Ethics of Librarianship: Libraries, Intellectual Freedom, and Censorship in the Age of Technology

by Moya K. Mason


Libraries are repositories for humanity's knowledge; they are our past, our present, and our future. They are much more than storehouses for books, and include many other forms of data. The information available in libraries must be accessible to all people, regardless of education, age, or economic status. Retrieval of particular types of information requires specialized knowledge and database searches that are beyond the capabilities of many users, and particularly of undergraduates starting their university careers. Librarians need to share that knowledge with users, instructing them on how to use electronic resources and the Internet so they can do research on their own, while pointing out the limits and problems associated with electronic research.

With the rise of modern technology, the logistics of the workplace changed forever. New rules are needed to govern behaviour, and to develop procedures for librarians on the frontlines. As Hans Jonas states in The Imperative of Responsibility, "modern technology has introduced actions of such novel scale, objects, and consequences, that the framework of former ethics can no longer contain them" (Jonas 1984,34). This essay will provide an overview of a few ethical dilemmas facing libraries and librarians, and try to find out if Lee Finks' concerns are still valid today. Since confidentiality is so important and fundamental in any discussion of ethics, and its promotion, maintenance, and preservation the custodial duty of every library employee, it will be considered an underlying and presumed practice.

Ethics and Technology

Librarians and information professionals face numerous ethical dilemmas. Recent years have seen a growing interest in workplace ethics because the evolution of modern technology has changed the manner in which humans interact with each other and their environment (Jonas 1984,17). In The Recovery of Ethics in Librarianship, Richard Severson points out that:

Technological innovation, for example, is enabling us to create "brave new worlds"... But automated environments are unfamiliar worlds. Our old intuitive habits of evaluation, which are adequate for determining what is best in traditional worlds, are inadequate in new and different settings (Severson 1995,13).

Since it is often only librarians who have the skills to access information from specialized databases, it is important that librarians keep ethics in the forefront. Jane D. Schweinsburg stresses that it is critical that information professionals share their knowledge with patrons. If not, a rift will develop between those who have the power to obtain information and those who don't (Schweinsburg 1995,331). Along with the latest technologies come questions of user fees and problems associated with fair and equal rights to information. Librarians also need to make sure that the information and services offered to users are current, timely, and of the highest quality possible. Collaborate and communicate with library vendors to make sure that the library has the best resources available (Mintz 1991). The user is relying on the information to be accurate and from a reliable source.

The Censorship of Selection: Consequences for Intellectual Freedom

In 1991, Lee W. Finks wrote about the need for librarianship to develop a new code of ethics. In 1995, the ALA did just that. A perusal of the code leads to the conclusion that perhaps not all of his concerns were incorporated. Essential to Finks' thesis is the belief that a code of ethics for librarians and information professionals must not be a hollow statement written to satisfy the public or library boards. It must embody the principles and convictions that librarians have historically considered of value, and should "focus on the way we do our work and whether or not we perform in a way that can honestly be called professional" (Finks 1991, 84). Furthermore, as Johan Bekker points out, since society judges a profession by its individual members, all members must follow a clearly defined set of ethical standards (Finks 1991,85). In particular, ethical issues related to selection of materials and intellectual freedom should be carefully considered by librarians (Finks 1991,89).

Intellectual freedom hinges on the assumption that individuals choose the path their inquiries take, but this is often a false assumption. How each selection is made in the process of providing information involves a value judgement (Schweinsburg 1995,34). Librarians often decide the direction an inquiry takes, not the patron, and therefore, it's important that librarians try not to let their personal ideologies interfere with their professional activities. Invariably, the client has no way to judge whether the librarian has acted unethically (Finks 1991,85). Professional codes require librarians to remain neutral and to provide the information a client requests. Librarians should set aside their assumptions and prejudices to make sure they won't destroy the fundamental principle that underlies librarianship: the social obligation to allow access to all perspectives. This also has serious and considerable consequences for the selection of materials.

In Professional Awareness of the Ethics of Selection, Schweinsburg addresses the issue of selection in libraries and writes, "the fact that librarians must examine and select the materials for their collection may make them de facto censors" (Schweinsburg 1995,34). Bekker stresses that selection must be free of censorship and undertaken for library users, not based on any personal preferences (Finks 1991,87). Hauptman correctly points out that these decisions are becoming more important as the price of books and other materials continue to rise, and because libraries face frequent budget cuts. He cautions librarians to avoid censorship and duplication of reference materials (Hauptman 1990,17). Lack of money has always been an issue for libraries, but the problem is exacerbated when so much has to be spent keeping up with new technologies, and meeting public demands. What responsibilities do libraries have to society?

The Ethics of Reference Librarians: Society and Clients

Many ethical conundrums are faced every day in reference work. How they are dealt with can have serious repercussions for both individuals and society. Robert Hauptman brought some of these issues to the forefront when he carried out an unobtrusive experiment in an effort to see how reference librarians respond to questions of an ethical nature (Hauptman 1990,15). In 1975, he visited thirteen libraries and asked various reference librarians to provide him with information for building a bomb, a bomb big enough to blow up a suburban home. Not one librarian refused his request. Herein lies the dilemma for people working on reference desks everywhere: do they blindly serve clients, discounting any moral obligation to their communities and society, or is it their primary duty to think of the collective good?

