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Helping to Research Points of View You Disagree With

We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information.There is an interesting exchange going on over at the Library Praxis blog in response to a post by Maria Accardi about her experience assisting a student who wanted ” to find scholarly articles about why it is a bad thing that homosexuality is portrayed positively in the media.” After some discussion of keywords, etc, Accardi mentioned that she happened to be gay, the student explained that his views that homosexuality was essentially wrong came from Christian faith. Accardi then noted that she was a Christian, too. After that brief exchange, Accardi said they returned to discussions of databases and keywords. Her post concludes this way:

Did I do the right thing?  Professionally, I think I did.  I showed him how to find information on his topic.  But beyond that, beyond the most basic reference transaction level, I think I did the right thing in a critical, moral sense.  Coming out is one of the best tools to combat homophobia and bigotry.  By telling this kid that he was talking to an actual gay person, I think I pretty much blew his mind.  Maybe he’ll rethink his position on gays.  Maybe he won’t.  Maybe he’ll rethink his position when he is totally unable to find reputable scholarly research that supports his point of view.  Or maybe not.

How to handle such situations is tricky, as who the librarian is and what they believe can affect what kind of a response is possible or at least workable. In his comment to the post, Rory Litwin, notes that it would have been more challenging had Accardi not been gay or Christian:

I think you handled it right, but I think in a way the situation was simplified for you by the fact that you are gay and a Christian. You were able to be instructive simply by telling him who you are. But what if you were neither gay nor Christian and equally, or almost equally, had a problem with the student’s question? In that situation, simply sharing who you are wouldn’t be instructive, and there is no easy way to confront the issue. Even if you were gay but just not Christian, it would have been a little more complicated to find a good solution.

As someone who is straight and who was raised religiously but grew to become indifferent to religion, I can only say that I would have just pointed out that finding sources taking this point of view was going to be challenging given that it was a minority viewpoint. I might also have wondered aloud about the quality of any scholarly sources that he found that appeared to back up his viewpoint and cautioned him about thinking seriously about the quality of the argument offered in such articles; in particular, he’d want to make sure those sources reasonably treated other points of views, that they sources they themselves included were representative of a wide range of views. I might also ask him a bit about what sources he had found that represented different points of view (as he’d want to demonstrate to his professor that he’d wrestled somewhat with the discourse on this topic).

Helping people research points of view or opinions that diverge widely from your own is indeed a dicey proposition. I can recall wincing inside as I helped students find sources that showed the global warming was a myth, or another time, when I assisted a student who wanted to argue that smoking might actually be good for you (admittedly, I didn’t get too far with that last one). The ALA’s Code of Ethics touches here and there on the tensions between the information requested or needed by the patron and the librarian’s personal point of view:

  • “We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information.”
  • “I. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.”
  • “VI. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.”
  • “VII. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.”

I suppose that is it is impossible for my politics, my beliefs, my sense of who I am and how I fit in the world, to not interfere in any way with the way I interact with patrons in reference situations. I’m only human. It seems to me that much depends on the care and delicacy of the way that a librarian handles these information requests for sources that are very much at odds with her own beliefs. From Accardi’s description, it sounds like she handled the situation like a human and not some ALA Code of Ethics robot, and that’s probably OK.

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One Response

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  1. Maria Accardi says

    Thanks, Stephen, for linking to the post and your comments. I’ve been obsessing over this event all day, and now that I’m no longer shaking and can think clearly, I can think of a number of things I’d do differently. If I had had the presence of mind, I would have advised him, as you say, “that finding sources taking this point of view was going to be challenging given that it was a minority viewpoint.” Maybe the next time something like this comes up–and given the student population at my institution, it just might–I will know to do that. But one thing I’d still do the same: I’d still come out, both as a lesbian and as a Christian. It never feels any less scary to come out to a stranger in such a high-risk situation, but it is too important not to.

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