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First, Do No Harm

Full disclosure: I’m a friend of Jackie Griffin (don’t hold that against her…). I say that because I’ve been reluctant to post about the RFID kerfuffle at Berkeley Public Library, where Jackie is director, not because I was holding back on anything, but because I felt that even with full transparency, our friendship could compromise my argument.

However, I was pleased to see Jackie address a recent post on the RFID in Libraries blog that repeated “facts” about RFID and workers’ compensation reported in the Berkeley Daily Planet. Jackie presents her take on the data associated with workers’ compensation claims analyzed by Peter Warfield and EFF lawyer Lee Tien.

Presenting more than one point of view is what the Daily Planet should have done in the first place, but the problem was compounded by Laura Smart repeating the Daily Planet “article,” as they call it, not only as if it were gospel, but as if, to use one of her words, this article “debunked” information provided by Berkeley Public Library.

I don’t have a position on Berkeley Public Library’s RFID activities. I have written about RFID in the past, and noted that it is a complicated issue; Jackie and I even debated RFID in a friendly manner in an interview in American Libraries. But I do have a position about responsible citizen journalism. We as librarians have to be particularly careful with information as we report it, and always assiduously apply the analytical skills that are part of our heritage. We of all professionals know all too well the importance of “considering the source.” Who are the authors, what is the real data, and how is this information presented? What intellectual metadata do we wrap around this item?

The article in the Daily Planet is really just an editorial, written by EFF lawyer Lee Tien and citizen-activist Peter Warfield, who has been untiring in his zeal to expose the ills of librarianship as he sees them. Last year Warfield called me on my personal phone number (a number which has since changed) to try to enlist me in this latest campaign. I have seen Warfield at many library board meetings in the Bay Area; he is a regular. I also know Lee Tien from other, far more illustrious campaigns on behalf of free speech, and I continue to be surprised and concerned that he has latched on to Warfield.

The facts could be debated endlessly, but it boils down to this: if you decide to use your blog to report “facts,” take as much care with this information as if you were handing it to a patron whose very life depended on it. When you write on a blog (or in the Los Angeles Times), you reflect all of librarianship, whether you mean to or not. It’s good for Laura Smart to issue a mea culpa, but I would ask her as well to think carefully about her postings in the future. I know Laura, she’s a good person; I suspect the urge to “break a story” overwhelmed the instinct to think about the quality of what she was reading.

With that, I have to get on a plane.

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