Monday, February 23, 2015

LIBR 200 Post 5 of 8: Teacher Librarians and Ethical Issues

As with the general public, many Teacher Librarians have taken to utilizing social media and other digital tools to engage with members of our information community. The benefits of open access, participatory communities are lauded in the LIBR 200 “Community-Generated Information Sources and Services” lecture delivered by Dr. Michael Stephens.  Rather than just “passively consuming” content, users are able “to contribute back, to share, to write to post, to transcribe, to become part of the community, and to give something back” (personal communication, 2015).

While I believe in and regularly benefit from the positive power of online communities, I am also curious to consider the unique challenges that these new communication platforms pose in ethical terms.  I can’t help but consider Stephens’s words juxtaposed with the LIBR 200 lecture “Intellectual Freedom and the Web: A Troubled History,” which concluded with Michael Zimmer’s research that identifies a “policy vacuum” when it comes to defining ethical use of new technologies (Hansen, D., personal communication, 2015).  It seems that while we been launched into a new cultural norm, the norms of that culture have yet to be clearly defined.

This brings me to an interview that I recently conducted with Dr. Mary Ann Harlan, San Jose State University iSchool professor and coordinator of the Teacher Librarian Program.  In addition to her work at the university, Harlan is active within the greater school library community, participating as a notable leader within the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), California School Library Association (CSLA), and more.  Having great respect for Harlan’s work experience with Teacher Librarians, I was interested in hearing her personal observations regarding the ways in which conversations occur within the community.

While many of my questions focused on how Teacher Librarians connect with one another as professionals, Harlan’s most salient point was that there is an even more critical need for Teacher Librarians reach outside of their professional circle and prioritize “listening in” to others in their school communities. I plan to address this idea in my next blog post regarding multiculturalism, but at this time, it is actually her more casual observations that have inspired my thinking regarding ethics. While the discussion had not directly focused on ethics - the word was never brought up - our conversation sparked a trail of breadcrumbs in my head that led me to an ethical musing related to to my information community in particular, and more generally for our larger networked world. The path is admittedly a little roundabout and not as linear as the numbering below might suggest, so bear with me.

Crumb #1: How active are Teacher Librarians on Twitter?

When considering the number of Teacher Librarians who are working across the country, how truly active is the Teacher Librarian conversation on Twitter?  There is certainly evidence of the information community connecting on this platform, but Harlan expressed doubt regarding how widespread the tool is being used across the professional group: “If you’re an active participant, you can build relationships well on Twitter. I just don’t know how active people are.”

Crumb #2: Can we ever find all Teacher Librarians in any single online community?

As Twitter is just one outlet out of many, what segment of the Teacher Librarian population is active there as opposed to being active on Facebook, LinkedIn, Ning, listservs, and on and on? Surely there are some Teacher Librarians who may be active in varying degrees on a mix of platforms, but the reality is that any one platform will never be representative of the voices of all in the professional community. As Harlan noted in our interview, “We have to make choices about which communities . . . [to be] part of, because we can’t do it all.”

Crumb #3: How do we gauge online community activity in a world with lurkers?

As we question who is active within any given online community, I am reminded of an article I recently read regarding another social media platform, Goodreads. Reflecting upon user activity, Naik (2012) suggests:
Another possibility that is impossible to test is that there may be many people viewing and reading . . . discussions but who do not participate--it is impossible to know how these invisible or lurking readers have been influenced by the discussions. (p. 321)
Thus, without looking at advanced analytics, we should be careful when assuming people are not benefiting from a community just because they are not posting. Not in our interview, but in an article that Harlan co-authored with Bruce and Lupton, lurking was in fact noted as serving a useful purpose for teens who chose a community to participate in. Generalizing their findings, we may consider how observers of any age may use a silent period to “familiarize themselves with the community, including the tenor of interactions, and the social mores of the community and evaluate[] their potential role in participating” (2012, p. 578).

Crumb #4: Are most Teacher Librarians active members of a community or more of an audience?

Whether we consider lurking to be a precursor to greater participation or not, another aspect I’m reflecting on is Shirky’s distinction between communities and audiences. Looking specifically at how the size of a group affects communication dynamics, Shirky (2002) claims that the larger a group grows, “the more it must become like an audience largely disconnected and held together by communication traveling from center to edge,­ because increasing the number of people in a group weakens communal connection.” He explains that an increase in group size results in a loss in connectedness that cannot be avoided.

