Beyond the Bomb Builder at the Reference Desk – When Information Has Social Costs

A standard ethical question raised in library school classes is some variation of dilemma of the hypothetical bomb builder who comes to the reference desk asking for information. You’re the reference librarian–what do you do? David Wessel in “Better Information Isn’t Always Beneficial,” in the Wall Street Journal (free) points to more subtle cases of information ethics in which technology makes it easier and faster to obtain information that has detrimental social costs, such as finding out which judge is more likely to grant you a patent or rigging Congressional districts so that one party is guaranteed to win. Librarians tend to think that more information is always better and anything less is censorship. These examples, however, call that view into question. Discussion of the social costs of the use of information fits into standard five of the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education to “understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally.”