Ethics Paper: On Service

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No matter the profession, “the essence of profession is service to society” (Preer, 2008, p. 3)—for the library profession, service has always been central, but the understanding of how best to serve society has evolved.  Furthermore, while service is the most important ethical precept governing librarians, it is not the only precept, and other precepts inherently conflict with service.  Professional codes define the meanings and practice of ethical precepts and help arbitrate when precepts conflict.  An examination of the ethical codes of the American Library Association (ALA) and the Canadian Library Association (CLA) reveals the meaning of service in their constituent institutions.

The changing information technology available to society and shifting missions and institutional settings of libraries combine to determine the character of library service. Primordial librarians were bookkeepers for academic, religious, or political institutions (Rubin, 2004).  The first ethical obligation in libraries was that of stewardship, protecting the collection from harm.  Because the information technology of the time did not yet allow cheap printing and distribution of materials, the ethical precept of service, while existent, was necessarily subservient to that of stewardship (Preer, 2008).  The invention of the printing press marked a fundamental shift in information technology, though it would take centuries before relatively inexpensive books became the norm.  This new norm provoked the rise of new types of libraries in the United States (Rubin, 2004).  In the 18th century, social libraries—formed “to assist self-improvement and the search for truth” (Rubin, 2004, p. 275)—and circulating libraries—with a mission to earn profit by distributing popular works—introduced the service models of education and meeting the public demand for entertaining materials, respectively (Rubin, 2004).

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