Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Values, Rights, and Ethics in Librarianship

The values, ethics, and rights in the field of librarianship are an intersecting web of ideas designed to guide librarians and information professionals in their duties.  In fact, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Code of Ethics and the ALA Bill of Rights form the foundation for ethical conduct (Rubin, 2010, p. 427).   

For example, all three systems advance the idea that censorship is detrimental.  Gorman’s revision of Ranganathan’s Laws provides for the protection of access to truth (Rubin, pp. 409-410).  Articles III and IV of the ALA Bill of Rights specifically state that censorship should be challenged (ALA, 1996).  Finally, Provision II of the Code of Ethics requires that “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources” (ALA, 2008). 

Another area of overlap deals with the issue of privacy.  The ALA Core Values of Librarianship (2004) states that “Protecting user privacy and confidentiality is necessary for intellectual freedom and fundamental to the ethics and practice of librarianship” (ALA, 2004).  The third provision in the Code  similarly states that “We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted” (ALA, 2008). 

While these and the other tenets that make up the ethical foundation of librarianship are general guidelines, a few of the issues listed above are easy to identify and defend.  For example, we should all agree that the overriding principles are freedom of access and intellectual freedom (Rubin, 2010, p. 427).  However, the more difficult ethical issues are the ones that may come up daily. 

The first issue is the Fifth Value:

“The public good – libraries make a positive contribution to society by promoting literacy, providing information, preserving the cultural record, etc.  This requires us to reach out to all, regardless of age, economic status, cultural background, etc.”  The problem posed is simple and one that can arise everyday:  “[D]o we provide the same level of service to someone who asks for help with a homework assignment as we do someone who asks for help using Facebook?” 

The first instinct would be to choose the patron requesting homework help over the patron asking for help with homework.  However, given no other information that would elevate one choice over the other (i.e., the Facebook page is for a group of illiterate orphans or that the homework is worth half the grade), such a choice is difficult because we don’t have the ability to fall back on the “righteousness” of intellectual freedom. 

While intellectual freedom is the cornerstone, I would submit that the polestar of librarianship should be the value of service.  According to Rubin, librarianship is more than meeting an information need (p. 405).  According to Butler (1951) as cited in Rubin (2010), “[t]he librarian undertakes to supply literature on any and every subject to any and every citizen, for any and every purpose” (p. 406).  Thus, according our value of service, there can be no distinction between helping a patron with homework or with Facebook.

I feel comfortable with this and with the foundations of our ethical behavior.  We should look at all ethical issues wearing our “service-orientated eyeglasses”. In that it is the one value that permeates all of the others.  In fact, I appreciate the fact that most of the provisions in the Bill of Rights and the Code of Ethics are positive statements (i.e., “We shall”) as opposed to negative statements on conduct (i.e., “We shall not”). 


American Library Association. (1996). Library Bill of Rights, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/ intfreedom/librarybill, accessed on November 7, 2012.

American Library Association. (2004). Core values of librarianship, http://www.ala.org/offices/oif/statementspols/corevaluesstatement/corevalues, accessed on November 17, 2012.

American Library Association. (2008). Code of ethics of the American Library Association, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics, accessed on November 17, 2012. 

Butler, P. (1951). Librarianship as a profession.  In Richard E. Rubin, Foundations of Library and Information Science (3rd Ed., p. 406). New York: Neal-Schuman. 

Rubin, R. E. (2010). Foundations of Library and Information Science (3rd ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman.

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