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Sustainability and Libraries: Is Anyone Challenging Our Assumptions about Digitization?

21 Apr

Among the best things about conferences (besides karaoke, right Greg?) are hearing ideas from people you had not previously met.   One of the memorable conversations I had was with Sarah Cohen about whether libraries were really on board with the what, whys and hows regarding sustainability.  I think we came to the conclusion that libraries & librarians abiding by what others say about sustainability is no longer enough.   We need to be leading, particularly in those areas where we have expertise.

This has been on my mind since about the time I presented at the Information Without Borders conference put on by the School of Information Management students at Dalhousie University (yes, students were crazy enough to put on a whole dang conference while they were struggling through their umpteen gazillion pages of assignments on their plate).  I spoke alongside Stephen Abrams and Mark Leggott (I have the text of my speech “The Triple Bottom Line and Digital Technology” in a Google document) about digitization and we had a discussion about whether libraries can be managed entirely as an open-source shop.  Factors such as the long-term possibility of wide-range collaboration among libraries, monetary sustainability, the feasibility of licenses, the role that librarians play in making opac apis a mess to create and/or use and so on were all discussed.

The Triple Bottom Line and Libraries

One of the things I introduced to the discussion was something I learned while taking an MBA course in strategic management:  the triple-bottom line.   The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) is a way of measuring performance that takes the environment and social responsibility into account to go along with economic success.   When I asked the audience whether the TBL was discussed during the conference about sustainability, it hadn’t been.   And that was part of my complaint — while businesses are almost obsessed about arguments (to or fro) about the TBL, libraries are nearly silent.  Maybe we just assume that we are socially and environmentally friendly because we are librarians?   That’s a really big mistake in my view.

Also in that MBA class, I remembering discussing a case about Nike and the issue of sweatshops.   There were a number of important things mentioned, but some of the biggies included:

  • on the way to normal operations, and with almost entirely good intentions, any organization can find itself doing outrageous harm.
  • top managers in big corporations obsess about social corporate responsibility.
  • justice matters to people.  That includes customers, staff and other organizations.
  • even private business depends on tax-payer dollars (libraries almost certainly do as well).   We need to respect the community that creates an environment for safe, sustainable business to happen.

In my view, libraries try their best to show their success in circulation numbers, reference stats and customer comments.   Do we think about measures in other ways as well?   How do we go about measuring, say, environmental responsibility?   Well, my personal view on this is that if we really cared about the environment we would have had the measures a long time ago.   The lack of benchmarking infrastructure is a sure sign of us falling down on this apparatus.

What Librarians Need Besides a Kick in the Pants

Looking at what I see in the library world, to be leaders where sustainability is concerned we need:

  • Research : the most challenging part of the sustainability equation is complexity.   Where we once may have thought we could categorize certain products or activities as “bad” or “good” for the environment, we no longer can make these assumptions.   Sure, making a book available digitally does increase access to that book, but what about the energy expended in managing servers?   How about the fact that everyone needs a computer in their home and a good amount of space to go with it?   What does a digitized world mean to our life decisions like where we choose to live, the products and services we buy, and the amount of “stuff” we do to live in this kind of world?   Librarians should be asking some big questions here and finding empirical data to find answers.   What does a digitized world mean for real human beings?   How does gaming in libraries effect communities outside the library?  
  •  Benchmarks :  I covered this earlier, but a framework needs to be developed so that libraries can account for outcomes besides mere counts of books read.    What about fuel & energy consumption?  Does your library board get to see the usage trends for gas and electricity?   What about paper consumption?   What about surveys of customer travel over time?   Are our libraries located in the right space to encourage sustainable transport behaviors?
  • Innovation:   Web 2.0 is not the only area where we can be innovative, although sometimes that seems to be the only way libraries can show themselves as “up-to-date.”   How about outdoors activities at your library?   Where’s the section on sustainability and community in the library success wiki? (Note how technology takes up a huge section of the front page).
  • Partnerships :  Libraries absolutely need to understand that their days of pwning the information world are over.   We never could store and maintain the whole of the world’s knowledge and we definitely cannot do it now in a Web 2.0 world.   Our ability to do our job will depend on the work of other organizations — hospitals, universities, large corporations, small business, not-for-profits, web 2.0 services, entrepreneurial individuals — you name it.   Library 2.0, if it exists at all, includes a trust in the non-library world to do library-ish things for themselves and others — with or without our help.  If a service, individual or whatnot is getting people to information in ways that we cannot (think of, say, LibraryThing), then we should be standing beside those folks and clapping hard.   Then we should be inspired to innovate on our own.

