Presentation of Competency A

Competency A: articulate the ethics, values, and foundational principles of library and information professionals and their role in the promotion of intellectual freedom.

Introduction

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” – John F. Kennedy

One can judge the health of a society by whether people are free to seek out information, especially information of an unpopular nature, or not. There will always be people agitating to ban books of a certain qualities. However, dissent is a natural part of a healthy society and their opinions should be heard. The most important part about these would-be censors is that they should not succeed in their efforts, as it denies others their right to make judgments for themselves.

Foundational principles and censorship

Libraries and information professionals often find themselves caught in the middle of fights between competing ideologies. That’s what makes statements such as the Library Bill of Rights and the Code of Ethics so important. These written and ratified values and ethics surrounding the freedom of information gives librarians certain comfort knowing that they have the support of their peers when they take a stand against censorship.

It’s important to know that not all censorship is purposeful or based on ideological beliefs. Some censorship comes about accidentally when certain groups of people are denied access to information due to lack of foresight or market research. Examples of accidental censorship include inaccessible resources for people with disabilities, little-to-no materials in non-English languages for immigrants, or even bad attitudes on part of library staff when serving the poor and disadvantaged.

The varieties of censorship are not the only issues libraries face, but it is obviously a major issue since all of the statements in the Library Bill of Rights and over half of the Code of Ethics are concerned with the free access of information.

Ethical issues

Two other topics covered in the Code of Ethics merit some discussion here. First is the patron’s right to privacy, which explains why librarians, myself included, vehemently opposed the Patriot Act. This law required that libraries turn over, upon request, any information they may have relating to the information the subject in question was seeking.  There are some proponents who described the opposition as “hysterical” librarians who promote secretive anarchy. However, we librarians were well to oppose the act, as it only served to discourage people from seeking out information for fear of being profiled as a terrorist. By discouraging people from seeking information, the Patriot Act served the role of the censor. That makes for one additional Code of Ethics statement that takes a stand against censorship.

The other issue concerns copyright laws. As the Code of Ethics describes it, it is indeed a balance between the rights of the creators or copyright holders, and the needs of the consumers. On one hand, it is objectively better for information to be as freely available as possible. On the other hand, the copyright holders have the temporary (but often long-lasting) rights to the financial benefits of their works. To distribute their works in such a way that goes beyond what is allowed by copyright law would impact the consumers’ purchasing habits. If people were allowed to copy a DVD that they borrowed from the library, they would probably not purchase an official copy.  While librarians should not play the role of the copyright police, they should make a good faith effort to help others abide by copyright laws.

Competency Development

I have discovered over the years just how many ethical decisions are involved in library service. I’ve worked or volunteered in a number of libraries for 10 years altogether, and have faced ethical questions from my mom, from patrons, and about library policies and collection development.

The first questions about ethics arose when I was volunteering at a library in high school. What do we do when a patron needs help finding something that is morally objectionable? My mom asked this question of me, implying that if I helped a person find an objectionable book, then I would be morally culpable. I answered that what a person does with the book is their responsibility, whereas my responsibility as an information-provider, is to ensure that all people have access to information. Otherwise, how can one define what constitutes objectionable material?  How can one make judgment calls when it could be based on erroneous assumptions? It is better to let the patron decide what is objectionable. Library professionals should always encourage the freedom of information by always allowing access to information.

Library accessibility is another key issue I frequently run into. In the previous section, I briefly touched upon the issue of “accidental censorship,” which occurs when materials are inaccessible to those with disabilities, the poor, and immigrants whose primary language is not English. I am most interested in access for those with disabilities since it affects me personally; I am profoundly deaf and greatly benefit from captioned materials and understanding library staff and coworkers. While I have focused on services for the deaf and people with other disabilities, I am concerned about how libraries can ensure access and good customer service for the homeless and immigrants. I have experienced difficulties with accessibility and employee attitudes on a small scale, and I want to make sure others don’t have to go through the same experience.

Other ethical issues arose from copyright laws in a variety of ways. I observed people whom I suspect were padding their iTunes library by illegally ripping music from CDs they checked out from the library. Other issues stemmed from the library screening movies. I found out they had to ask permission in order to show a movie. Because I wanted to better understand copyright laws, the library exception, and what constituted fair use, I opted to take a copyright seminar. It was very informative, giving me a basic understanding that then allowed me to feel more empowered to make decisions about what is legal under the library exception, whether something constitutes fair use, and how to find and use Copyright Commons-licensed material.

Evidences

While all of my coursework and professional experience involves decision-making according to library values and ethics, I chose to highlight a few projects to illustrate the wide range of ethical considerations that information professionals must face.

The most common ethical questions arise from reference services. For example, should one assist a patron who is interested in building a bomb? This question was addressed in a portion of an untitled reflective essay, in which I explain that it depends on the situation.

Another reflective essay,  “Librarians: Bringing Order to Anarchy,” discusses at greater length about enabling access to information. Librarians need to help people  learn how to use technology resources in their search for information.

In the same vein, I examined how copyright laws, particularly the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) conflict, leaving libraries stuck in the middle. There is a small exception for making materials accessible to the blind, but no provision for making media accessible to those with hearing loss. In this paper, I argued that the laws need to be clarified and amended in order to allow better access for people with disabilities.

Concluding remarks

Libraries and information professionals often find themselves caught in the middle of clashes between competing ideologies, laws, and values. Guidelines, such as the Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights, provide librarians with the needed support of their peers when they make other ethical decisions or work to ensure that all have equal access to information.

Attachments

Reflection on reference services ethics

Librarians: Bringing Order to Anarchy

DMCA, ADA, and library media access for the deaf

References

American Library Association. (2006). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics

American Library Association. (2006). Library Bill of Rights. Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/

Kennedy, J. (1962). Remarks on the 20th Anniversary of the Voice of America. Retrieved from: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9075

Last edited: August 30, 2012