Librarians : Patrons :: Social Workers : Clients (Part 2 of 2)Posted: September 22, 2013
Last week, I suggested that turning to a model of how social workers interact with clients might be useful for librarians who work with homeless patrons. In a related post today, I want to continue thinking about how looking to the relationship between social workers and their clients might reinforce particular values already important in librarians’ relationships with patrons. This type of thinking is less about transforming understandings of librarianship than it is about highlighting the values of care for individuals and the development of complex relationships with people and communities that are already inherent in the way most librarians think of their work. In particular, I want to foreground how social workers work deliberately to establish trust and strong relationships by focusing on confidentiality.
The idea of confidentiality in a professional relationship is central to many professions where personal, health, educational, and other types of information form the basis of the work relationship. For example, doctors and patients have a relationship structured by the confidentiality of patients’ personal information and health conditions, something protected in the legal realms as privilege. Many other professions rely on the confidentiality of information as well, and a large subset of these professions also have legal privilege in protecting that confidentiality (including psychologists and many social workers). Librarians, however, are generally not considered in that subset of professionals whose working relationship with patrons is privileged in legal courts though there are certainly many librarians who advocate strongly for extending that privilege to reference encounters. (See for example Austin’s  article on the topic.)
My reference class certainly focused on the idea of confidentiality in the reference interview encounter, and it is clear that protecting the privacy of individuals and their personal information is at the heart of librarians’ conceptions of reference work. This confidentiality is important if patrons are to feel comfortable asking for information or for help in locating certain types of information. The limit cases that often come up have to do with sensitive topics such as information on sex or sexuality. However, it is worth keeping in mind that what may seem a trivial topic to one person may be of utmost importance and delicacy for someone else, so in effect, librarians should think of all information requests as potentially sensitive. In any case, reference librarians must consider how to interact with patrons in ways that foster a sense of trust. Instead of foregrounding values of efficiency (how quickly can librarians provide needed information and just what is requested?), librarians might focus on how to work with patrons in ways that fully respond to their information needs, whether those patrons know how to ask for that information or not.