Are Virtual Reference Services Colour Blind?

There are a couple passages in the first part of the article where I thought: They can’t be serious. Talking about how “it is likely that in the virtual environment subjective bias will be similar to the pre-civil rights era and that greater inequality will arise,” that over a virtual medium, reference librarians are somehow likely to announce extreme prejudices. A few lines later, the article talks about how over a virtual medium “librarians can become less self-aware and less likely to monitor their behavior and therefore more likely to react on impulses that would normally be inhibited.” So, when it comes to e-mail, librarians are no longer be able to hide how racist/xenophobic they are?

Was anyone surprised that this is exactly what happened? Somehow, once the e-mailing started, the librarians favoured certain groups. Maybe it’s just because the results were way worse, and that discrimination was more apparent than I expected, but I found the whole thing troubling. There’s a lesson in all this, I know, related to ethics. When I first started reading the article, I wasn’t convinced the lesson was necessary. It bugs me that, in the end, it was.


4 thoughts on “Are Virtual Reference Services Colour Blind?

  1. courtenaytelford

    I noticed that myself and found it to be problematic. Librarians are supposed to hold their personal interests in check. Based on equity a librarian should be professional and serve the user despite of his or her own personal beliefs. As a representative of an organization the employee should follow the regulations and guidelines that have been set out to handle things case by case. In a library this means that the librarian is obligated to provide the user with the information but has to judge if the said information will affect a third party and if it does then he or she can deny the information. Librarians like other people have basic assumptions about the user that can impact how their service is provided. It could be race or how the person is dressed but online it could be based on the person’s name that will indicate what likely ethnic group they are from.

    In INF 1310 Introduction to Reference we had an equity lecture and it discussed different scenarios where librarians were confronted with answering e-mails to students about various issues. One of them was would you help a student download an essay or provide a student with five chapters from a book because they broke their ankle and could not come to the library that day. In the first case if you helped the student download the essay would he or she use it to commit plagiarism and if you did give it to them would you inform the professor? If the professor happened to come in and commented on one of his or her students writing an extremely exceptional paper that they did not expect should you tell them about the essay considering that it was the student you helped or would you maintain the client-librarian privacy over personal information and so on.

    These are just some of the problems that librarians have to deal with a lot but it is disturbing that some librarians will refrain from helping certain groups based on their personal beliefs. I get if the information or help wanted is going to impact another party in a negative way but if it is for genuine interest or research purposes help should be given but you have to draw the line somewhere. If the librarian was in an academic library there is different standards in the type or performance of the service provided to you. For instance if you are a faculty member and requested a literature review list on a said topic it would be given to you but if you were a master’s student then they would deny you.

  2. Milo Anderson

    Hi all,

    Am I the only one who looked at the wrong syllabus and read chapter 8 of Luker?

    Anyway, I just got caught up on the virtual reference services article, and I have many problems with it. First, the writing drives me nuts. I honestly had to read it twice to feel semi-confident I understood what they were trying to convey. For example, on page 505: “When the virtual reference service policies of the participant libraries were examined, it was found that most of them limit their virtual reference services to unaffiliated users.” Do they mean “limit” in the sense that the services to those users are limited, or that services are limited to just those users, excluding others? In context it’s possible to figure out what they mean, but it’s sloppy and inconsiderate to the reader, and it makes their study harder to understand. There are many other examples but I don’t want to nit pick.

    Even more bothersome is the methodology they used for this study. Again, the writing is confusing so it’s possible I’m misunderstanding something, but it seems like at the bottom of page 504 they’re saying that they sent out the emails one name at a time, meaning week one all the Marys went out all at once, then week two all the Rosas, again all at once on the same day. Do you guys read that the same way?

    Then, on page 506, they explain that in order to keep the librarians from noticing which emails were originating from the study, they shuffled up the day of the week and the hour of the day that the emails went out. Doesn’t this destroy the validity of their data, if it is indeed the case that all the emails from a given name went out on the same day? Abut four times now I’ve thought “that can’t be right” and read back over it but that does seem to me to be what they’re saying. The “five from each type of question” at the end of that sentence throws me, though, I’m not sure what they mean by that. Wouldn’t five emails from each of the five question types be 25 questions, not 23?