Shirky’s specific mention of mailing lists immediately made reflect back on my interview with Harlan and how she cited listservs as being some of the most active communication outlets for Teacher Librarians over the long term. In particular, she mentioned the nationwide listserv LM_NET and our California state listerv CALIBK12. While these channels are active, Shirky’s ideas make me think about the social dynamics of these listservs. How deeply connected do Teacher Librarians feel when participating on the listservs? Do they lurk as audience members, or do they participate as contributors? Are contributions functioning more as broadcasts of information, or do they result in authentic conversations?

Crumb #5: How might we sometimes be reticent to share within our own information community?

As I consider the questions posed above, another thread that enters my mind comes from Flanagin, Hocevar, and Samahito (2013), who debunked their original hypothesis that users who share a strong shared group identification will be more likely to contribute to an online community. They found that to the contrary:
High group identification might potentially act to convince information contributors that their knowledge is redundant with others’ information. Therefore, potential information contributors may believe that their information is actually less valuable to those with whom they share group identity, rather than more so, because they assume that others like them are likely to already hold the same information. (p. 8)
In other words, within online community settings, are there Teacher Librarians who abstain from participating because they do not feel confident or comfortable that they would be sharing information that is considered to be original and valuable? How might this play out for online communities in general, and how might this trend result in an absence of voices that could otherwise create a more representative information landscape?

The Ethical Quandary

If you have managed to follow my various breadcrumbs, then you’ve at last arrived at my ethical quandary. Given the context that for any given channel,
  • we are only reaching a certain segment of people…
  • that people self-select their membership in online forums…
  • that we may not fully know the scope of membership since people may simply be lurking…
  • that a community may outgrow its ability to function as a true community...
  • that members may not always feel comfortable sharing information… may we ensure that online communities are most equitably participatory? 

After all, in the absence of equitable participation and representation of information, how may a community become ethically deprived?

An example from my interview with Harlan highlights just such a situation when our ethics may be put to the test. She shared how Teacher Librarians are just as human to spreading unreliable information as any other user-centered community. Regarding the information community’s listservs, she cited how it can at times function as “a perpetuator of myths and misunderstanding and bad ideas. Because it’s crowdsourced, a lot of times information that is shared is inaccurate.” When I asked her if the information is generally corrected, she answered: “It doesn’t always happen, it just depends.”

For librarians, who as “information professionals have as one of their important ends the advancement of truth and knowledge” (Rubin & Froehlich, 2010, p. 750), we must ask ourselves: What is our role and responsibility when it comes to addressing misinformation that is shared in online participatory communities? 

Harlan suggested that perhaps one reason information is not corrected is because, “we all want to be nice to one another.” In fact, she has witnessed occasions when “in the interest of civility, those conversations get shut down.” While these anecdotes and my breadcrumb stream of consciousness do not provide me with answers, they do prompt me to pose three final questions for Teacher Librarians:
  1. How do we create a culture of respect in online communities that welcomes the thoughtful sharing of different or conflicting information? 
  2. How do we engage in transparent and open-ended conversations online that allow for genuine interaction and interplay of ideas?
  3. As Teacher Librarians, how do we use the opportunity of experimenting within our own professional information community so that we may serve as models for others through our experience and example?
When recognizing an ethical gap in teens' navigation of the digital world, James (2014) identifies how adults often place more emphasis on cyber safety and individual consequences than on ethical behavior and social responsibility. She cites a "mentorship gap" (p. 107) and encourages that adults seek to fill the void with "conscientious connectivity," which she likens to mindfulness and "moral attentiveness" (p. 109). By focusing on addressing the three final questions listed above, perhaps Teacher Librarians will be able to increase our own conscientiousness and better mentor the students we serve to do the same.


Flanagin, A. J., Hocevar, K., & Samahito, S. (2013). Connecting with the user-generated web: How group identification impacts online information sharing and evaluation. Information, Communication & Society, 17(6), 683-694.

Harlan, M. A., Bruce, C., & Lupton, M. (2012). Teen content creators: Experiences of using information to learn. Library Trends 60(3), 569-587.

James, C. (2014). Disconnected: Youth, new media, and the ethics gap. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Naik, Y. (2012). Finding good reads on Goodreads. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 51(4), 319-323.

Rubin, R., & Froehlich, T. J. (2010). Ethical aspects of library and information science. In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences (1743-1757). New York: Taylor and Francis.

Shirky, C. (2002). Clay Shirky’s writings about the internet: Networks, economics, and culture. Retrieved from

1 comment:

  1. I like the interview reference you used. I couldn't agree more, as information gets shared and passed down, its just like gossip, it gets construed into something different and may not be as effective. It's always important to conduct ones research and trust a good source or resource for that matter. Great post!