Rethinking old thoughts on ethics and the ALA

Throughout the fall I gave serious consideration to the idea that the ALA Code of Ethics might be too strict for its membership, and also that its members routinely ignored it . I wondered if some of the political rhetoric we see in the Code is ignored by a membership that might hold different, if not more reasonable values, mostly a typical librarian’s values encompass far more than the ALA’s mission statement could ever work with.

I read quite a bit on the subject, dwelled a little more, and then wrote a couple papers to wrap it all up.  Although I’m still waiting for a grade on the paper (bless the prof’s heart – he’s overworked this term but can’t bring himself to admit it), I’m confident that some of my arguments were solid.  These solid arguments, however, disagree with several of my claims from the fall.   I’m now at a point where I see the ALA Code of Ethics as a document based on reasonable limits (I’m betraying my Canadian roots with that term).   We can read in its preamble not only political rhetoric about intellectual freedom and access to information, but also the vital statement that the Code’s principles should be construed only as a framework for members to follow.  By writing, “The principles of this Code are expressed in broad statements to guide ethical decision making. These statements provide a framework; they cannot and do not dictate conduct to cover particular situations“, the ALA acknowledges that no professional code of conduct can ever completely guide a professional through an ethical dilemma.

Also implicit in this statement, I’d like to believe, is the understanding that any person’s code of ethics will be informed not only by her profession but also by her lived experiences.  A professional code of ethics is only one part of larger system that also includes schooling, previous work experience, familial upbringing, etc.  To suggest that one’s professional code is superior to all other ethical frameworks is a little presumptuous, which, thankfully, the ALA code is not.  Although the code asks its membership to always work to uphold the principles of the ALA, but it does not force them to always act in the name of the ALA. The difference is subtle: at its core is an acknowledgment that a group can adhere to similar values, but also that no one member of a group can be forced to accept them.