Hauptman calls it the "dubious professional commitment to dispense information" (Hauptman 1990,15). If there is any reason to suspect foul play or if you believe any physical harm could come to somebody by providing information to a person who just walked in off the street, then the onus is on you, the reference librarian, to refuse the request. As Hauptman put it, "whenever there is a direct conflict between professional ethics and societal good, the latter must take precedence" (Hauptman 1990,16). Bekker also has strong views concerning where librarians' priorities should lie, stressing "that the professional's first ethical imperative should be altruistic service to the client," however, he does agree that vocational ethics should take precedence, so it is a librarian's duty to protect society first (Finks 1991,85). If librarians have a code of ethics with clearly laid out guidelines, any information query can be denied with justification.

In Information Ethics: Freedom, Democracy, Responsibility, Martha M. Smith points out that this is not a new debate. As far back as the early years of the Library Journal (founded in 1876 by Melvil Dewey), ethical dilemmas generated controversy (Smith 1993,7). Subjects range from wartime issues concerning information about the 'enemy' to how librarians should answer legal and medical questions. Hauptman reminds us that there is a very thin line between providing a patron with information and giving them advice, especially for special librarians working in law and medical libraries. Not only is it ethically reprehensible to give out advice, it's illegal. Librarians who do it can be held liable (Hauptman 1988). The best course of action is to recommend that the patron seek the services of a professional. Reference librarians will always have dilemmas to work through, and will be expected to make difficult decisions on a daily basis. They will have to be accountable.

Accountability includes concern for society, but also whether individual patrons are being treated with respect and in an ethical manner. David A. Tyckoson maintains that librarians must first be accountable to the patron, and then, to other librarians, administrators, and the profession as a whole (Tyckoson 1992,151 55). Ethical guidelines obviously need to be established and regularly monitored. In particular, Canadian libraries should seriously discuss developing a framework that addresses the concerns brought forth by Finks and Bekker, one that incorporates the realities of a digital world. The code developed in 1975 is vague and lacking in conviction. Libraries have seen many changes in the last twenty years. That should be enough to propel the Canadian Library Association (CLA) to adopt a new code of ethics.

Concluding Remarks

Arguments have been made that sanctions need to be written into a new code of ethics to make sure librarians behave ethically (Rathbun 1993,11). Gene D. Lanier discusses how a code can be enforced when ethics are so subjective (Lanier 1993,9). He believes that codes should incorporate a series of rules for librarians to follow in the face of "moral questions raised by the diverse applications and growing technological sophistication of computers" (Lanier 1993,10). Lanier thinks libraries of higher standards are possible, if administrators practice and insist on exemplary behaviour from all staff (Lanier 1993,10). In light of all discussed, the ethical codes in use are obviously inadequate, especially when one considers the impact of modern technology on libraries and their staff. Since the future is so unpredictable, a more frequent review of ethical codes is in order, along with the development of swifter adoption procedures. Why is all this so important?

Because librarians possess valuable knowledge, skills, and experiences badly needed in a world of people who must come to terms with the power of information in their lives. We know that free access to information preserves democratic ideas, that information resources must be managed with care, and that the human spirit depends upon remembering the past, sharing the present in community, and dreaming about the future (Smith 1993,4).

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Finks, Lee. 1991. Librarianship Needs a New Code of Ethics. American Libraries, Vol. 22, pp. 84-92.

Hauptman, Robert. 1988. Ethical Challenges in Librarianship. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Hauptman, Robert. 1990. Ethical Concerns in Librarianship: An Overview. In Information Ethics, ed. by Anne Mintz, pp. 14-23. Jefferson: McFarland.

Jonas, Hans. 1984. The Imperative of Responsibility. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lanier, Gene D. 1993. ALA's Committee on Professional Ethics: An Insider's View. North Carolina Libraries, Vol. 51, No. l, pp. 9-10.

Mintz, Anne. 1991. Ethics and the News Librarian. Special Libraries, Vol. 82, No. 1, pp.7-11.

Rathbun, Susan R. 1993. Ethics Issues in Reference Service: Overview and Analysis. North Carolina Libraries, Vol. 51, No. 1, pp. 11-14.

Schweinsburg, Jane D. 1995. Professional Awareness of the Ethics of Selection. Journal of Information Ethics, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 33-41.

Severson, Richard. 1995. The Recovery of Ethics in Librarianship. Journal of Information Ethics, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 11-15.

Smith, Martha M. 1993. Information Ethics: Freedom, Democracy, Responsibility. North Carolina Libraries, Vol. 51, No. 1, pp.4-8.

Tyckoson, David A. 1992. Wrong Questions, Wrong Answers: Behavioral vs. Factual Evaluation of Reference Service. The Reference Librarian, Vol. 38, pp. 151-155.

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