To Library Journal and The Annoyed Librarian: it’s about professional principles and codes of conduct

Should you print whatever you like if you own a press?

The Annoyed Librarian has whipped up a storm one again.   The recent column that drew ridiculous connections between the University of Alabama‘s recent posting for an untenured First-Year Experience Librarian position and the history of the south, e.g., the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door; and southern stereotypes, e.g., constantly bad weather has turned into so large a controversy that LJ’s editor, Francine Fialkoff, had to write her own piece on the situation.

Librarians in the blogosphere followed suit, and here I am doing the same.  I’m actually directing you to Andy Woodworth’s blog since what follows is a comment I left on his site:

But something also should be said about journalistic principles, Andy. Regardless of its profit-making motives (because face it, most organizations, are for-profit), LJ does have a role in what is written in the AL column. Making a connection between the stand in the schoolroom door and U of A’s FYE posting is not only illogical, but it is crass and border-line offensive. I could put up with how offensive it is if there was a real thread between the two, but there isn’t, so it perhaps shouldn’t have been written or published.

And this is where LJ comes into the equation. LJ should consider pulling the plug on the column, or at the very least have asked the AL to tone down this piece in particular. Some one might cry foul, yell “censorship!” or talk about first amendment rights, but frankly, LJ is completely in its right to edit for content in its own publication, and they should have in this instance.

Librarians of all stripes hold by professional codes of conduct. We have our ethical codes drawn up by various professional associations, and we **choose** to abide by them in one form or in varying degrees. The same can be said about journalism: LJ should hold itself to a higher level than it is doing here. It shouldn’t be crass simply to garner more hits, especially when what was written in the column was as outlandish as it is (i.e., satire is used to prove a point and not to find eyeballs). LJ shouldn’t think that they just because they only publish AL they can wash their hands of the means and methods that column uses to carry its opinions forward.

In the end, this issue has whipped up a storm because it’s speaking to professional values and principles in two different professions. There won’t be an answer on this and a consensus likely won’t be reached. But I don’t think we can let LJ walk away thinking that they have no part in this.

You can see that my concern lies with professional principles and codes of conduct.  This is something I read about a lot and think we all should try to adhere to since we’re in the business of providing access to opinions, thoughts, and speech.   It’s also something that is important to journalism, a profession that is equally concerned about access to opinions, thoughts, and speech.

What matters here is knowing when to draw the line.  When is it wrong to write something?   It is probably wrong to write something that is not factual, but columns often carry matters of fact as well as matters of opinion, which can be neither right nor wrong.  But this is where oversight can be useful: the illogical connections the AL made in her piece should have been revised before publication.

To the Annoyed Librarian and to Library Journal, I say, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”  To those of you who would tell me that I’m moving close to (self-)censorship or that I should just avoid LJ, I say that LJ is completely in their right to publish what they want, and for that reason we must hold them to account.


(Hats off to Brad Matthies, too, whose post got the discussion rolling between some of my own colleagues.)


Librarianship: How to solve our existential crisis

Why is it that librarians spend so much time trying to figure out who they are and what they do?   I’ve read several thought-provoking blog posts over the past couple weeks about how librarians should define themselves and whether or not librarianship is a true profession, and after reading each post I wonder why we’re allowing ourselves to get caught up in this debate in such a way, again and again, and again.

This is not to suggest that these issues don’t have merit.  Ryan Deschamps’ post on professionalism and librarianship stirred up a hornet’s nest, and it was the right thing to do: it’s good when we stake our individual positions on this matter from time to time.  Ryan has shown it from all sides, allowed others to come out for or against, and even staked his own ground, which we should all consider, too.  Mark and Deborah‘s posts over at Re:Generations, meanwhile, have demonstrated some of the reasons why we wonder what we are or what we may like to perceived as professionally.

But I’m still bothered by this entire debate.  It’s not that I think it’s pedantic – it is a necessary debate. However, this debate requires not just commentary but other facts and arguments, and

Reference is cool, but what else do we do for society?

also different voices.  I would like to see this considered, en masse, outside of the LIS blogosphere.  I think some of the answers librarians are looking for when we try to figure out who we are might be found if we didn’t limit these question to just our peer group.  We usually end up talking in circles (as has been seen time and again) if we keep this conversation to ourselves.   If you asked your friend, neighbour, spouse, city councilor, and postal carrier what a librarian is and what a librarian does, what answers would you expect to hear?  I think we, Librarians, should stop asking ourselves what our place is in the world and actually talk to the world at large to see where we stand and where we can go from here.

For what it’s worth, I believe that many people in LIS have skills and expertise that can be used – and ought to be used – in the communities we serve.  Meghan Ecclestone pretty much took the words from my mouth when she asked why CBC’s Q didn’t invite a librarian on to talk about possible revisions to a racist Tin-Tin and its censorship/collections/cultural implications even though Jian Ghomeshi opened up the programme by asking all of Canada, “What’s a librarian to do?”.