In the end, despite all the fun we see going on in the Web 2.0, we need to see ourselves as part of a machine that needs not to kill the environment or marginalize social groups to do what we think is important.   I also think that the burden of proof sits with us — we need to prove we are not doing harm, rather than having someone prove that we are — if we are going to make claims about how important we are to the community, democracy, freedom, happiness or whatever other big philosophic abstract we want to apply to ourselves.

Chiming in On the Biggies

1 Apr

There have been a few, ahem, debates going around and I could make a post on each of them, but things have just been too much in my home life recently, so I’m going to chime in one on one.

MLS or non-MLS?

My favorite call on this issue is coming from Dorothea Salo, but there are others by Rachel Singer Gordon and Meredith Farkas. I know great librarians of both the MLS and non-MLS variety. I am one of those who started as the latter and made the decision to got the former. I know the good, bad and ugly in both realms — but most of it from my line of view is good. I hope my colleagues do not see me as a “high and mighty OMG I have my MLS so sit back” kind of person. In fact, it was because I had a mentor that was the opposite of a HAMOMGIHMMLSSSB that I was able to gather the knowledge and skills that make me who I am today. The MLS, well it sort of helped I think. I’d say the MPA helped more, frankly — but I did have the opportunity to meet some very interesting people along the way to the MLS as well — and that did a lot too.

There is one thing that getting the MLS does do, and that is establish an accountability trail which may reduce risk in the workforce. That’s not a whole lot, but I do think it is something. One thing I find interesting is that the blogosphere may be a not-bad proxy for accreditation and the recent blab on the MLS may be a side-effect of this. David Rothman and Walt Crawford are good examples. The contribution that those blogs make to librarianship more than counts for having an accredited degree in my mind.

I think the ALA and librarian accreditation as a whole better start looking to Web 2.0 and social networking as a threat to their credibility. If the Masters is going to mean something, it ought to mean that those who came through the gate had earned it using their head, heart and body — and not just their pocketbook and ahem lips. Dorothea Salo has more to say on this.

Gaming or No-Gaming

I support gaming in public libraries. It seems to me that most of the gaming skepticism comes from non-public librarians, though I could be wrong. There are a few things that I feel are being misconceived here.

  • Public Libraries use gaming to attract teens

That’s not precisely true. If we have public computers, the teens are already there — gaming. Gaming programs are an attempt to channel the gaming energy into a community building experience. It’s noisy; it’s not books; it’s probably more fun than your average taxpayer would like to think a teen should be having in a library — but it does some very important things: a) it builds trust with teens, helping them to see the library as a positive place to be b) it engages them toward other positive — not necessarily toward books, no — but if it is staffed properly, lots of progress can be made toward strong research skills, safe internet use, respect for property, respect for each other and so on and c) it builds community support around the library. Police, Fire Fighters, Health Professionals, Recreation Professionals, Social Workers and more have got behind some of the activities we put on for teens — and that’s because they know libraries play their part to help young people grow into productive, healthy and happy adults.

In a nutshell, teens are in the library anyway — we might as well say “hello” on their terms. If I can go back to my “made-of-straw” non-public librarian again, we cannot forget the essential role (no, responsibility) that public libraries play in community development.

  • Gaming programs are unnecessarily noisy in libraries

Have you ever been around public libraries post-adult programming? You get a group of people excited about a topic, they are going to be chatty, noisy, laughing sort of people. I have also seen a good share of older adults being disruptive, evening bullying to teens simply because they are teens. The library is a public space, shared by many people from many walks of life. There are going to be moments when a public library is not going to be the Mecca you expect it to be. We try our best, but it’s always a challenge to make everyone happy all the time.

  • That’s not what libraries are for. . .

As they say in the unconference world “the people who are here are the right people.” Teens are in public libraries because they need us. We bloody well better serve them. We’ve had board games for years. Heck, I went to the library in my young age to play with the games on the Apple computer way back when.

Media Equity

Michael Sauers chimed on Media equity at the request of David Rothman in an episode of Uncontrolled Vocabulary. And, yes Greg, I will buy a t-shirt. I think I am going to put in a longer post on this issue, but I’ll start my questioning now.

I agree with Michael that policies related to public computers in libraries should try to mirror those for other formats, but I am not yet convinced that this has to do with a principle of media equity. As an avid reader of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan in my day, I feel that media makes a big difference in communication. Whether this difference can or should influence freedom of information as offered in libraries is a hard question. The only way I can think of to get at the bottom of this is to try as hard as I can to refute Michael’s position and see what I have left in the end. My instincts say that I’ll conclude that Michael is right on this one — however, there is an assumption in favor of individualism that makes me a little uncomfortable in using media equity as a axiom for all service.

