I talked to the RUSA Hot Topics in Frontline Reference discussion group, on the kind invitation of Cheri Smith, about this blog. It was an interesting discussion. A lot of people are using blogs in their reference departments, mainly to share internal information about printer glitches and administrative changes. These are mainly private blogs; nobody else seemed to be doing what I'm doing, which is making patrons' reference questions public on the Internet. I hadn't really considered confidentialiy issues that much before, but a few RUSA members mentioned them as a concern.
I'm still pondering that one. On the one hand, I agree that patron confidentiality is an important component of my job, and a value I believe in strongly. It's why libraries are shredding loan records all over the country, and I think that's good. It irritates me no end when patrons come up and lean on the desk while someone else is trying to ask a question--I'm not a stanchion-lover in general, but some days I'd really like a physical reminder to make people respect each other's privacy.
On the other hand, our investment in patron confidentiality has never prevented us from sharing patron questions with each other, either in person or on listservs. When I get stumped by a hard literature reference question, I often send it to LES-L, the national literature librarian list. I know plenty of other reference librarians use Stumpers to ask their colleagues for help with difficult reference questions. Digital reference services often maintain logs of questions to be entered into a knowledge-base for staff training and assistance with future questions. So we've never had a gag order on reference questions.
What we do have a gag order on is who asked what. When I was doing my MLIS, that was the usual response to questions about information sharing: if you don't identify the patron (either by name or description), it's okay to describe their information need. I thought that was fair then, and I think it's fair now. Reference librarians can't do their jobs very well if they're prevented from talking about what they do, or if they have to reduce their actual desk experiences in so much fuzzy detail and fabrication that the advice they get from their colleagues is moot.
What then becomes interesting is, what kind of information identifies a patron? If I identify myself, as a librarian at the University of Oregon, do I then provide a means for others to guess who asked what at my reference desk? This possibility was raised by some RUSA members, and while I appreciate the point that sharing information on the Internet is a higher-stakes activity than sharing it in conversation with a colleague, or even a group of colleagues, I guess I don't consider this a really convincing argument against doing what I do.
Part of the problem is that whenever I try to imagine a scenario in which someone could genuinely figure out who asked which question at my desk, I find myself having to construct pretty elaborate scenarios. That's not to say it's not possible, or that if it happened it couldn't be a problem. It just seems that posting anonymous reference questions to the Internet is not substantially different from sharing anonymous questions on a listserv. Both activities release the patron's information need into the wild. I don't believe that the difference in technology really changes the nature of the beast.
Even more interesting is the fact that my own library administration and PR rep have asked me to send examples of reference questions, for projects like our library's annual report. If we're willing to publish patron questions in our annual report, are we devaluing our commitment to patron confidentiality? It never occurred to me to think this before, and I'm not sure I really think it now. But I do wonder at times whether the patron who's walking away from the desk would be upset to know that I'm typing her question into the blog, and that I'll publish it to the Internet at the end of my shift. Does she own the exchange, because she's the patron? Or do I own at least part of it, because it's my job?
I welcome comments, if anyone feels inspired to weigh in on this.