Monday, February 27, 2012

Most Fascinating Blog of 2012

My blog was nominated for The Most Fascinating Blog of 2012 in the category of librarian blogs.

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Remembering My Father

Memories play tricks on us. Sometimes we remember exact details and sometimes we can’t even remember what year something happened without using a clue. It’s been ten years since my father died. I have a picture of him and his father looking over me in my study. The pictures are there to remind me that they came before and they are my teachers.

This past week (Feb 21) was the anniversary of the death of the person whom my college is named after. He was a powerful speaker for the black community. He was controversial and eventually killed by his rivals. While I don’t agree with much that he preached, I do believe in following Perke Avot 4:1 “Who is wise? One who learns from all people. “ I prepared one page guides with quotes, book, and web sites.

Since I sold the idea that one should learn to commemorate a yahrtzeit to the college library, how could I do anything less for my father. It is common to learn in honor of the memory of parents and other relatives. This past Shabbat was one of song. I heard the Tel Aviv Cantorial Friday night services and they sang at dinner. I missed the luncheon. The rabbi talked about the power of song. Song can stir one’s soul more than plain words.

My father loved to sing in the choir and perform for the Yiddish Theater in St. Louis. I made a video with a recording of one of his songs to use as the background to a montage of his pictures. The last five seconds I grabbed “to life” from another song. Visit:  to see the video.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Confidential Library Research

What is proprietary in a search result and what is open information?  Under state and Federal laws, or professional codes some occupations in the religious, legal, and health sciences that regulate what their practitioners may share with a third parties. They may also be required to report certain kinds of abuse or dangers.  For example the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) sets the standards for the security and use of identifiable patient health records [1] and each state bar association sets rules for its attorneys concerning lawyer-client confidentiality. [2] Violators of confidentiality can be punished by law or censure.  [3]

One way to gain someone’s trust is to guarantee the confidentiality of the meeting.  Patients would not be able to discuss their problems without strong protections of confidentiality.  Private sessions are conducted behind closed doors where the client/patient expects confidentiality. Sessions in open areas where others may over hear the conversations do not have the same expectation of confidentiality.

The “Library Bill of Rights” of the American Library Association (ALA) (   states that libraries are provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.  In an article adopted by the ALA executive council, “Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” [4] it states, “Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association.” ALA says privacy is part of our First Amendment rights. As early as 1939, ALA has been protecting the right to privacy.

Expectation of Privacy

What expectations of privacy do library patrons have? The challenge is to determine what is private and what is freely available. Librarians and journalists are not members of any protected professions.   Most reference interviews are conducted in the open.  Anyone can overhear the questions and answers. If a patron wants confidentiality they would have to ask for it.  For example a student in a competition wanted sources on a topic and wanted to make sure that the opposing teams didn’t even know the search topic.  This person came to me because I am not connected to their home institution. The search results were only supposed to be secret for a limited amount of time.  This is a reasonable request that I had no trouble complying with.  This person knew that there would be little possibility that the competition would ever meet me.

In the normal course of giving help, librarians ask if the question is connected to an assignment and the name of the class.[5]  The same question for an upper level history class would get a different answer than for a first year English composition class assignment. Suppose someone came to me with a question about arson and making fires.  Since the school teaches criminal justice and fire science, researching and writing about arson, bomb making, and weapons could be a very legitimate academic assignment.  If someone claimed to want the knowledge for nefarious purposes, there is no clear procedure. 

If someone wanted to read about child abuse, we sometime jokingly ask if they want to study the subject or practice it.  As teachers we may be obligated to report abuse. We don’t have any obligation to reveal the names of the readers/researchers in ordinary circumstances.  In Jewish law piku-ah nefesh (saving of a life) can push aside the laws of Sabbath, holiday or other observances.  This idea of saving a life is not a defense in most American courts.  Each state has laws about the definition, reporting and punishment of child abuse.  The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA)[6] requires that states incorporate a minimum set of acts or behaviors into their legal definitions of child abuse and neglect.  The law uses the word “protection” very often, but the term “saving of life”[7] does not appear in it.

While as citizens we should want to save lives and prevent bloodshed, American law is less clear than Jewish law on the action of pushing aside one law to save a life or prevent injury.  Robert Hauptman in a 2002 article, "The Sacrifice of Confidentiality” states that while we should fight for the readers’ rights, we have an obligation “to help to prevent heinous acts” [8]

Expectation of Sharing

Sharing and collaboration are important parts of the academic experience.  No big breakthroughs in science, technology or the humanities occur in a vacuum.  Scholars need to work together.  Sometimes a librarian will field a question from one scholar and later discover another scholar searching a related topic.  It is in their best interests for the librarian to bring the researchers together.  The librarian’s job is to match people and the information they need.  Sometimes that information resides in the mind of another reader.


Librarians have to use common sense when a reader requests confidentiality.  A question asked behind a closed door has a greater expectation of privacy than openly asked question. We have to respect the needs of our readers, but we do not have the force of law or professional codes to support our actions.

[1] See the web site of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services  “Health Information Privacy “.  

[3] Picture information -– “Library Ladies: 1953”  Taken May 21, 1953. "New Canaan Public Library. New Canaan, Connecticut."  by Samuel H. Gottscho.   Link for original:

[5] Brian Smith McCallum wrote a book on the topic, Privacy and Confidentiality Issues: A Guide for Librarians and Their Lawyers Chicago: ALA, 2009.

