Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I want to talk about a particular line in the ALA's code of ethics, that line is
"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."
(ALA | Code of Ethics, Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics.cfm)

I'm on board with having a code of ethics or professional guidelines or whatever an organization wants to call it. I get concerned when people get too literal about rules and start to feel boxed in by them. These sorts of guidelines are and should be very broad statements, and as the ALA recognizes, they shouldn't dictate every little action a library or organization undertakes. To use a tired example, a library wonders if they should collect holocaust denial literature. They feel like they should because to actively avoid it would be a form of censorship. In most cases though there's probably no point it collecting this literature, a library has a budget which is probably small to begin with and it's resources could be better spent ordering another copy of The Wire or the latest Jane Austen mash-up novel. (how did we not talk about this last unit?) The library shouldn't feel like they have violated ALA's code of ethics because not every action needs to be analyzed under the microscope of the code. If they have the jist of it and generally follow some sort of guidelines, then all is well in the world.

For my other organization's code of ethics I chose our neighbors to the north the Canadian Library Association. Sadly, it is sorely lacking in hockey and fur trapping rules.

Our Values

We believe that libraries and the principles of intellectual freedom and free universal access to information are key components of an open and democratic society.

Diversity is a major strength of our Association.

An informed and knowledgeable membership is central in achieving library and information policy goals.

Effective advocacy is based upon understanding the social, cultural, political and historical contexts in which libraries and information services function.
(Canadian Library Association | Our Mission, Values & Operating Principles, Retrieved from http://www.cla.ca/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Mission_Values_andamp_Operating_Principles&Template=/CM/HTMLDisplay.cfm&ContentID=8621)


  1. I agree with your sentiment, Dan, that the significance inherent in an organization adopting a code of ethics or professional guidelines is invaluable. When it comes to the differences between rules and guidelines though, I think of them as altogether different animals. Especially after reading and thinking more about ALA’s code of ethics, which ultimately lays out the responsibilities of librarians and the actions that are recommended they followed, without ever proclaiming its own responsibility to act. This is, of course, an established argument (that the ALA code of ethics, etc, is all bark with no bite), but I feel as though that such a stance is not the fault of ALA’s, rather that it is intrinsically related to the settling for ‘guidelines’. If librarians today feel empowered to act and ultimately feel protected by their professional organizations (i.e. ALA), then these guidelines undoubtedly are sufficient. But do these guidelines really defend librarians from exercising intellectual freedom (etc.), or just protect them in defending it? Guidelines too often allow those in power (or those that wrote them in the first place, in this case the ALA) to sidestep responsibility, therefore allowing all damaging occurrences to fall squarely on the librarian’s shoulders. The question of whether or not a set of concrete rules, corresponding with concrete actions on the part of ALA, could successfully be incorporated is a whole other story!

  2. Daniel J., I like the idea of looking toward another country's professional library association's code. It would be very instructive to pull together a comparative study of the various codes from around the world, as well as tracing their history. How many of them look very similar? What are the major differences?