Leftovers from Ethics class

I fell way behind on posting this semester, for reasons you might expect.  Here are some of my comments from the course of the past few months–I need to rescue them before the courseware deletes them forever.


I’ll hazard a hypothesis. Maybe it comes down to a form of rationalization of librarians’ part. Human are capable of going to great lengths to justify their actions to themselves. When passing over certain materials for inclusion, the selector may justify that act in any number of ways, including concerns of personal or institutional survival. But once a book *has* been selected, the selector has already internally justified its inclusion. A challenge to that selection is a challenge to the selector’s rationalizations, which usually just breeds further rationalization is defense of the original decision. And so the selector digs her feet in. There also may be an element of cognitive dissonance. The end result of self-censorship or community-censorship is the same. But the librarian could view the former as a rational decision by a professional and the latter as a challenge to the principles of the profession. Again, when something is critical to our day to day existence (like keeping a job), we routinely deceive ourselves on the implications of what seem like small decisions. If you don’t believe that, just consider the existence of factory farms. I wager that if they walked into one and witnessed the operations, and then were offered at cost meat direct from the “factory”, 99% of Americans wouldn’t decline. Yet something like 90% of them refuse to make the mental connection between buying Perdue, Tyson, or any other impossibly-cheap-but-for-industrially-raised-and-slaughtered-chicken with supporting factory farming.


Fines and users that game the system

I think fines themselves are questionable–whatever their merit, libraries eventually become beholden to them. Rather than their original goal of deterrence (or whatever else), they come to be seen as an essential funding source, even if their effectiveness as a deterrent is limited. Overriding a basic precept of confidentiality for the sake of overdue items constitutes a serious ethical breach in my book. As far as family members abusing cards, yes it’s a problem. But consider that, as long as the library is careful not issue duplicate cards, there is a limit to how much a family can abuse the system. They can work their way through the max for each family member, but eventually they’ll run out of children! If they keep using the library, they’ll have to use that card responsibly. Yes the library is potentially out hundreds of dollars in fines, and possibly lost items, but there’s not the potential for unlimited abuse (and the fiscal issue can be alleviated by by a collection agency.) There’s a pattern I’ve observed since I started working in libraries: I don’t know if it’s universal to service industries or particular to libraries. There’s so much attention paid to the “few bad apples” and the overwhelming “silent majority” of users are ignored. Onerous policies and procedures are put into place in response to problem patrons, but they often do little to restrain those determined to be malicious, while representing everyday annoyances to most users (and staff.) Fines are one example, but so is requiring your physical card for checkout, or time limits on computer use, or, of course, filtering.


Librarianship in the “Information Age”

I found an excellent literature review on the topic of Info Age librarianship (though from “way back” in 2004): http://dspace-unipr.cilea.it/bitstream/1889/98/2/Literature_review_Melchionda.pdf. The meatiest bits are in the “NEW ROLES FOR LIBRARIANS” section, in my opinion.


Intellectual Freedom

Interesting recent interview of John Perry Barlow, author, “The Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” and founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, by Leo Laporte and Tom Merrit (tech podcasters): http://twit.tv/specials43 “There are a lot of people who define freedom as the ability of their point of view to get out there. When in fact, freedom is the ability of the other guy’s terrible, odious, disgusting point of view to get out there.”



I was thinking this morning about conflicts between ethical values and how they are resolved within librarianship. Preer emphatically states that, A, service IS access, and B, the profession completed this profound shift in values around the 1975 Statement on Ethics. My only problem with Preer’s narrative is the Determinism that underlies it. After we reach this new understanding, all that left is Preer’s account is minor tweaking to ethical values–the era of upheavals is over. This is akin to some misguiding readings of evolution that it as progressive, with every change leading from “primitive” life to “more evolved” life, culminating is the Ultimate lifeform, Man (never Woman, mind you, but that’s a whole other can of worms). Richard Dawkins, for one, has vehemently fought this anthropocentric narrative. Anyway, back to libraries–is see the same problem in Preer, in the inherent assumption that librarianship has naturally evolved to its current state *and that the current state of our ethics has reached its permanent plateau*. Preer never comes out and says any such thing, of course, but examine the last chapter on “The Future”–it’s concerning with how to adapt *today’s ethics* to the technological change of the recent past and near future. Its not about how library ethical values themselves will once again have to change in reaction to a changing environment, which I believe is the more pertinent question.

