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.