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Know thyself. And choose your career accordingly.

As I slide another set of books by Phil McGraw and Laura Schlessinger over the demagnetizer for yet another patron in search of guidance, I can’t help but grit my teeth. There’s nothing of value in those books, nothing that will make this person happy. I believe these so-called “experts” are ruining America, just as they’ve each personally ruined multiple families in their own social spheres, and part of me–let’s call it my conscience–really wants to take these books away and send my patron back to the stacks, to find something better, and then to remove these books from our collection.

But of course I don’t do that; it would be wrong. If a person wants to read bad advice, it is their right to do so, and it is my job to provide them with the means. If they want to check out trashy romance novels, inaccurate histories, poorly-written local newspapers, right-wing propaganda, left-wing propaganda, movie novelizations, Scientology DVDs, or anything else I have the power to provide, it is my job to provide it. My patrons are guardians of their own intellects, and that is a right I wouldn’t dream of begrudging them; certainly, I would not want that right taken from me. To be honest, as horrible as I, personally, find some of it to be, at the end of the day, I am proud and happy to provide these things. I know I am serving the greater good, even when I dispense materials I find objectionable. I know my opinion, however deeply researched, however well founded, or however strongly felt, is not more important than my patrons’ right to information.

Let’s pretend, though, just for a second, that I didn’t believe as strongly as I do in intellectual freedom. Let’s say I believed that some materials really shouldn’t be circulated, and as such, I refused to provide them to patrons who asked for them. How long, precisely, do you think I would last as a library employee? Or, more to the point, how long should I last?

It’s not a useful question: of course, if I felt that way, I wouldn’t have taken a library job; everyone knows that giving out all manner of materials is a part of the job description of a librarian, so I would have known it wasn’t the job for me. Even if I were, as a layperson, to fail to fully grasp what my job might entail, one can assume that library school, or the first month of a job in a library, would sufficiently acquaint me with the field, and with the various ethical standards thereof, that I’d quickly become aware of the “down sides,” if you will, of my job description. If I learned that my own moral/ethical stance was incompatible with my chosen profession, I would choose a more appropriate profession. Any reasonable person would.

So why is the Bush Administration advocating allowing people in one particular field, whose consciences may sometimes run counter to their job requirements, to shirk their duties? Are we to assume that someone could finish pharmacy school and not realize that pharmacists are expected to provide contraceptives, along with any number of other medications? That an ER staff member might go through training and yet, at some point, be surprised at being expected to provide pregnancy prevention medication to a rape victim? That medical insurance providers may not realize they are expected to provide insurance for, you know, any medical issue, including prevention of pregnancy? How could this have escaped these people’s notice until now?

As the WSJ does a fine job of pointing out, the proposed policy is simply about making access to contraceptives more difficult–a goal I don’t begin to understand–not about protecting workers’ rights. Just as I know I must sometimes grit my teeth and give out materials I find objectionable to patrons who want access to them, so too do medical workers–even those who hate contraceptives–realize that they have a duty to provide the care their patients need them to provide.

In the library I give out many useful materials that I know others disagree with; similarly, in a pharmacy or a hospital or even an insurance company, one is able to help people by providing treatments that, yes, others might object to–blood transfusions, vaccines, insulin grown in pigs–because people who disagreed with those treatments were not allowed to make that call for the rest of society, no matter how strongly they felt it was wrong. We have a right to take care of our bodies and our health as we see fit, just as we have a right to read what we see fit. Refusing a whole class of service, or service to a whole class of people–patrons or patients–means one can no longer claim to serve the greater good; it means they are trying to impose their will on others and, in so doing, failing to live up to the standards of their field.

If someone’s conscience can’t handle giving out one particular type of treatment–if they don’t believe in helping people with all of the tools at their disposal–they need to get out of the medical industry. If they haven’t the courage to get out of their profession, but still cannot live up to its standards, I find it hard to be sympathetic when their employer performs their own duty–protecting clients, patients, or patrons–by removing the wrongdoer.

I’ll add, further, that any law–or “rules change” or whatever–that protects wrongdoers at the expense of society is wrong. Plain and simple. I have signed and Planned Parenthood’s joint petition to Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, and I hope you will do the same. (Links go to both copies of the petition. I signed PP’s.)

Published inlibrarianshippoliticssocial justice


  1. Ar Eigean Gael

    Don’t forget that referring books is also a function of librarians. Don’t say “Don’t read that” but instead figure out what good books on various subjects are and say “Oh, you may also want to take a look at book X/author Y”

  2. Karl

    Heh. Google is a little confused as to my identity.

  3. Coral

    Well, yes. That wasn’t my point. But, of course, I do that.

  4. Coral

    I feel bad for being so short with you, Karl. You are, of course, correct that my analogy does break down at some point. In this case, I’m kind of like a hybrid of doctor and pharmacist, I guess. Kind of. (Where you were mistaken was in assuming I had forgotten how to do my job.)Anyway, I can certainly provide recommendations, and I do. But you’ll agree that the ultimate decision is up to the patron, and I can’t deny them the materials they want/need? That was the part that was important for the analogy I was drawing.

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