I recently received an electronic message from a friend, who shall remain anonymous, but who may or may not be a fellow Contrarian scribe. The substance of the message is as follows:
My local librarian refuses to help me research how to create fake academic credentials in order to obtain chloroform. She also threatened to call the police once when I asked her a perfectly harmless series of hypothetical questions about vivisection. Is there some librarian malpractice board to which I may report her insolence?
Now, this is a real head-wringer of a question, and one which I absolutely love. There are two parts, which I will address in turn.
Let’s start with the chloroform. First, because you are asking for help with faking academic credentials, I am going to assume that you know more about what is necessary for obtaining chloroform than I do, so I am going to ask for some specifics. By doing this, I am going to keep from doing that websearch on my work computer, which could potentially get me in lots of trouble. I am also going to buy myself some time to figure out how to handle the situation.
It really doesn’t matter what the faked credentials would need to be. I’m sorry, Anonymous Friend, but I can’t help you fake credentials, because that is against the law. Now, there are a few things I can do. See, librarians can help you access materials to serve any number of purposes, as long as we don’t know they will be used to break the law. For example if you were asking for information for a novel you were writing, in which a character needed to fake credentials, I could help you. This is one of those places where the profession gets a little scary (and a good justification for why we need trained professionals in the positions). If I have any reason to believe that you will break the law, I can’t help you, and do eventually have the duty to report you to the police, should I think that a crime will be committed. Librarians are simultaneously incredibly simple and extraordinarily complex. Ask the right question, and we can answer almost anything. Ask the wrong one, and we can’t.
The second question has two parts: is there a librarian malpractice board, and should this situation be reported to it? In answer to the first question, no, not really (though you can always submit a nomination for the Fuckwit Librarian of the Year Award!). If a patron feels that a librarian has not done her (or, occasionally, his) job properly, I suggest asking (preferably a different staff member, if you are at one of those fancy libraries with multiple staff) if you can speak to the director about a complaint. If the complaint is valid, it will be taken to the library’s Board of Trustees, who will consider the situation and vote on a resolution.
So, is this situation worth that extreme? Maybe. Hypothetical questions should generally be answered (please see above re: trained professionals and the need to judge a hard situation). Vivisection may or not be legal, depending on your state and the definition of the word. Ideally, the librarian you asked knows all the state laws, and can tell you whether or not what you are asking is legal. Unfortunately, most libraries cannot afford a consultation lawyer, and few librarians also have law degrees.
Still, I believe in the freedom of information. I believe people need access to all sorts of information for all sorts of reasons, and, again, unless I think you are going to commit a crime, I believe I should help you access the information you asked for.
Long column short, I would have had to decide on the spot whether or not I thought you were going to commit a crime. Having done a quick appraisal, Anonymous Friend (oops, did I just link that?), I would have no choice but to decide that you are completely off your rocker, likely to commit many crimes, and I should not answer your questions. But I would likely have answered them anyway, because they were fun.