Professionalism, Principles, and Librarianship

Tonight in one of my MLIS classes, we had a spirited discussion about the principles of librarianship. Perhaps I’m being too kind: it wasn’t so much a discussion as it was a series of visceral responses evoked by several people (including myself) either for or against certain ALA and CLA standing orders, mission statements, bills of rights and sets of beliefs. More to the point, it was a tough-as-nails reminder that librarians, for any number of reasons, may not always be able to adhere to the principles developed in their professional associations conferences and plenary sessions.

For some people, I think, the class was a three-hour introduction to the fact that sometimes one’s principles are not completely aligned with the principles of one’s profession, and that these principles are not always aligned with government principles or community values. One particular example is the case of filtering content on internet terminals in public libraries. While the ALA has fought hard in the courts against filtering of all kinds, the CLA implicitly maintains that internet access can have reasonable restrictions (this in itself largely aligned with Canadian social values, which has codified reasonable limits to charter rights). Meanwhile, community groups and municipal councils in both nations continue to make calls for controlled internet environments in libraries.

The case study presented to the class was the typical example of a municipal councillor demanding that the municipally-funded library filter its content in order to protect the sensibilities and security of children who use the connections. Many students naturally agreed with the ALA argument that all kinds of filtering is wrong and must be opposed; I agree with the ALA on this one, too. However, I worried that many of my colleagues didn’t consider the broader picture, including the values of the community they live in or the fact that this situation could ask some one to put their job on the line. Although the values of librarianship will often run counter to the values of the communities we live in, we must not be bullheaded in our responses and reactions to the community’s own attitudes to our beliefs.

The ALA makes clear that the values of the municipal councillor must be respected. The Association holds that librarians must be open to the criticism of their community, and rightly so. Professionals of all types must be open to criticism against the values of their profession since the defense of a profession’s values begins by acknowledging and countering criticism to the values themselves. This criticism helps define who we are and reminds us of this identity. However, we need to ensure that the criticism and defense of our profession’s values does not create an oppositional relationship between the community and the librarians. We must work to integrate our values into the community, and likewise bring the community’s values into our buildings and work culture.

I don’t mean to suggest that the librarians in this case study should roll over and give in to the councilor’s demands. Rather, I meant to suggest that the librarians in the study (and the model librarian in real life) must always remain cognizant of the community they serve. That councillor, however prudish we may think him or her to be, was elected by and represents the same constituents that the library serves, so a certain amount of respect and understanding should be afforded in a situation such as this. Moreover, members of the profession can hardly presume to convince others of the value their own principles if they don’t first acknowledge the fact that the principles other people hold should be treated with an equal amount of respect; anyone who is looking out for the interests of his or her child by demanding filtering at the library does not have ill-conceived values but only ill-chosen methods.

By the end of all this talk about principles, professionalism, and one’s chosen profession, I ended up wondering how many professional librarians have broken or acted against the principles of the ALA or the CLA. It is pretty easy to sit in a classroom and argue about the sacrosanct nature of one principles, but it is another to see to the adherence to these values in the field. I’m sure that at one time or another a professional librarian has acted against one of any number principles of the ALA or CLA, perhaps because there was a mortgage to pay or kids to feed or even just a vacation to plan for. Librarians are only human, and if some one was ever put in a position to choose between maintaining a position and a homestead or adhering to certain principles agreed upon in a plenary session years ago, I don’t think think I’d be surprised if that person chose the former to the latter.

I’m neither condemning or apologizing for such as act, but I am wondering if MLIS students should be reminded that when the rubber hits the road, there will be difficult choices to make. As for me, I don’t think I want to be the first person to cast the stone after my colleague may have been forced to choose between internet filters for the community and a paying job that puts a warm dinner on the table day in and day out.

Any thoughts on the subject? I’m arguing here that we’re only human, so I acknowledge that I can be wrong, too.