Librarianship is a profession, and as such, it has a code
of professional ethics.
There are different definitions of the word
One way to define it is to list the traits common to
law, medicine, the church, and other occupations we traditionally think of as
professional. (Professions rely on advanced education; they command respect and
high salaries; they have codes of ethics.)
Another definition holds that a
profession -- like a guild, or a union -- is a way of organizing work. When workers are
organized in a profession, there is an assumption that the workers themselves
are responsible for defining their tasks, accrediting their professional
colleagues, guaranteeing the quality of their work, and so forth. By this
definition, a "profession" is a way of organizing work that gives its
practitioners high levels of both autonomy and responsibility. A code of
professional ethics is a guide to autonomous practitioners, helping maintain
high standards of service.
Barnes (1990), describes some of the considerations that go
into making a code of professional ethics:
What type of code will it be? Some codes specify
imperatives, while others list desiderata
-- ideals to be aimed at, rather than imperatives that must be
How will it be used? Some codes are offered as definitive,
intended to resolve all issues; others are intended as advisory,
to be treated as you would treat a trusted staff member you can bounce ideas
off as you ponder the pros and cons of an action. (Can a definitive code be
truly ethical? Or does it impinge on the individual's autonomy in a way that
is unethical by definition?)
How specific will it be? Some codes give a few general
principles, while others try to cover every
application or contingency. General principles can get you in
trouble ("Be fair" may not be a helpful principle if you find that
being fair to A involves unfairness to B), but so can excessive detail (how
many ethical tenets can you remember in an emergency?).
Who will be the code's audience? Some codes are
directed at members of the profession,
while others are directed at the public.
The first kind may emphasize the members' responsibility toward the public
or their responsibility toward the profession itself, or may compromise,
emphasizing actions which both promote the status of the profession and
serve the interests of society. The second kind will tend to emphasize
professional responsibility toward the public, and promote general knowledge
of what can be expected from members of the profession.
Explore some codes
of ethics online. How does each of them handle the four questions
(For a longer list of questions and considerations, see Chris MacDonald's
"How to Write a Code of Ethics," http://www.ethicsweb.ca/codes/.)
Code of Ethics
Barnes published his article in
the Bulletin of the at
a time when ASIS (now the
American Society for Information Science and Technology) was hammering out the ASIST
Professional Guidelines, adopted in 1992. Ethics were in the air. Finks
(1991) called for a new code
of ethics for ALA; he quoted extensively from an unpublished 1976
Case Western Reserve dissertation by Johan Bekker, of South Africa, who called
ALA's 1975 code "one of the worst . . . in existence." According to
Bekker, a code of occupational ethics "should be directed externally, and
not internally; it should exist for the benefit of society and not for the sake
of self-interest; and ethics related to clients must transcend institutional . .
. loyalties" (Finks, 1991).
A revised ALA
Professional Code of Ethics was adopted in 1997 and amended in 2008. Study it, and compare it
to Bekker's "Some Guidelines of Occupational Conduct
for Librarians." How do the two differ, in spirit and detail? Apply
each of them to at least one of the following scenarios:
1) The mother of a teenager storms into the public library director's office, furious
because her daughter has been allowed to borrow a book on reproductive health
and birth control. The
staff member on the scene added insult to injury by saying that it was the
parent's responsibility to police her child's information consumption:
"Librarians are responsible for helping people access information, not
for babysitting," he said. The mother sees this as a gross failure to
uphold a public trust. What should the library director say or do?
2) The university budget has been slashed yet again, and all units, including
the library, are urged to generate cash flow. Services should "sit on
their own bottoms" whenever possible. The head of technical services goes
to the head librarian with an idea: could the library's web site and online
catalog be partially funded by advertising? If such an arrangement is
feasible, what are the ethical pros and cons? (Adapted from Sullivan,
3) A vibrant young librarian has a stroke. She struggles heroically to regain
speech and mobility, and her colleagues welcome her back to the busy reference
department with joyful relief. But by the end of the first week, it becomes
obvious that her short-term memory has been tragically impaired, and she is no
longer capable of giving ready reference service. What should be done?
Which code of ethics do you find more helpful in each case? Why?
