Thoughts on “Ethics and Standards” from Rubin’s Foundations of Library and Information Science

Some of my responses to Rubin’s chapter on ethics.  All quotes from Rubin, R. E. (2004). Foundations of Library and Information Science (2nd ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

Ethics in Leadership

“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.  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 vs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Ethics for examples of this structure.

Library Ethics in the Information Age

“We [librarians] significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information” (The ALA Code of Ethics, 1995, quoted in Rubin, 2004, p. 348).  While this is true, it’s obviously less true than it was in 1995, and it’s continuing down that slope every day.  I wonder what, if any, difference the arrival of the Information Age has on the ethics of Librarianship.  Later in the chapter, Rubin highlights “special ethical problems with information technologies,” but these are rudimentary and applicable to business in general, not to libraries’ specific circumstances.  This topic bears some thought (and maybe a paper for me), but here are topics that immediately occur to me to raise ethical questions for libraries: book scanning, file sharing, Google vs. newspapers, software and electronic media Terms of Service and copyright, net neutrality.

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