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How Librarians Should Approach Discussing Sensitive Topics Such as Roe v. Wade
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Posted On June 28, 2022
This article was originally posted on May 31, 2022. It has been updated to reflect the outcome of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

During the late 19th century, abortion became illegal in the U.S., and it was not until the 1960s, during the women’s rights movement, that court cases involving contraceptives laid the foundation for Roe v. Wade. In 1970, Hawaii became the first state to legalize abortion, and in that same year, New York also legalized it. By 1973, abortion was legally available in Alaska and Washington. On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court, ruling on the Roe v. Wade case, struck down a Texas law banning abortion and effectively legalized the procedure nationwide. In a majority opinion written by Justice Harry Blackmun, the court, in a 7-2 decision, declared that a person’s right to an abortion is implied in the right to privacy protected by the 14th Amendment.

The Roe v. Wade decision has been in jeopardy and has now been overturned. In Roe v. Wade, the court acknowledged a person’s right to have an abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. It stated that a person’s decision to have an abortion is up to the individual and that local governments cannot interfere. During the second trimester, a state can regulate abortions, but not outlaw them. When the fetus becomes viable, after the second trimester, a state can “regulate or outlaw abortions in the interest of the potential life except when necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother,” according to Cornell Law School (via The Charlotte Observer).

In the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the “trimester-based framework” was eliminated. This decision reiterated that people can have an abortion at any time before a fetus is viable and upheld Roe v. Wade. When Roe v. Wade was struck down, the legality of abortion became a decision at the state level. In the years after the Roe v. Wade decision, many states imposed restrictions that weakened abortion rights. Americans remain divided over support for a person’s right to choose to have an abortion, although according to Pew Research Center in early June 2022, a “61% majority of U.S. adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.”

LIBRARIES’ ROLE IN CALMING FEARS

The overturning of Roe v. Wade has left many alarmed and dismayed. In addition, it has caused people to be very concerned about other legal rights that could be at stake, including same-sex marriage and birth control access. The subject of abortion is not only a political matter, but also a medical, ethical, and religious one. People across the country have had to come to terms with their own beliefs about abortion and what Roe v. Wade means to people with uteruses and their future of making independent decisions. 

According to ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, two of the primary duties of librarians are to “provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues” and “challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” As ALA past-president Julius C. Jefferson Jr. wrote in 2021, despite hardships, attacks, and other outside forces, “Libraries and library workers will continue the work of responding to our patrons’ needs and restoring our communities. And library advocates will continue to tell stories that demonstrate the value of libraries.” Patrons’ needs right now may very well include learning more about abortion laws, and libraries can showcase their value by responding effectively.

My library, the Linn County Law Library in Oregon—along with many other libraries throughout the U.S.—works with constituents who have concerns about sensitive issues such as abortion, women’s rights, and homelessness. The methods used to eliminate concerns or confusion over sensitive issues may vary, but there are some best practices that can be used to deliver or discuss sensitive information with patrons. 

POLICIES FOR DISCUSSING SENSITIVE TOPICS

The library environment may challenge librarians as they engage in conversations about sensitive matters with a patron. If your library is small, you may want to have a discussion with the patron in a more private area, where the patron feels comfortable sharing information. While law librarians cannot provide legal advice, they can provide information that can help put a patron at ease, allowing them to understand some of those sensitive topics they are grappling with.

Be respectful and listen carefully to your patrons. Each person is different and has their own learning style and pace. Help your patrons understand what the library or the librarian(s) can provide to assist their patrons in addressing and understanding controversial and sensitive topics. 

While the Linn County Law Library does not have a policy about discussing controversial decisions and laws in the library, every patron’s concern is addressed respectfully. Many libraries have conference rooms, tables to sit down at, and other areas where these discussions can occur.

Each library may or may not have policies regarding how to address patron concerns and questions about sensitive and controversial topics. It would be wise to reference and update library policies, including ones on how to best address and discuss controversial decisions and laws in a library setting. Not only will you appreciate having these policies, but they will also help you develop guidelines as to how to engage in such conversations professionally in the future. 

Keeping people cognizant of information is just one job of a librarian, although finding information that is unbiased and approached neutrally is sometimes a complicated process. Librarians strive to locate data that meets the needs of the information user. It is also important that librarians remain unbiased; after all, the information they present is meant to be informative. It is the job of librarians to help eliminate some of the barriers that patrons encounter and to not act as barriers ourselves, says the University of Dayton’s Zachary Lewis in “Sensitive Research Topics: Librarians Don’t Judge; Ask for Help.”

A RIGHT TO PRIVACY

It is the responsibility of libraries to provide patrons with the right to privacy, according to ALA’s Library Bill of Rights. Article III of the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association, cited inPrivacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” specifies that “confidentiality extends to ‘information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted,’ including, but not limited to, reference questions and interviews, circulation records, digital transactions, and queries, as well as records regarding the use of library resources, services, programs, or facilities.” This not only requires that librarians keep laws and regulations up-to-date in their libraries, but that they address confidential and/or sensitive information in a professional and nonjudgmental fashion.

A part of a librarian’s job is to help educate the public in the most efficient way possible, and handling conversations around sensitive issues is one important aspect of this role.


Amber Boedigheimer is the librarian for the Linn County Law Library in Albany, Ore. It is a very small law library, serving about 600 patrons a year, and it is open to the public 4 days a week to provide legal information to patrons, including lawyers. The missions and goals of the law library are to promote accessibility, ensure fairness within the justice system, and improve patron access to legal information. The law library has a plethora of legal resources and offers patrons access to subscription databases, bar books, and other legal materials. Boedigheimer is a member of OCCLL (Oregon County Council of Law Libraries) and is looking to become a member of AALL (American Association of Law Libraries).



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