Finks (1991) approves the
disciplinary aspect of Bekker's ethics. "A viable code of ethics,"
he writes, "establishes discipline within the occupational group. It
discourages and prohibits behavior that will bring the group into disrepute.
It . . . [discourages] inferior practices." Should the ALA Code of Ethics
be more rigorous in encouraging a high quality of service? How?
Bekker calls for librarians to "to optimize the value
of recorded information for humankind." The preamble to ALA's Code of
Ethics states that our profession is "explicitly committed to intellectual
freedom and the freedom of access to information," and that we "have a
special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present
and future generations." Our professional ethics are founded on
ALA's Congress on Professional Education (COPE) has
recently been debating the core values of our profession; see the facilitator's
guide to "WHO
America's Librarians Discuss Their Professional Values," prepared by
Maureen Sullivan, for details.
Are core values the same for
all specialties within the field of library and information services?
Librarians in publicly supported schools, universities, and public libraries
tend to see information as a public good -- something that should be free to
all. But what about librarians who work for corporations, where information is
a commodity and proprietary knowledge is essential to the bottom line? What
about librarians who work for the Defense Department, or other agencies where
the free flow of information could have dangerous consequences? What about
archivists, who may be able to obtain valuable papers only on the condition
that they not be released to the public for years after the donor's death?
Should one code of ethics cover us all?
The Special Libraries
Association "does not have its own
Code of Ethics. The Association adheres to all good practices of information
delivery. In general members have felt that their organizational environments
have set the work ethics by which they are guided rather than a professional
organization. Some examples of codes prepared by professional organizations
are ALA Code of Ethics;
ALA Library Bill of Rights;
AIIP Code of Ethical Business
Professional Guidelines; and SCIP
Code of Ethics for CI Professionals."
One major assumption of the ALA
Code of Ethics and the Library
Bill of Rights is that librarians should support the free flow of
information. This commitment may place the ethical librarian in conflict with
Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires that school and public libraries
must filter public Internet access to be eligible for federal funding. In
2003, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of CIPA. (See the ALA's
The 2001 USA
PATRIOT Act, enacted soon after 9/11 and reauthorized in 2006, expanded the government's surveillance powers and limits the
privacy of library users. In 2007, the Protect
America Act further modernized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance
Act. (For background, see the ALA's position statements
on the USA
PATRIOT Act, and guidelines for libraries and staff coping
with confidentiality issues and law enforcement inquiries.)
What should librarians do when
professional ethics conflict with the law of the land?
1) A man in Middle Eastern dress is using a public access computer in the
library. A staff member reports that he seems to be viewing anti-American
material. Considering both the ALA Professional Code of Ethics and the
provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, what action should the library director
take? ( ALA Committee on Professional Ethics,http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics.)
2) The Supreme Court has upheld as constitutional the wording of CIPA. Head
Librarian France Anatolia still believes that filtering public access
terminals may expose the Rye Public Library to first amendment lawsuits. (See Jaeger
and McClure, 2004). She proposes to the RPL library board that instead of
filtering the Internet, they should decline federal funds, including LSTA
grants and e-rates for Internet use. Nationally, federal support accounts for
only about one percent of public library income, and Anatolia estimates that
the figure is even less for the RPL. Could the RPL forego the money and
maintain its principles? Board chair Chris Wright objects that the RPL belongs
to a state-wide consortium, funded by an LSTA grant, which provides members
with rapid interlibrary loan and access to major research databases. Refusal
to comply with CIPA would force them to withdraw from the consortium, and
would probably limit community access to information more severely than the
filter. What should Anatolia do?
The ALA Professional Code of Ethics and Library Bill of Rights have brought
practicing librarians into conflict, not only with the law, but also with their
own personal beliefs.
Should librarians always support the free flow of information? In a 2000 Library Quarterly article, Frické, Mathiesen, and
Fallis examined the assumption in the light of utilitarianism, natural rights
theory, and social contract theory. They argued that "the right to access to
information is not unlimited," but limitation "including
censorship" could be appropriate "when such a limitation is necessary
to protect a more fundamental right." Doyle (2002) critiqued their
arguments, especially their "defense of paternalism in libraries, which
would commit them to Internet filtering."