I will say that the media equity line does make things easier in the end. Explaining the policy is alot easier too when you treat the computers the same as if they were anything else.

Whistleblowing, Ethics, and Internet Use

18 Mar

UPDATE: Since I’m venturing into potentially controversial territory, I thought it would be a good time to remind my readers that this is my commentary on a situation that occurred in a library in California and not necessarily the opinions of my employer. I will say that I believe we are well-prepared for emergency situations, and their official approach in my view is rational, fair and on the whole, quite solid. Equally, staff are just as responsible in their actions.


A few days ago, there was a news articles I saw via LISNews about a librarian being fired because she called the police on a child porn-watcher against orders from her supervisor. Comments abound in outrage, of course. My first impression on the issue was a “how could they do that?” as well.

But it goes to show that tricky issues require forethought. Here is my final assessment of the issue. Obviously, I do not have the entire facts on this case, so I can only take the media’s report at face value. Nor am I a lawyer, so this is just a layperson’s opinion.

Ought the library have had clear polices on what to do in the case a child pornographer appears? Yes.

Ought a successful library leader have empowered his/her staff to make that phone call? Yes.

Is the library in its rights to fire the librarian who made the phone call? Also yes.

Is it likely that the librarian made an unfortunate ethical mistake? Yes.

To get why I think the way I do, you are going to have to separate the issues of effective management and professional ethics. In an ideal world, we would have bosses who always make the right decisions; who act through common sense; who establish policies and procedures ahead of time to prepare us for the hard situations; and who empower employees to make good decisions when the policies do not cover the situation. But the reality is that this is not always the case. In fact, it is rare. Most of the time we will be working in imperfect organizations. Sometimes the organizations are even outright wrong in their approaches to situations.

But working in an imperfect organization does not make it less important to think through our own decisions. In my view, this employee should have asked herself the following questions before acting:

  • Is there clear evidence of imminent public danger?

Not likely. Watching child porn is a heinous crime and the creation of the porn is absolutely harmful to children. However, it does not put the public in imminent danger. Yes, we do not want these guys on our streets. No, we should not react to the child porn watcher as we do the rapist, robber, or murderer.

  • Is he/she ultimately accountable for the actions of the organization?

No. When the grey areas hit, it is going to be the director who takes the hit for any bad decision of any employee. The director, therefore, has a right to a say in what should happen in this situation.

  • Was she/he absolutely sure that action (such as calling the police) was not going to happen after some review?

It’s hard to assess this without the facts, but I am adding the question because it is important. Just because the manager did not call the police now doesn’t mean that he/she would not make a report to a higher-up who in turn may decide that, yes, the police should be called.

  • Was he/she sure of all the facts in the case?

I’m willing to assume yes, because it does turn out that he/she was right. But my question about imminent danger could be changed significantly if the porn the accused was watching was a live show.

  • Did she have time on her side?

This is the kicker. The librarian had plenty of time to make a report to the police with lots of lovely evidence to show when they came.

In my view, the librarian should have:

  1. Made it clear to her boss that her view is that the police should be called.
  2. Record the incident with as much detail as possible. Recording the identity of the person would even be appropriate so long as the report was not going to be shared.
  3. Make sure that the details of the case make it to the CEO or Director of the library. Give the supervisor a chance to do it first. Then, pass up the report.
  4. Still no action? This is where you consider the whistle-blow. President of the board may work. Or the police. This is not going to be a career-advancing decision.

In the end, I understand that the firing of the employee is being reviewed. I also see this as a good thing. I’m not sure that firing the employee is quite the right disciplinary action, despite that I believe he/she made a mistake. Good management would come up with something more appropriate — although what would depend on a bunch of mitigating factors of which I have no knowledge.

And, in the end, you cannot always assume good management.

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.

Swimming the Web

12 Feb

I am a great fan of Judy Blume.   So much so that I have started reading her books (somewhat prematurely) to my four-year-old son.   The most recent entry is Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great.  It was timely, since my four-year-old is now learning to swim.

If you don’t know the book, then suffice it to say that a major part of storyline involves a young girl who is dragged kicking, screaming and punching to swimming lessons.   More importantly, it highlights how water can instill extreme and irrational fear in a person; and extreme pride when this fear is overcome.

I get asked about Internet Safety alot too.   One of the things I cover, fairly flippantly is that in order to protect their children from the risks on the Internet, parents have to learn about technology.   Now, I realize that swimming may be the most important analogy.    If you want to protect your children from drowning, you ought to 1) know how to swim yourself  2) teach your children to swim well and/or 3) force them to take swimming lessons.  Why wouldn’t we see the same being done for Internet Safety?

