The ALA Code is Not Enough: Thoughts and Case Studies on Librarian Ethics

18 Feb

Sarah Houghton-Jan, the illustrious Librarian in Black brought up the issue of ethics in libraries reminding us to post the ALA Code of Ethics on our office walls. She also points to a post by BlogJunction highlighting two other studies

Ethics are extremely important, but I am here to say that a statement of a code is not enough. Statements of Codes were a fad in the 90s when accountability in governments became a serious issue. People wanted quantitative measures and performance standards, where they may have been seeing patronage appointments and bureaucratic privilege. Many such codes exist in wide areas. For example, the Values and Ethics Code for the Canadian Federal Government came out in 2003, as an explanation for various government policies around accountability and public responsibility.

In my view, these codes are much too general to be useful, and really are more a promotion piece for the general public than they are any assurance of actual ethical behavior in the industry. I find practical things to be more useful. That’s why I am going to chat about four different “things ethical.”

1. Do Not Put Library Values Before Core Human Values

The most important values in library service have nothing to do with libraries. If you want to be ethical, you ought to be the sorts of things that make a good doctor, lawyer, accountant or whatever. In this order, these are the values you should aspire to:

  • Integrity — Your word is your bond. You do what you say you are going to do and it matters to you lots when projects do not come through they way they should.
  • Honesty — You do not lie, even when it hurts.
  • Accountability — You take responsibility for what happens under your watch, and refrain from the blame game when the results do not come through (yes, even if some jerk didn’t do what they said they would do). Then, you take the appropriate actions to fix those problems if you can.
  • Compassion — You never behave as an automaton. Rules and policies often do cause harm to some at the benefit to others — you see your job as making the harm as little as possible when this happens (eg. when the library fines happen to cause serious financial grief, you do everything within the bounds of library policy to lessen the impact this has on your patrons).

Librarians and Library Associations are so often focussed on their status as professions that they miss the core points related to any public service. Be good first; be a good librarian second.

2. Ethics is Hard: The Case of the Justified Whistle-blower

Sometimes, the most obvious right thing to do is, in retrospect the absolute worst thing to do. The most serious example I can think of is the issue of whistle blowing in the public service. [NB: this case is entirely fictional and any reference to real persons is coincidental].

Say you discover that a high-ranking manager is purposely giving out jobs to family members and no one appears to be doing anything about it. This sounds like a case where someone ought to provide a quick tip off to that favorite investigative reporter, so they can get to the bottom of this heinous practice. It’s the ethical thing to do after all, isn’t it?

Well, actually, no it isn’t. While sometimes necessary, and cases like Watergate and the Sponsorship Scandal make it appear heroic, whistle-blowing often puts the interests of the whistle-blower waaaaay ahead of the public interest, which is a core no-no in ethical terms.

The main reason is this: for institutions to provide good, a trust among elected officials who make policies and the hired bureaucrats who have to implement them needs to be strong. A media feeding-frenzy on nepotism in libraries would have a serious impact on that trust, causing distortions in policy that cost the public much more than the simple act of nepotism ever would. In short, your selfish act (see below for why it is selfish) ends up costing patrons access to information, which if you really think about costs lots in terms of health, education and general well-being.

Whistle-blowing can be the only way out of a situation, but it should never be the first option. You should only whistle-blow under the following conditions:

  • You have the facts very straight, with objective, concrete evidence to prove it.
  • The top official (the CEO or director) knows about the problem and has done nothing.
  • The problem is of a very serious, life-threatening nature and the impacts are imminent (ie. there isn’t any time to resolve the problem).
  • A more broad understanding of the problem would not result in a logical understanding of why the problem is the way it is.

In short, whistle-blowing should only be done when there is no other way out. Finally, if you do have to whistle-blow, you ought to do it under these conditions:

  • the information ought to go to the person or group who could most effectively deal with the problem (almost never the media). In this case, the manila envelop might go to the a library board member, the city HR administrator or the police, depending on the circumstances (again, assuming that the CEO/Director knows the problem exists and has done nothing).
  • think about your motives for blowing the whistle. Do you really want to stop the nepotism, or do you just want to see that high-horse manager with egg on his/her face?
  • whistle-blowing is almost never a career-making move, even when it’s justified. Even Deep Throat, the Watergate informant, remained in hiding until well into his old age.

This is all to say that the first action that comes to mind may not be the most ethical action after all.   Forget Blink, you have to think before acting.

Ethics Hurts

(Again, this case study is entirely fictional. If I seem to be describing anyone, it’s a coincidence. Besides, the people I work with are all perfect anyway.)

The media is full of former employees and/or customers who accuse institutions of heinous acts and yet ethics tends to suggest that institutions are not allowed to defend themselves. You may be accused of all kinds of things that are untrue, so much that it would be very tempting to demonstrate in clear terms why that employee or customer came to dislike you so much.

Appearance and reality are definitely two different things, and librarians being the committed-to-truth sorts of people they are may want to breach confidentiality to reduce the amount of gump out there. But the important thing to remember is the “put your own interests behind the public interest” piece.

Ethics are Contradictory

If you haven’t already figured it out, I have already said “honesty” and “integrity” are the most important values on one side of my mouth, and on the other side said “don’t rat on your boss” or “don’t tell the truth about that disgruntled patron.”

That’s the reason why I think ethical codes are so problematic. Honesty and Integrity ought to be the default settings for your behavior, but sometimes you have to change those settings to suit the circumstances.  Perhaps the 5th and most important value is this:

  • Alertness — the mind is constantly open and aware of both the small details and the big picture.

The ethical person may even be aspiring toward divinity in this regard. That might be very theocratic of me, but from where do we get “goodness” if our imaginations cannot perceive an “ultimate goodness.”

And if that’s the case, then I ought to add one more value: humility.   Ethics might be the very humbling process of trying to be as good as a god.  Like I said, ethics is difficult.

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2 Responses to “The ALA Code is Not Enough: Thoughts and Case Studies on Librarian Ethics”

  1. yolaleah February 21, 2008 at 4:48 pm #

    I love love love this post. Thank you for putting into words why something like, just an example, Gorman’s book “Our Enduring Values” just irritated me.

  2. wtmartin November 2, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    I agree the contradictory nature of ethics / values is valid when looked at through eyes of some individuals. Kohlberg’s stages of moral behavior – moral action come into place along with James Fowler’s stages of Faith Development. Individuals who are at the “legalistic” stage are going to be unable to have the compassion and alertness needed to run the red light to save a life. For them everything is right or wrong and running the light is wrong. An individual needs to progress to the stage where one can still see the need of a legal point of view but have the awareness and compassion that changes can be made in terms of rational consideration. This is the the morality found in the U.S. Constitution. Individuals who have progressed to stage 6 have a set of principles that are abstract and ethical (the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you want others to treat you) One is then able to show respect for the dignity of all human beings as individuals. One goes through the red light when it is clear because life is more important than remining until the light is green.

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