Assisting Customers with Digital Alteration: An Ethical Conundrum

Professional Ethics

By: guest contributor Andrew Harant, ALA Committee on Professional Ethics Chair

Imagine working at a reference desk in a public library near the public computers, and a customer asks for your help to scan a document, make some changes to the document, and then print a new version.  And then you discover that the document appears to be a doctor’s note, and the edit that the person wants to make would add a work restriction to the note. For what purposes might you imagine someone would want such an edited document?  Are any of your imagined purposes not illicit?

Recently, a colleague of mine mentioned that she and her staff have faced similar instances at their library branch. In fact, they have been experiencing a trend of customers asking for assistance with digitally reproducing and then altering various official documents, such as doctor’s notes and diplomas.

She mentioned that if a teen asked them if it was possible to rip something off of YouTube for an mp3, they could tell the kid that yes, it’s possible, but library staff would not be able to assist with anything other than providing a tour of Creative Commons, due to our ethical responsibility to respect intellectual property rights. (ALA’s Code of Ethics and Copyright: An Interpretation of the Code of Ethics)  But, in the case of altering official documents, the issue is not about intellectual property rights—the issue is that doing so may actually be unlawful. She doesn’t want her staff to feel like they are aiding and abetting a crime, but she also sees the potential for a customer to become irate and blow up at a staff member, such as, “are you calling me a crook?!?!”


From what I could tell through a cursory web search, forgery is a felony in all 50 states, though the actual laws vary from state to state, and is generally defined as the creation, alteration, forging, or imitation of any document with the intent to defraud another person. So, the simple act of altering a document in itself may not be illegal, but if the person is doing so with the intent of defrauding someone else, it seems likely that it is illegal. (This should not be taken as legal advice. For specific guidance please consult legal counsel).

The two statements within our professional Code of Ethics that seem to me to be most applicable in these particular scenarios are:

  • “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.”
  • We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness, and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.

Many libraries may already have equitable service policies in place that addresses unlawful activity from customers.  It may be part of a library’s policy covering public computer/equipment use, such as, “Library equipment may not be used to harass others or for any illegal activity.” Or a library’s behavior policy may prohibit conduct that violates local ordinances, state, and/or federal law. However, as the question of “forgery” seems to rest with the customer’s intent, how could staff possibly discover that, and how could staff safeguard themselves from potentially aiding and abetting without the customer feeling accused of anything?

I would think that a good course of action would be to set an “equitable service procedure” to help navigate these types of situations. A procedure such as, “we will assist in helping customers scan documents, but we are not able to assist with digitally altering any seemingly official document, such as documents that feature someone’s signature.”  Such a procedure could provide staff with a tool to avoid a situation that may make them uncomfortable and be possibly illegal. By setting some objective criteria and enforcing the procedure consistently, the focus would be on the document instead of the customer, so as to hopefully avoid anyone feeling accused or getting defensive.

Andrew Harant

Andrew Harant manages the North Olmsted and Olmsted Falls branches of Cuyahoga County Public Library. Andrew led Children’s and Youth Services at Lakewood Public Library (OH) for 11 years before becoming a branch manager at Cleveland Public Library in 2012, then joining CCPL in 2013. He received his MLIS from Kent State University in 2006. He currently chairs ALA’s Committee on Professional Ethics and previously chaired Ohio Library Council’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.

The Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE), a standing ALA Council committee, is charged with maintaining, revising, and augmenting the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association. The committee accomplishes this be regularly reviewing the code and by developing explanatory interpretations and additional resources such as “Conflicts of Interest Q&A,” “Ethics and Social Media Q&A,” and “Speech in the Workplace Q&A.” COPE meets at ALA conferences and develops educational programs on ethical issues for the library profession.

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