Should Librarians Respect Research Secrecy?
My son asked me for research help on an historical topic. I was more than glad to help him, but he requested secrecy. He did not want anyone outside of his team to know they were even studying these historical questions because this was for a competitive conference. This question had not been debated in competition before. His question had four parts. Since it was a topic that I was very familiar with, I told him that three parts of his question were debated in and out of the government at the time. One part had to be dismissed because the issue had no valid arguments based on the historical facts.
I have taken graduate level courses in this historical era; while not an expert I have done a significant amount of research in the subject. I have more than 100 books on the topic in my library. I examined the catalog and out of more than 1000 books I found I selected 10 that were most appropriate for these questions. I also found journal and year book articles.
I am really amazed at how much research they need to study to prepare their subject. This easily covers more reading and analysis than a semester college course. I assured him that I would respect his right of secrecy. There is no similar team at my college, I doubt anyone would research this question at the level of sophistication that his team requires, and I have no contact with his rival universities.
What do I really need to keep secret? He said the conference is on March 5 and so after he makes his research public, I will be able to share the questions. If a young girl came to the library, asked about birth control books, and said that she didn’t want her parents to know, I would not be able to tell her parents or anyone else what books she requested or is reading. If a young student asked for help with a report on Illinois government, and later the parents asked, “Did my children talk to you about her report? Did she get any books on the topic?” I would have no problem sharing my advice.
There are times when the librarian should help two researchers connect in their research. Sometimes a scholar may ask for help finding someone who is an expert in the area of investigation. Sometimes teachers give such narrow assignments that many students want the same materials. In those cases the research is not secret because all the students know the assignment. In some of the classes I taught students were encouraged to share what they learned.
When a library user asks for help on a sensitive subject, librarians need to keep this interaction private. When a library user requests that his whole area of study a secret, especially when the limits of secrecy are reasonable, we should respect the request. "Secrecy" and "privacy" are not synonymous. "Secrecy" is a request of the researcher or a legal requirement of the institution or government. "Privacy" is an issue of ethics or sensitivity to the people involved. However, when the topic is not sensitive or privacy is not requested, we may share if there is a good reason.
The knowledge that I learn from answering one question is frequently used for other reference questions. I would have no problem recommending the same books and articles to more than one person.