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Libraries as Information Providers

Librarians have long provided information at the reference desk, and the issue of liability for giving out incorrect information is occasionally raised.

  • As of 2008, no librarian or other information professional had been successfully sued for giving incorrect information to users.
    • Paul D. Healey, a librarian, lawyer and educator at the University of Illinois, 2008
  • When librarians offer information to the public, they have traditionally taken on a consulting role, rather than a “fiduciary” role.
    • In other words, unlike physicians, lawyers and others, librarians do not accept users’ trust and confidence, which could give rise to greater legal obligations, such as a duty of loyalty and a duty to make full and fair disclosure of all material facts. 

Undertaker’s Doctrine

Could librarians be subject to viable negligence claims, based on a legal duty of care? 

The Florida Supreme Court has found that where a person undertakes to act, the greater the degree of involvement and risk, the greater the duty that must be undertaken. This is referred to as the “undertaker’s doctrine.”

E-Government and the Changing Roles of Libraries

The American Library Association’s working definition of E-Government is the use of technology, particularly the Internet, as a means to deliver government services and to facilitate the interaction of the public with government entities.

It is time to reassess legal risks, as libraries appear to be shifting from merely providing information to actively providing service. 

  • Libraries may help users complete forms, sign up for Medicare, get help from FEMA, etc. (Jaeger & Bertot, 2009).
  • Patrons ask library staff to assist with forms and applications and to handle sensitive personal information.
    • Social security numbers, payment information, date of birth, etc.

Librarians and Library Administrators Have Liability Concerns

  • Civil and criminal concerns
  • Fear over possible lawsuits against library staff, administrators, and city/county councils

Criminal consequences associated with entering false information (unknowingly) on behalf of library patrons lead some libraries to avoid E-Government altogether.

  • A few local library administrators restrict librarians from providing assistance with E-Government forms.
  • In some cases, library administrators and managers instruct library staff members to limit E-Government help to locating forms as requested and to provide no help in interpreting or completing applications (Gibson, Bertot, McClure et al 2008).

What are the Legal Risks?

In short, if a library continues to provide information rather than advise users on what to do, the likelihood of liability is low.

It is not significantly different from the likelihood of liability for the provision of traditional library services.

imls180.for.panel.jpgMany of these resources and programs are funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Florida's LSTA program is administered by the Department of State's Division of Library and Information Services.