Librarian Saves a Life At Orem UT Library

Quick work by Orem Police and a librarian are being credited for saving a man's life.

This happened at the Orem City Library. Library staff say they got a call from a woman named Julie who said she knew of a man who said he was going to kill himself. The man posted his suicide note on a rave web site and then overdosed on his medication.

The man wrote the note from a computer at the library. Within minutes of that posting, a library computer specialist narrowed down the possible names from forty to four. ABC News has the story.

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What If ....

..the Orem City Library had had a policy of vigorously scrubbing end user data from their public terminals?

The man wrote the note from a computer at the library. Within minutes of that posting, a library computer specialist narrowed down the possible names from forty to four.

What if the Orem City Library had used generic user logins and were unable to associate a number of particular patrons with a specific terminal's IP address?

In many cases, aggressively preserving end-user privacy is highly desirable in this day and age. But this story is a powerful example of how being able to link an end-user/patron to a specific resource at a specific time can save a life or prevent a crime.

And before you start flaming me for advocating the perpetual retention of browser caches, server log files, and patron circ data -- know that I'm not advocating that at all.

What I am saying is that this story proves that the consequences of librarians' decisions about what to retain and what not to retain are real-world. Our policy decisions about data retention and about how we apply the ALA Code of Ethics need to be made with our eyes open to ALL consequences.

And those decisions definitely shouldn't be driven by the fear of, or contempt for, that MIB that might one day be standing in front of the circ desk -- with or without a warrant.

Is that fair?

If a library can't help the police track down someone who threatens to blow up a university and kill a great number of people why can it help someone who is going to kill just one person - himself?

Should they have not waited for a search warrant?

Re:Is that fair?

Their decision seemed to hinge on what "Julie" and the Library IT
man valued more -- the would-be suicide's "right to privacy" and their
own professional ethics, or a particular human life. It was their
call.

I'm not sure about UT law; but some states have laws criminalizing the
refusal to assist persons (or law enforcement) in cases of urgent need. If suicide is considered a crime in UT, Julie and the Library IT man would be *legally* (and morally IMHO) obligated to help police track down the would-be suicide if they encountered such a note.

I suppose the Library IT guy and its director could have refused to
cooperate unitl they saw a subpoena or warrant.

They would've preserved their professional ethical purity and a man would be dead. Then we'd probably be reading another kind of story in the press about librarians, and then I wouldn't want to bet on the next library bond referendum passing in Orem.

Each of us are entitled to use our own personal moral judgement and/or the judgement stipulated by our chosen profession in these situations. Which we value more in a given situation will only be known when we come to that point.

Re:Is that fair?

"I'm not sure about UT law; but some states have laws criminalizing the refusal to assist persons (or law enforcement) in cases of urgent need. If suicide is considered a crime in UT, Julie and the Library IT man would be *legally* (and morally IMHO) obligated to help police track down the would-be suicide if they encountered such a note."

Blowing up buildings is a crime too. The library wasn't anymore obligated in this case, legally or otherwise, to help the police.

Re:Is that fair?

I agree with Greg (as I usually do), either compromising patron confidentiality for the greater good is right, or compromising patron confidentiality for the greater good is wrong.

I would have helped the FBI investigate the threat against Brandeis, and I would have helped the ambulance get to the suicidal man. We may have a civil obligation to protect patron privacy, but we have a moral obligation to protect life that trumps any civil obligation.

So either censure or commend the librarians, but you must be consistent. If you commend the librarian in Newton you must censure the librarian in Orem. If you commend the Orem librarian you must censure the librarian in Newton.

Both had the same opportunity to help save lives, and their actions were diametrically opposed. Only one can have done the right thing. Which do you as a librarian want? Legal, administrative, and professional restrictions that preclude you from making decisions based upon your education, experience and convictions; or the freedom to decide what is best for the library, the citizens of the community, and if need be the nation?

Re:What If ....

"'What if' is a mug's game, at best."

Lazurus Long, I think.

What if they guy had killed himself with a gun? Then you could bitch about the evil of the second amendment. What if he had not left a note on the web? Would you bitching about how we need some kind of law where every prospective suicide has to leave a note so he can be forensically tracked down before he dies?

How many computers are there in public libraries? How many patrons use them that do not post suicide notes, surf for pornography, or engage in "terroristic" activities? Why should all those people be spied upon just because of some vague and ill defined fear that "something" might happen?

Re:Is that fair?

or compromising patron confidentiality for the greater good is wrong.

It's wrong, because no person is in any wise qualified to judge what is the greater good. Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin both acted for the greater good. Bush is acting for the greater good too. He lied and cheated, and is stealing the wealth of Iraq in the name of a greater good. As far as I'm concerned, you can take that good and shove it.

If you're going to barge into a total stranger's life and remove control over it from him under such circumstances do it for purely selfish reasons: because you think of yourself as an ethical being and doing nothing would be unethical from your viewpoint, and you'd like to feel good about yourself. Anything else is a delusion.

Re:Is that fair?

OK, It is for purely selfish reasons that I would barge into a complete stranger's life because I think I am an ethical being and doing nothing would be unethical from my viewpoint. It is thus only to maintain my personal sense of self as an ethical being that I would inject myself where others want privacy.

Yep, it would make me feel good about myself. It would give me the warm fuzzies. Can't argue with you there.

I'm not delusional, perhaps self absorbed but not delusional (as far as I can tell).

relieved

I think that the fact that it was a suicide note should have enough explaination for quick action. Bravo to the library staff's quick thinking.

Re:relieved

So the death of one person outweighs the deaths of many in a terrorist attack at Brandeis?

Can you clarify this cognitive dissonance? It is OK to violate someone's right to privacy to save a life, but it is not OK to violate someone's privacy if many more lives could be saved?

privacy

I know that we live in an age and time that really isn't different from any other in terms of the human conscience. I don't think it's right to take an innocent life in any case.

But I am not at all certain what you think in my short comment that I feel the way you imply about privacy? I am confused about that completely.

I think it really is a complicated issue at the library level, because a person needs privacy in order to have freedom to critically think. But if the person poses a threat to innocent life as you say are there not already laws in place that preclude the kind of privacy necessary to carry out a crime in that way.

Back to my first issue, I never said anything about breach of privacy but about the quick action that averted tragedy. I hope that I would be that person responsible for similar attention and action.

As per privacy, wouldn't that be determined also by the nature and character of the "listener?" As in this case the listener was obviously and thankfully benevolent and technically skillfull to act within minutes to save an innocent life.

The larger issue of privacy is beyond my original comment.

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