Our expertise lends itself to large social concerns

LIS professionals have expertise in copyright, policy, information ethics, data generation and preservation, IT and IS, just to name a few.  Do our friends, neighbours, and culture players understand this?  Probably not.  If we’re going to ask ourselves if we’re a profession or if we’re professional, I think we should ask ourselves if the communities we live in and serve understand our expertise and if we offer it well enough to society at large.

The Semantics of Subversive Librarianship

Let’s get political.

A large number of librarians, myself included, identify with left-leaning, progressive politics.  Whether we actively oppose GATS meetings, actively write against and criticize GATS negotiations, work to help the disadvantaged get the information that need to get a fair shake in life, or simply believe that public information access and dissemination is at the core of librarianship, these librarians are willing to merge their personal ethos with their professional lives.

Some of us revel in being labeled “subversive” for these politics.  The word’s connotations of public protests and discrete or grand actions to disrupt the status quo comfort us.  We’re the kind of people who want to make a difference in the world in our time, so being called subversive reminds us that we are in fact doing our part to fight social ills and defend civil liberties.    And we love the words spoken by Michael Moore (even if we don’t like the man – there are subversives who don’t appreciate all his work) on subversive librarianship.  Moore, a touchstone of progressive politics, praised the librarians of the Social Responsibilities Round Table who protested loudly against HarperCollins and ultimately ensured that Stupid White Men went to press after 9/11 with its criticisms of the Bush administration intact.  Humbled by the work of the librarian profession, Moore said:

I really didn’t realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group.  They are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them. You know, they’ve had their budgets cut. They’re paid nothing. Books are falling apart. The libraries are just like the ass end of everything, right?

And there we are: praise from on high.  Affirmation that we are doing our part in the fight to protect civil liberties.  And we really are! Socially responsible librarians every day defend an individual’s personal freedoms, such free speech or a right to privacy.  It’s no surprise then, that I love the SRRT, the BCLA, Library Juice and other like-minded associations and endeavors.

I strongly believe that my personal moral code cannot be tossed out the window when on the job.  My professional code of ethics marries the ALA’s Code and the CLA’s Code, the guidelines of my employers, and my personal ethical behaviour. And to put it bluntly, I work only for organizations that encourage learning, information access and information rights, a freedom to read and a freedom to speak, and an open discourse with the community on the issues affecting it daily.   That’s not to say I’m marching with fists raised whenever I shuffle along from one building to another when on campus – I packed away my Doc Martens long ago – but I do ask on a regular basis if the actions in my daily life, let alone working life, are for the greater good of society, and I work to answer in the affirmative.

But I’m bothered by the fact that these actions and values are often considered “subversive.”  I largely agree with and understand that subversive actions can never come to an end because the very nature of subversiveness implies continued action as a watchdog of state and corporate interests, but I don’t appreciate the negative connotations that are brought to bear with the use of the term.  The word, “subversive,” has physical, if not violent connotations attached to it.  To subvert something is not to upset the balance or undermine an imperfect authority.  Rather, “to subvert” is simply “to overthrow.”  And to institute regime change is not the ends our endeavour to protect civil liberties.  In protecting civil liberties we aim to defend individual freedoms.  We aim to be openly critical of government and corporate interests of all political stripes in order to defend the interests of the individual and to protect the interests of those who can’t defend themselves.

I may be quibbling about semantics and rhetoric, but it’s a strong point that I believe warrants discussion in the wider community.  To use the word “subversive” is to use language which suggests that we are only muckrakers when we are in fact social critics and defenders of the same freedoms that people who often oppose our actions hold dear.  Couldn’t we just embrace the term “subversive” as our own and try to subvert the understanding of its use, you might ask?  I think we’re still trying to do this, but in doing so we find ourselves preaching only to the choir.  Those who have not heard our message or who do not agree with it do not understand any ironic ‘subversion’ of the word “subversive.”  Rather, we must be clear and concise with our message and our terms.  Just as I am pro-choice instead of anti-life (as some abortion opponents would have it), we should pronounce ourselves as pro-civil-liberties, or something to that effect, in order to help the world understand our message.  We’re not here to take down the government, overthrow our national institutions or destroy capitalism and all its vestiges.  Rather, we’re here to promote, defend, and maintain the rights of the individual.  Perhaps a term other than “subversive” would better explain this to others.

On that note happy holidays. And to all the subversive librarians out there, I hope I haven’t offended you.  This isn’t a personal attack.  This is more an attempt to start a dialogue on the words we use to describe ourselves and our actions.

Professional Ethics, Librarianship, and the Workplace

[n.b. this post was originally written for Re:Generations, the blog for new academic librarians that is organized by CACUL at the CLA. Be sure to surf over there to join in the fun! -ms]

How often do you think about ethics in the workplace? I’ve been reading some Robert Hauptman this week, and information ethics is a small hobby of mine, so lately I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. As important as ethics are to our field, Hauptman routinely suggests (and I’d agree with him) that we don’t usually consider why a proper action is proper and a wrong decision is bad. Rather, since we’re mostly all good people working on our best behaviour, rarely do problems occur.

