• Libr 200: Ethical Issues in Information-Seeking Behavior Studies

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    In a music library, or any library for that matter, it’s essential for librarians to know exactly what patrons want and how they use the available resources. They need that knowledge to improve their services, and as Hursh and Avenarius (2012) write, “Improving services is what librarians are all about” (p. 84). But how should they acquire that knowledge? Attempts to answer that question can lead to ethical issues rearing their heads.


    Privacy is always an important issue in library ethics. When conducting studies to determine patron wants and information-seeking patterns, librarians need to take utmost care to respect the participants’ privacy, which can be difficult. For example, when a music library publishes the results of a survey about patrons’ use of online reserves, the interviewees’ answers should be anonymous, with no “personally identifying information,” yet still with “enough specificity to determine whether the reserve recordings were accessed from on campus or off campus” and other important details (Phinney, 2005, p. 12). Ideally, participation in the study should also be “strictly voluntary,” with “no incentives” to make reluctant patrons participate (Phinney, 2005, p. 12). But ideal though that approach may be from an ethical standpoint, it may keep librarians from acquiring all the needed information.


    A study of only a select few patrons who choose to be surveyed will offer a less complete portrait of mass information-seeking behaviors than a compulsory study of all patrons would. Furthermore, face-to-face interviews and surveys “can be misleading, because people often say one thing but do another” (Hursh & Avenarius, 2012, p. 85). Some librarians argue that an ethnographic study, combining interviews or surveys with periods of secretly observing everyday patron behavior, “results in a more complete and accurate picture” (Hursh & Avenarius, 2012 p. 85). But this presents an ethical dilemma: is it right for librarians to “spy” on patrons and record their behaviors for a published survey without their knowledge? Hursh and Avenarius (2012) have no qualms with this approach, because “no information [is] recorded that could later be used to identify specific individuals, and there [is] no manipulation of the subjects to get them to act in certain ways” (p. 90), but still, ethical concerns remain.


    Librarians who conduct patron studies have a difficult balance to strike: giving maximum respect to patrons’ privacy vs. gaining the most complete and accurate study results. Ultimately the nature of the study, the needed information, and the library itself will have to determine what type of study methods should be used. Librarians will need to observe every factor at stake and determine which side of the dilemma – privacy vs. completeness – should be emphasized to give patrons maximum benefit in the long term.



    Hursh, D. W. & Avenarius, C. B. (2013). What do patrons really do in music libraries?: an ethnographic approach to improving library services. Music Reference Service Quarterly, 16(2), 84-108. doi: 10.1080/10588167.2013.787522


    Phinney, S. (2005). Can’t I just listen to that online? Music Reference Service Quarterly, 9(2), 1-33. doi: 10.1300/J116v09n02_01

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