Here’s BLL Season 2, Episode 2, In which I introduce my 3-part (though actually it’ll probably be 4 parts) series on the ALA Code of Ethics. What is the code? What are its implications in our daily lives as leaders? Just how blatant of a smart aleck will I be during my dramatic reading of the code?


American Library Association Code of Ethics

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Episode Transcript:

Hey Everyone, welcome back to better library leaders, and part one of what will probably be a three part series discussing the American Library Association code of ethics. Part 1 is going to talk about why librarians see ethics as an important part of their professional status, the origins of the code, and how it has evolved over the years. In part two, I’m going to go through the tenets of the ALA code of ethics, consider their implications for practice, and point out ways where those high-minded library ideals may not always match the reality of what happens in our institutions. And then, we’ll wrap up with my thoughts about the code of ethics, their strengths and weaknesses as a set of professional values, and what parts of the code spoke to me the most as either encouragement or rebuke in our current moment.

I’d like to start by taking the wayback machine to 2004 and the first semester of my MLIS program—almost 13 years ago exactly now that I think of it. I was sitting in class at OU-Tulsa after a long day of processing food stamp applications, listening to the professor of my introduction to Librarianship class, the late great Dr. Danny Wallace. The theme of that week’s lecture was Librarianship as a “Profession”, and the aspects of our field that made it professional.

I’m kind of an introspective person, as you may have noticed if you’re been listening for the past year, but I can honestly say I’d never really thought of what made a profession a profession. My first job out of college, a brief stint at a soon-to-be-bankrupt telecom company in the late 90s, was supposed to be my “career”, at least until I had enough of the corporate world and went to law school or something. After I was laid off from that job shortly before the firm went belly up in the Post-9/11 dotcom crash, I got a gig with the local department of human services, working off my karma and processing clients’ benefits applications. The pay was pretty bad compared to what I’d been used to, but I loved being in a job where I was actually making the world a better place, albeit one where I was no longer as challenged intellectually as I had been back in the days of my corporate career. I had been searching for a new path, and an MLIS seemed the best way to put my nerdy tendencies to work for the good of humankind. But I just assumed the degree is what made librarianship a profession—it was just the bureaucratic box I had to tick off before I went to work at a nice quiet university library, where I wouldn’t arrive to 15 voice mails every morning from panicked clients needing their benefits processed. But according to Dr. Wallace, there was more to it—and a big part of professionalism was related to ethics.

According to Dr. Wallace, as he addressed a seminar room full of eager, slightly naïve career changers, in addition to things like certifications and standards of practice, all “real” professions operated under a code of ethics. Because librarians followed (or strived to follow) those ethical codes, we had a road map in sticky situations, and protection to fall back on when our values were under threat. This was fall 2004, at the peak of the Iraq war, and most of our discussion in that night’s seminar centered on the issues raised by the patriot act, as well as more perennial issues like censorship challenges to popular childrens’ book series. I don’t remember the exact details of what went down in that conversation, but I think it was all very high minded and progressive, with lots of discussion about fighting for our patrons’ rights to privacy and free access to information, and I went home filled with a warm glow about the righteousness of our cause as emerging information professionals that would see me through the next two years of study. Our ethics were clear, and simple, and universally accepted by everyone except for maybe a few paranoid government officials trying to score political points. Our cause was righteous. Just as we had in previous eras of censorship, we would all fight together for our cause of justice and would prevail. And one day I would be a library director, working with likeminded professionals, leading the charge toward freedom of information!

Oh, Sarah, you sweet, sweet summer child.

Sorry, back to Ethics. Even though I’m pretty sure I wrote some reaction papers and other assignments about the ALA code of ethics, and assumed at the time that they were pinned up on the staff bulletin board of every library in the land and that I would have them memorized as a personal set of core values, I discovered last week to my chagrin that I couldn’t even remember one of them. I’m going to assume I’m not alone on this front. For the benefit of my fellow library leaders who took their intro to librarianship course in another presidential administration. I’m going to read chapter and verse from the ALA website. And before I start, here’s an interesting tidbit: The code of ethics only dated back to 1939, a full 63 years after Melvil Dewey co-founded the ALA in 1876. After its passage in 1939, the code was amended June 30, 1981; June 28, 1995; and January 22, 2008. Here’s the 2008 version of the Code in full, including pauses for the listener to nod, groan, giggle, eyeroll, or squirm uncomfortably as needed:

As members of the American Library Association, we recognize the importance of codifying and making known to the profession and to the general public the ethical principles that guide the work of librarians, other professionals providing information services, library trustees and library staffs.

Ethical dilemmas occur when values are in conflict. The American Library Association Code of Ethics states the values to which we are committed, and embodies the ethical responsibilities of the profession in this changing information environment. We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information.

In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.

The principles of this Code are expressed in broad statements to guide ethical decision making. These statements provide a framework; they cannot and do not dictate conduct to cover particular situations.

  1. 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.

  2. We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.

  3. 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.

  4. We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.

  5. 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.

  6. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.

  7. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

  8. We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of coworkers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.

This was my first reading of this document in ages—in fact I’m not totally sure I ever read the 2008 code before preparing for this episode. And after a decade as a librarian, almost every sentence caused me to raise an eyebrow. What does it mean to be unbiased when you’re responding to a request when you and the person you’re helping may be operating from a different set of facts? Which is less courteous or equitable—to write a policy banning hate groups from using a meeting room, or to allow them to walk into your space next to members of groups that they consider less than human? Do we respect the intellectual property rights of closed access journal publishers, who ask authors to sign away rights to their research before selling it back to scholars at an exorbitant sum? What is our responsibility to patrons to explain what social media companies do with their private information, and how should we feel about targeting library ads based on google search histories? How does the requirement to advocate for fair conditions of employment square with hiring a MLIS holder for a paraprofessional position to save some money? And those were just my immediate thoughts. I’m sure you have more, and I’d love to read them in this episode’s thread in the Better Library Leaders community.

Next time, We’re going to dive into those questions and more. I’m going to talk you through each of the 8 sections of the code of ethics, tell a few stories about how librarians have and haven’t lived up to the code, and pose some questions for us to ponder over on facebook. Leadership requires a balancing act between core values and keeping your library relevant as times change. It’s too easy to swing to one extreme or the other without considering the reality beyond one’s principles. It’s also all too seductive to advocate a respect for tradition or neutrality that actually makes us less likely to uphold our values—or to take a letter of the law approach to the code that actually perpetuates deeper problems in our profession. To be clear, I’m not going to leave you with some handy rules of thumb you can use to be the perfectly ethical library leader. You have to make those decisions yourself, and consider how you will sleep with them at night. That’s why they pay us the big bucks. But it’s easier to fall asleep in those times if you hold solidly to your purpose as a leader. Because when librarians lead with purpose, we can never become obsolete.

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