[6] This law was reauthorized in 2010.  The original law was passed in 1974. The first Federal laws to protect children were enacted in 1912.  For an electronic copy see:  It appears as Title 42, chapter 67 of United States Code.

[7] The term “save lives” appears in US Code Title 50 - War And National Defense,   Chapter 32 - Chemical And Biological Warfare Program.  The paragraph is dealing with when chemical weapons may be used for riot control to save lives. In US Code Title 16, chapter 31 one is permitted to take the life of a marine mammal “if such taking is imminently necessary in self-defense or to save the life of a person in immediate danger…”

[8] Hauptman, Robert. “The Sacrifice of Confidentiality”  in American Libraries 33:3 page 43, March 2002

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Shoulders of Giants?

Shoulders of Giants? : Judging a Science Fair 3

Last Friday (January 27, 2012) I was a judge at a regional science fair of the Chicago Public Schools. Two of my fellow librarians were also judges and share some of the ideas presented here. The College encouraged members of the College community to participate because they see this as a chance to reach out to the community. This was the third time that I have been a judge.

Before the judging we agreed that we would ask every student that we examined what library resources they used in preparation for their experiments. A literature review is required and the evaluation rubric required APA citation style.*  Every student was required to have a paper with their hypothesis, procedure, and results. Data was supposed to be organized in tables, charts or graphs.

Children as young as one or two act like scientists. They are constantly exploring their universe and making experiments. They make observations and test what happens after actions. They don’t have to use an official methodology or write up their conclusions. For example an infant dropping a toy from a high chair is trying to discover what happens. Will the toy disappear or break? As they mature the experiments become more sophisticated or adventurous. They may try mixing ingredients. Eating and food preparation are types of experimentation. Children learn about the world around them by experience such as when they jump up they come down and the floor does not break. Science is a discovery process that seeks to understand that when an action is performed the results are the same. When the results are not as expected the process needs further examination. The formal study of chemistry, biology, physics, etc. is the learning process that understands the work and discoveries of those who came before us.

Science fairs are supposed to enable the marvelous imaginations of children to be used in a systematic procedure that leads them to critical thinking skills. Based on the evidence of the projects we saw, the teachers are not nurturing the imagination or critical thinking skills. None of the papers we read used adequate sources for their literature review. Most used vague Internet searches to find web sites. Very few even knew how to properly cite a web page. The citations were not reversible. That means we could not check the same page that the students claim to have used.

Many of the students claimed to have used the site, Science Buddies ( This site gives lots of great advice for science fair projects including ideas for projects and guides for proceeding with project on the page Science Fair Project Guide ( One subtopic covers the background research and gives guidance for searching for information and proper bibliographic citations. They even offer a pdf bibliographic worksheet ( If the students used this site they would have been able to prepare much better final papers.

When I asked one of the organizers why no one used the library databases that the Chicago Public Schools provide I got the response, “What databases? I didn’t know we had any.”

I examined the databases that the school system offers. None of the database would have helped the students with their projects. They didn’t have enough basic science information. Of the encyclopedias available, the science articles would not have helped the students. The articles were too superficial and without bibliographies. I went to the Chicago Public Library (CPL) databases to search for topics that matched the projected I judged. One project did an experiment with the preservation of food. I found an article: Kroger, Manfred. "Food Science and Technology." Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics. Ed. Carl Mitcham. Vol. 2. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, p. 775-780 that would have helped this student with the literature review. The article includes a bibliography for further reading.

In the CPL online resources is a book: Experiment Central: Understanding Scientific Principles Through Projects. / M. Rae Nelson. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: UXL, 2010 that would help with all kinds of science fair experiments. The book has 90 topics describing experiments or principles for investigation.

Since I work in a college library I didn’t have any age-appropriate books that I could examine on the science topics K-12 students would use for their science fair project. The Science Buddies web site offers help that even college students could use in writing papers. Their bibliography worksheet can be used for any kind of paper.

I really hope that science teachers encourage students to explore and do experiments. They also need to teach students about using the library resources to put their work in context. As I tell my students, “I look at your bibliography to find the shoulders of giants you stand on.” [fn 1]

*. For my opinion on style sheets see June and April 2010 entries of Kol Safran.

1. The aphorism, “standing on the shoulders of giants” was made famous by Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). It appears in the edge of the UK £2 coin. The source of the aphorism is really from R. Isaiah di Trani (circa 1200-1260) who was an Italian Jewish law expert who wrote extensive commentaries on the Talmud. Shnayer Z. Leiman discusses the concepts and ideas in “Dwarfs on the Shoulders of Giants” in Tradition (Spring 1993) 27:3 p.90-93. “Who sees further, a dwarf or a giant? …If the dwarf is placed upon the shoulders of the giant, who sees further? (see p. 92)

Some of the ideas of this phrase are based on statements in the Talmud. Such as “R. Yohanan stated: The fingernail of the earlier generations is better than the belly of later generations. (Yoma 9b) The phrase passed into Christian thought by the philosopher and theologian, Bernard of Chartres (d. 1126). The aphorism teaches us that the great people of the past are the foundation of what we can accomplish today. We know things that were created after the giants of the past. The study of the past scholar is the foundation. The bibliography is the recording of the sources of the study.