A Matter of Ethics

From Randy Cohen's 'The Ethicist" column in the NYT:

Q. I’m a librarian. A regular patron, a man in his late 40s or early 50s and virtually technologically illiterate, asked me to print a few e-mail attachments for him — photos of a young and attractive Russian woman. Many of the messages were titled “I Love You” or the like and included explicit requests for money. I believe he is being scammed. May I intervene, or does that violate his privacy and my professional boundaries? N.P., LAWRENCE, KAN.

A. The professional — and delicate — response is to give your patron excellent service without criticizing or embarrassing him. A skilled reference librarian often goes beyond a patron’s specific request, suggesting resources he has not even considered. You can provide this fellow with the information that he needs to protect himself from (or at least become aware of) possible fraud — and without using the words “You love-drunk old fool.”

Ann Thornton, a director of reference and research services at the New York Public Library, concurs via e-mail: “If the librarian handles the matter in a confidential, courteous manner and offers appropriate resources, he/she is providing a higher level of service. Therefore, it is well within the scope of his/her professional responsibility.”

Thornton suggests one such resource the patron might value: “He may want to take a look at some tips about protecting himself online; provide him with a handout of best practices from a reputable organization like the Internet Crime Complaint Center . Her approach is tactful and practical, a thoroughly ethical combination.

Do you agree?


I've dealt with this very issue on two separate occasions. I hadn't realized other librarians may be dealing with the same thing. It would seem that these Russian/Eastern Europe so-called dating sites are becoming more prevalent. Unfortunately, if your patron is very deep in denial and also has very low self-esteem, it can be difficult to persuade him to protect himself. Sigh.

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