    And then they themselves note on page 509 that Mary and Latoya can only be compared to each other because they both went out on weekends. After all the discussion about how they sent the emails out alphabetically by name so that current events wouldn’t affect their results, this just seems bizarre. Wouldn’t current events still affect their results, just in an unpredictable way? Wouldn’t weather and class schedules and about a hundred other things that affect the librarians mood and workload also skew their results?

    Speaking of Mary and Latoya, why did their research question ask about race and gender, but then the study ignored gender and purported to test religion instead?

    Are we to feel confident that librarians could easily identify race and religion based on the names they chose? Should we feel confident that the strength of that identification was about equal for each of them? It seems like it would have been better, if you’re going to go this route (which actually makes me a little uncomfortable because it seem like they’re maybe indulging in stereotypes a bit) to come up with a bunch of names associated with each race/religion and randomize them.

    Why was it a good idea to include two question types that they did not expect the librarians to respond to? They mentioned this again at the end of the article but I still wasn’t sure what conclusions they were trying to draw from it. Also, since it seems like one of the question types was repeated, should we know if the one that was repeated was one of the ones they didn’t expect a reply to? Did they account for that somehow?

    On page 504, what are they saying about the concerns the responding libraries raised about chat or real time services? What does it mean that they “cannot decide to participate due to the fact that they provide virtual reference as part of a collaborative effort”?

    I’m actually developing a headache from trying to make sense of this this article. I didn’t even talk about the bar graphs, which are not helping at all, but it’s late and I need to get to bed if I’m going to get up tomorrow and plow through Knight before class.

    Look forward to hearing your thoughts. I really hope I’m not off base or overreacting, this whole article just struck me as being bizarrely amateurish.

  3. Jordan Post author

    To be completely honest, I’m so unfamiliar with the methods that go into a study like this, that I just blindly accept them as the way it must be. But yeah, Milo, you’re right. It’s such bizarre article, especially the lack of focus on gender, which, in a study so self-consciously focused on the treatment of different groups, should be addressed. And yet, it was included, with four women and two men, all different backgrounds indicated by their names, but never addressed. They talk about gender a little bit when they explain the methodology, just to explain which name corresponds with each group, but as far as I can remember, that’s the only instance in which it pops up.
    It wouldn’t seem like such a conspicuous hole if the study wasn’t about the effect of membership to social groups on service received. Would Ahmed have received different service if he was Lubna, or Rhada? It’s completely weird that they did it for two of the names out of the six.

  4. Brett Phillipson

    I agree that there were some serious methodological issues with the article, but I think the main point still stands: librarians (and others working in virtual reference services) are not immune from prejudice and racism, and clearly they allow that to affect the way they treat patrons.

    I have to say, though, that personally the findings of the study didn’t surprise me at all. They reminded me of work that has been done about racism and sexism on the internet more generally – and, sadly, of my own experiences online. Back when the internet was first entering the mainstream, a lot was said (sorry, I have no sources for this, which I acknowledge makes the whole thing problematic but bear with me) about how racism/sexism/ableism/etc. would be essentially eradicated since gender/race/disability wouldn’t be visible or relevant through a computer screen. Of course, the last couple of decades have shown that if anything, the exact opposite happened: because we see whiteness and maleness (and heterosexuality, and “able-bodiedness”, etc.) as normative and everything else as “other”, everyone was assumed to be a straight, white, able-bodied etc. man – and when people corrected that assumption, they often experienced worse harassment and discrimination than they did in the real world. Moreover, when people make it clear (through usernames or outright statements) that they are not straight, white, able-bodied men, they are often accused of drawing unnecessary attention to their gender/race/etc., and therefore told that they deserve whatever harassment they receive.

    Knowing all that, I can’t say I’m surprised that a (less severe but still troubling) version of that exists among librarians as well. The way I see it, these forms of oppression are far too deeply entrenched in our society for them to be eliminated – or even mitigated – by the internet and its (false) claim to “colour-blindness”.


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