this is always going to be an issue.”

Learning Resources Manager Chris Martin and Catherine Callaghan, Academic Liaison Librarian

Access: Catherine is part of a group looking at equality and diversity issues across the College’s libraries (five libraries on five different sites). “We monitor to ensure material is available in different formats, and to see if any of the groups identified as having protected characteristics in the equality legislation are excluded in any way.”

Chris emphasises the importance of online 24 hour availability – the College has a librarian who specialises in e-resources. However, the physical libraries and their books, computers and staff remain key. “Once we spent time encouraging people to use computers to search,” David says. “Now they are all online and they want instant, easy access. We have to encourage them to use the library system to access academic material that is not available through other routes.”

Chris Martin is Bradford College Learning Resources Manager, responsible for five libraries and 43 staff, including nine qualified librarians and a range of support staff and assistants.
David Porter and Catherine Callaghan are Academic Liaison Librarians at Bradford College.

David Porter at the McMillan Library, Bradford College

David Porter at the McMillan Library, Bradford College

Useful links:
 is the professional body formed following the unification of the Instituteof Information Scientists (IIS) and the Library Association (LA). It has a set of ethical principles for library and information professionals.

The American Library Association has a Bill of Rights.

Interview, recording and photos by Ruth Wilson, Bradford College.


2 thoughts on “Looking after College libraries: librarians lift the lid on the key ethical issues

  1. Fascinating post. I have to admit that one of my first thoughts was “what has ethics got to do with libraries?” Which is rather embarrassing as I used to work here.

    I loved having the soundtrack to listen to… I found it very reassuring (once I read properly and realised I wasn’t listening to an interview).

  2. Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. There has been a big ethics issue in a library just this week – I don’t know if you saw it. A librarian has been sacked for allegedly allowing students to do the Harlem Shake in St Hilda’s College Library, University of Oxford. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newsvideo/viral-video/9940438/Oxford-librarian-sacked-over-Harlem-Shake-at-St-Hildas-College.html It raises interesting questions as to the function of libraries, and what is proper conduct, and why…

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