BackTalk: Tax Help at the Library

By Tony Greiner

It is the night of April 15. A woman approaches the public library reference desk and asks for a 1040EZ form, filling it out right there. A moment later, she bursts into tears, saying that she owes over $1000 and has never owed that much before. The librarian notices that she has left the space for the standard deduction blank. He says, "You forgot the standard deduction." The woman reworks the form and leaves, happy.

Another patron approaches, asking for a number of different forms. She repeatedly comes to the librarian for assistance and says that in the last year she was divorced, moved, began getting child support, and received an inheritance. Although the librarian says he can't help her, she persists. Finally, the librarian says, "If I were you, at this date, I would file for an extension and then consider getting some help." The patron says, "What is an extension?" The librarian explains, and the patron takes an extension form and leaves.

Giving minimal assistance

Many librarians would say the librarian acted not only unethically but illegally in giving this most minimal assistance. There is even a piece of urban folklore that giving incorrect advice could result in a lawsuit. While I suppose a library could be sued if an employee gave poor tax assistance, there is no evidence that has ever actually happened. For that matter, libraries have books proving that the IRS is illegal and we don't need to pay taxes at all. Where is the consistency in our willingness to face a lawsuit over these volumes, while fearing the consequences of giving minimal tax assistance?

It is also argued that it is illegal for librarians to give tax assistance. I checked out the laws of my own state, Oregon. There are rules against unlicensed people giving tax assistance, but the code also states that these rules "do not apply to.. [a]ny person employed by a local, state, or federal governmental performance of official duties." Other states may have similar language. Certainly, if state law does not offer this protection to librarians, caution should be taken-but remember, anything that is not specifically prohibited is legal.

How about ethics?

I posed the above scenarios to Charles Harmon, chair of the American Library Association Committee on Professional Ethics. He said that while the code of ethics "certainly doesn't directly prohibit this practice," he had concerns with the acts of our theoretical librarian, referring to the first principle of the code, that we provide service through "appropriate and organized resources" and that the best response would have been to refer the patrons to books on tax preparation or to a tax expert.

Referring patrons to a book or expert is what we do best and should be normal practice. But that is not always possible, especially if you are dealing with a patron who is marginally literate, or who is seeking help as a deadline approaches. Additionally, the first principle also says we should give "accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests." The implication is that if we know the answer to a simple tax question, we are obligated to provide it. This argument is supported by the Guidelines for Information Services from the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA):

1.9 Based on its client's 'known needs and interests, the library should provide information even if it has not been explicitly requested.'

1.10 When information is not immediately useful as presented in its source, the library should add value.... This process of adding value can range from simply sorting and packaging the information to reviewing and analyzing it for library clients as appropriate.

To be fair, there is language in RUSA's Guidelines for Medical, Legal and Business Responses that might support the "unethical" argument: "When asked legal...reference questions, librarians can provide information but should not interpret that information." Aside from being contradictory to the RUSA guidelines, saying, "You left that line blank," is hardly interpretation. In the case of the very complex tax return, the guidelines say, "If the patron has trouble understanding the source, an alternative source should be sought. If no appropriate sources can be located, the patron should be referred to community for interpretation of the information." Our theoretical librarian did just that.

We're not H&R Block

Members of the professional ethics committee also had concerns about librarians misrepresenting their expertise. Can't we trust a librarian to have the intelligence to notice a blank spot on a tax form? I am not advocating that librarians should give high-level tax advice, such as sheltering income in overseas banks, or interpreting the rules on business deductions. I'm simply saying that we should help people who need information to the best of our ability. If that is saying, "You forgot to fill in this line," let's do so! If patrons ask for a Schedule C, and the librarian knows that most people who file a Schedule C also need a Form SE, let her offer them one. And if patrons are in over their heads, with complex problems, let's not hesitate to tell them so. Personal service is one of the things that distinguishes us from the Internet.

Author Information
Tony Greiner ( is a Librarian in suburban Portland, OR. His Minnesota Book of Days was recently published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press

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