Let us consider Library 2.0. Library 2.0 has become something of an unfortunate term, amorphous, overwrought, and colored with all manner of preconceptions. Web 2.0, the term that “fathered”‘ Library 2.0, itself already seems musty and uncool, though it’s of relatively recent vintage (such is the half life of the internet). For both Library 2.0 and Web 2.0 people tend to focus on the flash–interactive websites!, crowdsourcing!–and overlook a key concept that, though radical at the time, is now expected without thought. The concept is “perpetual beta,” the state where an application or website is always in production and thus never complete. It represents a break with how businesses previously (and often still) offer software in distinct versions, with years between releases. Web 2.0 apps are fluid, subject to constant change as dictated by their use.

This concept has been extended beyond software to the workings of institutions. Web 2.0 companies strive to constantly adapt to the demands of their users. At its simplest, Library 2.0 seeks to do the same.

I think we are living in an era of radical change. Preer wants to call the transformation to a “modern” ethics of access as complete, but I think she’s jumping the gun. I don’t take issue with access being the primary value at the moment. But I think future MLIS students are going to be reading about the current era as a transitional phase. It takes a while for big institutions, like libraries, to adapt to disruptive changes. After the introduction of the printing press, it took centuries for the profession to adapt, with social and circulating libraries giving way to modern public, academic, and special libraries. I don’t claim to know what the upheaval caused by the internet will mean for future libraries, but I think its critical to keep perspective–we’re not at the end of the line but stuck in the knotted middle.



It does boil down to whether the library is “viewpoint neutral” or not. it seems to me that this is an area where there is an inherent ethical conflict. In the interest of Service and Access, libraries have to appear impartial, so that users with various views won’t feel like the library is a hostile environment. So, in terms of selection and meeting room use, libraries must be as inclusive and viewpoint neutral as possible. On the other hand, there’s no helping the fact that some groups are going to oppose the library–essentially, some groups oppose our supposed neutral viewpoint as reflecting bias, because their views are so far to one side or another and because they want to suppress opposing viewpoints. Additionally, Preer details how libraries have moved in recent decades beyond the narrow view of “multiple obligations” to embrace service to larger ideals of librarianship. Many librarians obviously believe that this service entails activism to further those ideals. This activism can have negative or positive components. Negative activism as I define it is reactionary: not allowing a group that is against intellectual freedom to use a meeting room, not adding materials that promote censorship, refusing to have professional conferences in cities that discriminate against segments of society Positive activism is, well, active: speaking out publicly in support of information freedom or against something like the USA PATRIOT Act, making a point of hosting programs that further the ideals of librarianship, using signage to educate users about their rights. So, back to the question of unconditional gifts from “repugnant” groups. It depends on how activist you think librarians should be. from the case studies in Preer, it’s pretty clear that the law comes down in favor of equality, not activism. You can exclude certain types of groups, but only if you do so according to a broad and impartial standard–say, ALL religious meetings, or commercial enterprises. I’d say that libraries have to use the same sort of guidelines with regard to gifts. Abide by public, broad, clearly delineated guidelines and swallow any instinct for negative activism–that might mean taking gufts from “repugnant” groups, or it might not, depending on the type of group and the specific guidelines. Libraries as institutions should strive to remain the appearance of an impartial public forum, but librarians can still engage in positive activism. (Note: this is one of those times where I convinced myself as the sentences poured out. Don’t hold it against me if i argue the opposite tomorrow :) )



Libraries block online content that they would think it unconscionable to block if it were in printed media instead. They routinely block more robustly than even CIPA requires, I I believe acceptance of CIPA guidelines is itself a questionable decision. At my library, I’ve been proud of our trustees for rejecting a range of challenges to books and magazines. Yet our filtering levels, even for adults, go beyond CIPA and are not logically consistent. We unfilter for those who ask, but that itself is a barrier to access, and it does nothing for intellectually curious teens. Self-censorship is an example of how service (to the local community, in the form of bowing to community standards) conflicts with access (which is a form of service, but to society as a whole). It’s a permutation of NIMBYism–most people and hopefully all librarians agree that freedom of information is good for our democratic society but opposition arises when ideals force unforeseen consequences at home.



I understand the Supreme Court’s ruling–there is a broad precedent in place that the government can control how federal funds are disbursed, even when the Constitution constrain it from outright supporting or forbidding a position. But that doesn’t make accepting those funds the ethical choice. I applaud the libraries that spurn CIPA funding. I do think it’s a n issue that librarians need to continue to raise hell about, because complacency leads to a “new normal,” and we’ll just keep getting pushed back more and more over time. Protecting ethical precepts demands an active defense.


