ITC v. LAPL Librarians: Is the tail wagging the dog?

To what extent are the traditional responsibilities of the professional librarian being swallowed up by the new technology?

This question comes up due to the policy at LAPL whereby librarians are prohibited by ITC from downloading any programs to the reference desk computers – including reference tools like Google toolbar which reference librarians use to fill patron inquiries.

The following are some of the issues involved – as stated in grievance (and grievance appeal) papers that brought (and denied) regarding this issue:

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At LAPL, ITC computer staff – instead of librarians – decide what tools professional librarians should use in performing their public service mission

LAPL Information System Standards (ISS) conflicts with our public service mission. ISS states under “2.0 Usage Guideline” the following:

“Staff must not install or attach hardware or software on the Library Department’s network or equipment without ITC Division approval.”.

The purpose of ITC is only to support the professional librarians. However, here, technology has become the master rather than the servant of the professional librarians. ITC staff who are not even librarians, dictate what tools librarians can – or cannot – use in performing their public service mission. This is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. ITC has usurped professional responsibilities of librarians.

And this situation also constitutes a form of censorship, something which the profession of librarianship has traditionally been vehemently opposed to (see, for example, American Library Association, Office for Intellectual Freedom). Software is a form of literature. Code is a natural language. Banning particular software from reference desk use is analogous to banning particular reference books from reference desk use.

. . . I spoke with ******, who heads ITC. He said that computers must be standardized because librarians inadvertently download malware when they download free programs to use on reference desk computers. Then ITC must spend time to come out and get rid of the malware. He suggested that librarians should use their own laptops which can have any configuration they want. However, it’s my understanding that (some other) policy prohibits use of personal equipment, including laptops (and USB drives). The conflict in policies is confusing and requires clarification.
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The failure of LAPL to provide a necessary exception to the ITC policy (viz, for professional librarians using reference desk computers) denigrates the professionalism of all LAPL Librarians.

The reference desk computer is a major tool – if not the chief tool – used by LAPL Librarians to provide professional library service to the public. It is used hour after hour, day after day, as the librarian’s chief reference tool. Yet LAPL deems its librarians too lacking in judgment and discretion to decide what software may or may not be installed on these machines to make them the most effective tools for public service. LAPL Librarians are dependent on downtown computer people (non-librarians) to tell them what software tools they may or may not use on the reference desk computers. Therefore LAPL Librarians are not considered by LAPL to be truly “professional” employees who consistently exercise discretion and judgment in serving the public at their local branches.

The US Labor Code 29 USC sec. 152, para 12, defines a “professional employee” as follows:

(12) The term “professional employee” means – (a) any employee engaged in work (i) predominantly intellectual and varied in character as opposed to routine mental, manual, mechanical, or physical work; (ii) involving the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment in its performance; (iii) of such a character that the output produced or the result accomplished cannot be standardized in relation to a given period of time; (iv) requiring knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study in an institution of higher learning or a hospital, as distinguished from a general academic education or from an apprenticeship or from training in the performance of routine mental, manual, or physical processes . . . (emphasis added).

LAPL librarians should not have to go through a convoluted process to obtain approval from non-librarians in order to use the tools they need to accomplish the best possible professional service to the public. Who is serving whom in regard to the reference desk computers?

Granted that in regard to public computers ITC should have the last word. But the reference desk computers are the librarians’ chief tools to serve the public. The burden should be on ITC to show that a particular program may be susceptible to malware intrusion and for them to request that it be removed if necessary. ITC’s concerns are out of balance. The risk of malware inadvertently getting on the reference desk computer, and harming it, is greatly outweighed by the benefit to the public when librarians have the flexibility to install the tools they need to do their job.

The proof of this is the fact that at most LAPL branches the ITC policy is completely ignored at reference desk computers. Obviously LAPL librarians place service to the public above rigid adherence to the policy.

The reply suggests that there is a librarian downtown who is part of ITC. However, the fact that a librarian – no matter how well intentioned or knowledgeable – signs off on software decisions made by computer people is beside the point. The professional librarian should be considered to have the judgment to decide what tools to use to help the individual patron at that particular branch’s reference desk. Being restricted to using only tools deemed appropriate by someone in a downtown office is an encroachment on the librarian’s professionalism.

Another point of confusion is the apparent conflict of policies. As stated in the grievance, [the head of ITC] told me in our phone conversation that I should use my own personal laptop computer. This conflicts with instructions from [regional manager] (many months ago) that staff is not allowed to use personal computing equipment on the job. So what’s the applicable rule?

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