Ethical Librarians and the Public Good

One of my interests in this project of examining the intersections of social work and librarianship is to consider how librarians might more visibly champion the public good like social workers do. This post considers two ways that librarians tend to devalue their own work in this vein: first, highlighting libraries as institutions rather than librarians as individuals who do good work, and second, foregrounding the rights of library patrons without a concomitant awareness of the rights and responsibilities of librarians as professionals. For both of these concerns, a turn to librarians’ codes of ethics is helpful for bolstering an understanding of how librarians foster the public good.

In an earlier post on this blog, “Recentering the Public Good,” I noted learning about the American Library Association’s (ALA) Library Bill of Rights in my introduction to library and information science class. However, I do not recall reading about or discussing ALA’s Code of Ethics for librarians during my degree program nor in any other conversations with librarians, which seems par for the course as John Moorman found in a study of library directors’ knowledge of the Code of Ethics. In general, librarians don’t seem to be aware of or to think much about the code of ethics.

What social values do librarians uphold? How do codes of ethics for librarians bolster ethical practices that support the public good?

Here are links to some codes of ethics for librarians:

The first code is the general one for ALA, and the remaining codes (except the last one) are for subunits within ALA or for professional organizations of specific subtypes of librarians. Focusing particularly on the first four (U.S.-based) codes of ethics, librarians value:

  1. privacy (protecting privacy of library patrons, their personal information, and their use of resources),
  2. access (providing information resources to all), and
  3. intellectual freedom (often in terms of fighting censorship).

These values focus on individual rights, particularly of library patrons rather than on the rights and responsibilities of librarians. While these values are great, they shy away from identifying ethical practices for librarians in supporting the public good, instead championing a fairly narrow focus on individuals.

In contrast, the preamble to the ALA Code of Ethics notes:

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.

This statement is unequivocal in positioning librarians as the active professionals who make information available. This statement also emphasizes an informed citizenry, looking beyond just individual patrons to consider a collective public impacted by librarians’ work.

The last code is by the international organization IFLA, which is interesting in that it also envisions itself as a gathering of people associated with national library associations rather than as a gathering of librarians. The IFLA code, however, seems to differ from the U.S.-based codes in its second ethical proposition, “Responsibilities towards individuals and society.” This proposition is a little more explicitly geared towards the concept of supporting the public good and even of social justice. The code of ethics explains that this proposition supports librarians’ work to fight discriminatory practices in their society that impede individuals’ access to information.

In further comparison, it’s useful to consider the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers, the national professional organization for social workers (notice how the organization is focused on social workers in a way that the ALA is not fully focused on librarians). The NASW code of ethics very clearly identifies the core values of social work as a profession, underlines how social workers enact those values, and also centers on values of social justice and the dignity and worth of the person.

Although American librarians seem to have long been invested in promoting the public good, it often seems as if ALA and other professional organizations are reluctant to foreground librarians as people who support social services, instead focusing on librarianship in more abstract ways dealing with information resources. In this respect, I think it’s also useful to look at David Lankes’s The Atlas of New Librarianship, a macroscopic re-envisioning of the field in light of new and old challenges. Lankes’s vision is guided by a mission statement he crafted for librarianship: The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. Interestingly, Lankes makes librarians the active agents in this mission (rather than libraries as institutions). Also of note is the centrality of the charge to improve society.

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