Ethics and law

I found Preer coverage of Access, like the rest of the book so far, to be both level-headed and enlightening. On Access, she hammers the point home that it’s critical to keep the legal definitions of obscenity and indecency in mind (and to remember that these are two different standards). I have no problem with her interpretation of the law, and I think the chapters offer a good foundation for best practices in libraries. What’s bothering me, though, is what’s implicit in this concentration on legal issues surrounding censorship–that the current state of US Law is the final standard of ethical conduct. Law and Ethics are not one and the same; ideally they are aligned but history demonstrates over and over that they frequently diverge over the long- and short-term. Take censorship of broadcast media versus books or the internet–I’d argue that there’s no logically consistent rationale to treat one form of media different from another, but that’s how the law currently stands. Certainly librarians should be bound by the law (except for a law so onerous that the only ethical response is civil disobedience.) But ethics may also tell us that some laws are wrong, and as such, demand that librarians take every possible action to get those laws changed.


Professional Ethics

My personal belief is that we are obligated to help a patron research whatever they ask for, so long as the research isn’t illegal (or otherwise contrary to library policy). Note that the subject matter could be illegal–bomb-making, meth recipes, what-have-you–so long as the conducting the actual research doesn’t constitute a crime. (Take child porn as a counter-example–I don’t see how one could research primary sources on that topic without breaking US law.) There are legitimate reasons why a user might be researching illegal, unsavory, or otherwise questionable materials (they could be, you know, a *researcher*). It’s never our job to determine *WHY* a user is interested in a topic if they don’t offer that information. Without knowing intent, we can’t determine what effect the user’s research will have on society, so we can only judge it based on the service we can provide: service to the user himself/herself. Also in favor of this view is that we’re not revealing anything “secret” by doing so. Anything we help a user find could be found without our help, if a user had sufficient skills and/or time. We don’t unlock a cabinet and pull out classified files–we connect users to information that is publicly available. All that said, in real life, “where the rubber hits the road”, it’s hard to live up to such ideals. As I said in another thread, while I’ve helped plenty of users find information I disagreed with our thought was blatantly false, I’ve never been asked to find something that I thought to be immoral or illegal. I don’t know that I could help in that case. But that’s more a question of personal ethics than professional ethics, isn’t it? By entering into this profession, aren’t we tacitly agreeing to set aside our personal ethics when they conflict with the demands of our profession? (These are actual, not rhetorical questions–I haven’t figured all this out yet to my satisfaction.)



“Most of the time, librarians do not think consciously about the ethical ramifications of what they do. As with ethical conduct generally, our behavior follows from habit. It is only when a special situation arises that ethical dissonance arises” (p. 327). An astute point by Rubin. It’s critical to remember that most library staff are not librarians and therefore haven’t been schooled in library ethics. Rarely at work (at my public library) do we discuss the finer points of an ethical dilemma; typically, when a situation arises we are guided by habit, by policy, and by our colleagues’ thoughts on the matter. Librarians can try to impart ethical precepts to other staff, but it can be hard for support staff to understand and commit to ideas in the abstract, especially in the face of clear and present practical needs that may run to the contrary. Librarians are better off influencing the guides that staff already rely on, the aforementioned habit, policy, and colleagues. Make policy clear and provide simple explanations of the ethics underlying the policy. Set a strong ethical example and don’t be shy about explaining the reasons for your decisions, so that staff will habitually follow your lead. Use situations as teaching moments—solicit opinions, weigh alternatives, and explain your understanding of the ethics of the situation—and staff will gain useful experience, which will influence their thoughts in the future.

Rubin has an excellent paragraph along similar lines:
“Because most of the individuals in a profession did not participate in the discussions that created the code, the rationale for each provision of the code is generally obscured. As a result, the code may appear to be unnecessarily arbitrary. This is especially problematic when a professional must justify acting in a manner consistent with the code. Unless there is a solid understanding of the code’s rationale, the explanation is likely to sound dogmatic rather than like a thoughtful justification of professional conduct” (p. 347).

This directly relates to my thoughts on leadership—if the librarian doesn’t understand the rationale for an ethical precept, but just follows a professional code blindly, there’s no way they’ll be able to satisfactorily explain their decision to their staff. So how to correct for the problem that codes aren’t accompanied by rationales for their contents? The geek in me reads Rubin’s paragraph and shouts, “wiki!” A wiki’s not the only way to accomplish what I’m after, but converting the ALA Code of Ethics, for example, into a wiki would allow you to keep the provisions as is but add another layer behind that, which would consist of the discussions that led to the provisions’ final forms. Librarians could read “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources” and then click on the discussion link to see the rationale behind the statement, the alternatives considered and discarded, even the arguments over the final wording. If you’re not familiar with wikis, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethics and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Ethics for examples of this structure.

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