Of course, there are fairly specific differences here.   Beaches have life guards to protect young people from drowning, and drowning is a much, much more likely cause of harm or death in young people than anything having to do with Internet safety.   Libraries cannot expect governments to put the kinds of resources into Internet safety as they do for swimming lessons.

On the other hand, school libraries, public libraries and I daresay, even academic libraries have a role here.   The trick is that we may or may not be seen as the source for training in online safety.   And a series of moral lessons on the hazards of online surfing is not likely to attract a lot of attention.

Perhaps we ought to say, “if you have kids, and surfing the web isn’t your thing, you ought to at least know how to swim the web.”   After that, we should offer technology training focussed on the ability of parents to understand what the web does, how people connect on the web, and what, if anything, they can do to prevent anything from cyber-bullying, to media-stereotyping, to having the RIAA go after them.

Here are some potential modules for the training:

  • What’s free and what’s not on the web (copyright and creative commons)
  • Surfing with your clothes on (privacy and attention-getting on the web)
  • Going from digital to real life (how to meet safely meet an online friend in the real world)
  • Walking the Troll Bridge (discussing controversial issues online)
  • Internet Ninjistu (maintaining anonymity on the web)

But, most importantly, libraries need strategies to encourage parents to swim on the web.   They need to take a little water in their lungs to keep their kids safe.   Yes, on the web you may encounter ads that will promise to enhance various body parts.  You may even find porn or violence (although it’s a bit harder to find that stuff if you are not looking for it).   The point is, as adults, parents ought to be able to cope with these issues — particularly if their kids are using it.

The Life-Path of a Librarian

8 Feb

Steve, Iris, Rikhei & others are going through some kind of meme on why they are librarians. I think self-reflection is great. In fact, when I started this blog, that’s what I intended to do — take opportunities to look at the library world in ways that might reflect “others” in the world. This blog is my way of pretending I am not myself for a bit so I can look at what I do in a new light.

But to say I am pretending not to be myself is a little untrue as well, because I am a contrary person. I do not like to do things the way everyone else does them. That’s why I’m taking this meme and running with it in my own way. So instead of offering why I became a librarian, I am going to imagine a life-path that could very well produce a librarian. Kind of like a 30 second biography.

Librarians :

  • as babies. . . had parents who were less-than-skilled at “peek-a-boo.” That’s why they had to turn to books to get that “it’s gone — no it’s back!” sensation. Every turn of a book, of course, is a game of peek-a-boo!
  • as early schoolers . . . had someone in their life with the guts to give them a book that might offend their parents. Beowulf at six was my big entry into that world. All that blood and gore really showed me that there was a world my parents (and any other authority figures) could not take away from me.
  • at about 10 years of age . . . found a corner of the library where they could laugh and giggle to their friends about all the books with a 613.907 Dewey number (PDF warning). (They would share that “super secret” corner and the Dewey number with their peers of course).
  • as a pre-teen. . . never received “secret admirer” letters because all potential anonymous love interests knew they could figure them out [no, it's not because librarians are too geeky to be admired].
  • as a teen. . . pretended to read Dostoevski, Trollope, Derrida etc. simply to expose their friends to the fact that these folks exist.
  • before they graduated high school . . . changed from sciences, to arts, to business, back to sciences, and was confused by the idea that anything resembling a specialization in these fields existed.
  • in college. . . confounded profs in discussions by injecting sources of information that the prof never heard of before.
  • before graduating . . . realized that specializing in a particular field was a) going to drive them insane and b) not going to get them a good paying job.
  • in library school . . . reminded themselves “this is temporary hell before getting to a rewarding job.”
  • before graduating . . . forgot most of what they learned in library school (not realizing that this was probably a good thing), but found someone who convinced them that they belong in the profession .
  • in their first job . . . practiced remaining calm, courteous and friendly in front of a mirror while pretending to be abused Hamburger Hill style.
  • by six months . . . after having one of the following happen to them, felt emphatically that they were meant for this job:
    • teen patrons saying hello out of a library context
    • helped someone through a serious health information inquiry
    • got a procrastinating student through a project due next weekend
    • found a weird object to classify and got it fixed nice and easy-like
    • saw a navigation issue with the website and found a logical way to fix it
  • by 2 years . . . learned something they ought to have learned in library school.
  • by 5 years . . . laughed at a library student who was worried about their library school grades.
  • on their first management job . . . started to see the reasons for all those crazy policies that got made in the previous 5 years.
  • yesterday . . . thought about why they became a librarian and pretty much decided “yeah, what Steve, Iris and Rikhei said.”
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