Ethical Librarianship: The ALA’s Code of Ethics in Practice

Over the past couple of days, I’ve continued to discuss the nature of professional ethics and librarianship. The results have been mixed. Some colleagues have understood why I might want to critically evaluate the American Library Association‘s code of ethics, while others have passionately argued that such codes are all we have to stand on in our profession. I don’t doubt that. Being the principled person I am, I applaud those who will raise a fist in the air for the cause. But at the same time, I think it is imperative that we understand not only the ALA codes, but also why and how the codes themselves exist. Librarianship, thanks to the ALA, is a political profession. I want to ask librarians out there, whether or not they are ALA members, if they would fault another librarian if that librarian was placed in a position that demanded an action which ran contrary to the guidelines of the organization.

North American librarians have the enviable position of living in a social system that is founded on many principles that also directly guide their profession. The ALA’s Code of Ethics is arguably a bastion of personal and social freedom within the social state. The second article of the Code “upholds the principle of intellectual freedom”, for instance, while the third article upholds the citizen’s “right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted”. Librarians in a public library setting, however, must maintain these core principles of privacy and individual freedom while in the employment of a taxpayer-funded organization that is mandated and administered by other public institutions. The ALA’s Code of Ethics ostensibly turns public spaces into private zones, or at least spaces of absolute tolerance. This maintenance of personal freedom within a public social space places the librarian at the centre of a highly politicized sphere.

Are librarians equipped to navigate such a space? I don’t know. I don’t have the answer because I haven’t completed enough research, nor do I have enough experience to make such a judgement. But there are a couple things I’m confident about. First, all people are principled, and second, no one is infallible. If a city councillor, for her own legitimate reasons, used her political muscle to push the local public library to screen or filter its internet connection for the sake of underage patrons, what should the librarians (professional or otherwise) do? The ALA along with the ACLU, we remember, were unsuccessful at arguing that filtering is an infringement of our basic right to free speech. However, both organizations released strong claims that reaffirmed their position and offered talking points so that any librarian, whether affiliated with the ALA or not, could still make a strong argument against the councillor.

(In Canada, of course, the CLA takes an ambiguous position. Although their policies leave the door open for reasonable restrictions, in practice they oppose filtering.)

But the fact that professional librarians can be equipped with ALA codes and talking points doesn’t make this question of ethics any clearer, by any stretch of the imagination. As upstanding as the ALA Code of Ethics may be, the professional librarian, who may be an upstanding individual in his own right, may make a decision that is contrary to the code. Let us not forget that in a situation such as this, the librarian would have found himself in a political battle over a contested public and private space with the public councillor who represents the public’s interests. Indeed, both the librarian and the councillor could make a claim that they are acting in the interests of the public (one acting in the spirit of populism, one following professional tenets meant to protect basic freedoms). When does one trump the other? Should the librarian ever back down from his or her principles? The easy answer would be “no,” but such a response doesn’t take into account a host of elements that could affect the situation. In any situation, the librarian may have to, or want to consider important factors from the mood of the community or the interpretation of the principle, or even the security of his employment.

And therein lies the crux of the problem. Principles are incredible statements that are difficult to reach, easy to preach, and treacherous to put in practice. Should the librarian risk his or her job for the sake of filtering in the public library? Should we, as other librarians, condemn the librarian who does? It would be wrong to allow filtering of any kind, I agree. However, I never want to be the librarian in a small town who must face this battle with too much political pressure from the opposing side. If I have a mortgage, a new car, and two kids, would I really want to risk my position at work, my chances for advancement, or even my social standing in the community for the sake of filtering out porn in the public library? God save the poor librarian who has had to grapple with that situation, because that situation has an outcome that the ALA doesn’t prescribe an answer for. The ALA gives us principles – reasoned, forthright principles. The ALA will even be on our side if we have to contest some of these principles in court to prove our point. But the ALA can’t help us repair our relationships with our neighbours when what would otherwise be an internal work-related conflict spills out into the public sphere. That’s when we’re left out on our own.

I’m not in any way suggesting that professional librarians abandon the principles laid down in the ALA’s Code of Ethics. I value the protection and dissemination of information, and I heartily believe that the good requires the not-so-good in order to evaluate one and the other. But I am suggesting that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge our peers (whether they are ALA members or not) if they make a decision that goes against the Code. Ours is a strong profession, and a politically active profession. But breaking our Code does not necessarily mean court time, as it might within the law or accountancy. And sometimes, our fundamentals aren’t as fundamental as we’d like them to be within the community, or even amoung our peers. We shouldn’t automatically be sympathetic when there is a breach of the professional code, no, but we should be wise enough to take the long view when we hear such news before passing judgment.