Generally, we tend to get by on our best behaviour within librarianship, especially since so many of us believe in things like open access, open source and the stewardship of knowledge. But still I wonder, how often should we think about ethics in the workplace? If we work to serve the public interest in one form or another (as most of us do), should we not think every now and again about the implications of our actions and our opinions on the profession and on society?

We don’t have to be expert ethicists to consider how ethics affects librarianship and the workplace. It would be useful to remind ourselves from time to time, though, that the ethics of the workplace and the ethics of the profession won’t always agree with our own. Every so often we must take an action at work that might require a negotiation of our personal values with the values of our employer as well as the values of librarianship. Conflicts might arise between ourselves and a colleague or between ourselves and the organization because of these negotiations, which will themselves have to be mediated. What counts is how we mediate these conflicts and how we arrive at outcomes amenable to ourselves and to the organization.

Hauptman often argues that ultimately our personal values must override the values of the employer and of the profession. This, of course, is easier said than done, especially for so many of us who are situated in our first contracts or have moved so far away for employment and no longer have a strong network of friends and family to help us get by. Have you had a values-based dilemma at work? If so, how did you resolve it, and how did it affect you?

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The Hoffman Survey (2005) on Ethics and the ALA

Perhaps I’m dwelling a little too much about ethics and librarianship, especially since so many others regularly cover this ground in the blogosphere. All the same, I’ve got some thoughts stirring about in the head, and I wonder if these ruminations can get others thinking about the role all of the ALA’s professional codes play in our lives.

This morning I came across an article from 2005 that discussed the results of an extensive survey concerning librarians and professonal ethics. Kathryn Hoffman’s article, “Professional Ethics and Librarianship” (Texas Library Journal, 81.3, Fall 2005) outlines some of the questions I believe must be asked if we are to properly determine the manner in which our professional code affects our day-to-day jobs. I was wondering how I could quickly push through a survey on the subject to fit a deadline on a paper I’m writing, but Hoffman’s article offers much of the data needed to understand this issue.

Hoffman’s article has some brilliant analysis regarding the adherence (or lack thereof) to the ALA Code of Ethics; it is something I’d recommend we all read. Since Texas Library Journal is open access up to late 2005, you’re only a click or two away from reading this important article yourself. In the meantime, here are a few salient points to consider. From a sample of nearly 1300 professional librarians who were asked about their “knowledge about the ALA Code of Ethics, other professional codes, how often the principles of the code are consciously used” (Hoffman, 2005, p. 7), we can gather that:

1. Only two-thirds of respondents were aware of the ALA Code of Ethics, and only one-third of respondents consciously applied the code to daily work situations. Perhaps most telling, Hoffman’s data shows that if a “conflict occurs between the ALA Code of Ethics and institutional policy, 85% of respondents reported that institutional policy prevails in their actions” (p. 8).

2. One-third of respondents report that they experienced an ethical dilemma as a librarian, administrator or teacher (p. 8).

3. 62% of female respondents (who account for 90% of the sample) felt that circumstances do exist “when librarians should exercise censorship in the selection of materials if they feel someone will be harmed, while only 49% of the men responding agreed with this principle” (p. 9).

4. “73% of librarians in school libraries agreed that librarians should excercise censorship in the selection of materials, while 53% of members in academic libraries agreed and only 49% of public librarians agreed” (p. 9).

Hoffman’s data and subsequent analysis reveals some telling trends about the alignment of a librarian’s personal convictions with his or her profession’s ethical code. Although two-thirds of ALA members are aware of the Code of Ethics, 85% of respondents stated that institutional policies will override their actions. Also, a plurality of librarians from different sectors appear to condone a certain form of censorship or filtering, depending on the circumstances at hand. This personal conviction runs opposite to the ALA Code’s second principle, which aims to “resist all efforts to censor library resources“.

Hoffman’s study suggests that the ALA’s Code of Ethics does not reflect the ethical principles of a plurality of ALA members. While I come down on the side of free speech and don’t condone censorship or filtering, I wonder if studies such as this should give us pause to consider how responsive the ALA currently is to the personal convictions of its members. Although people subscribe to certain values and principles when they join a profession, I wonder if there should be greater give and take between the professional association and its membership. Without any sort of consensus-building between the organization and its general membership, the organization runs the risk of emptying their principles of any value because their own membership will not always be a party to them. Whether or not this has actually happened with the ALA, I can’t say, and I wouldn’t be so foolish to make such a claim by only a single consideration of a single study. Further study on the subject, however, will hopefully make this issue clearer for us all.

Code of Ethics of the American Library Association. (2008). American Library Association. Retrieved Oct 26, 2008, from

Hoffman, K. (2005). “Professional Ethics and Librarianship”. Texas Library Journal, 81(3), 7-11.