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The Ethical Conference Attendee

Sometime during my library school days, I am sure I was introduced to the issue of being an ethical librarian. I’m sure I learned what I needed to know for the test. Administrators for whom I worked have never seemed to overly scrutinize my professional ethics as a librarian, nor were professional ethics ever topmost in my thoughts as I was struggling to run a program.

Had it not been for a series of editorials by Lillian Gerhardt (1990, 1991) that appeared in School Library Journal, I don’t think that I would have remembered that there is a code of ethics for librarians.

In these editorials, Gerhardt interpreted the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association in its application to the practice of school librarianship and service to children. This business of right and wrong was clarified, and she asked me to think about these issues in my daily work.

Whenever I attend a professional conference, I ruminate about ALA Library Code of Ethics Statement VI: We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.

In a school setting, I never get much chance to violate this sixth standard. I’ve never been offered a huge sum of cash or an exotic vacation in exchange for purchasing a grossly inferior encyclopedia instead of the World Book or Groliers. Probably just as well.

But Gerhardt in her comments on this statement also asks if accepting vendor purchased meals at conferences or adding vacation days to out-of-town conferences violates this ethical standard. What about skipping a conference session to attend a “shopping event?” Ever go on a conference tour that had only a marginal connection to your job? How about partying so late at night, you miss (or can’t focus) on the first session in the morning.

These infractions seem to be small potatoes in a world of political “contributions” and school boards being wined-and-dined in luxurious settings by big technology companies, but if your school district is paying your conference expenses and considers your days at the conference as paid contract days, a person ought to think about whether s/he is making the most of a conference.

I am keenly aware that anyone who writes about or advocates for high standards of professional ethics is held to those standards themselves (dammit). And yes, you may have seen me sipping a glass of wine or eating a meal provided by a vendor. I hope, at least, I had a guilty look on my face.

Where and how do you draw the line about free meals or free time at conferences? I need guidance!


Hi Doug,
Earlier this year, the vendor who won the bid for two Opening Day Collections in our system invited the two librarians and our supervisor to see their operations in a mid-western state. The vendor paid for everything–hotel, limo rides, airfare, meals–and although this was set up completely after the contract was awarded, I still felt guilty for going. I felt more guilty when a friend/co-worker told me that she wouldn’t have gone, citing ethical reasons. Your post has me wondering about it and feeling guilty again.

I know this is a different situation than a conference, but I look at a conference the same way I do a regular work day–after my 7 1/2 hours of contract time, anything else I put in is extra. If I go overtime one day, can I take a little back the next? I think that at a conference, I can. Hope this doesn’t open the can of worms further!

Comment by Jann — October 9, 2005 @ 9:55 pm

Aha! I find aspects of the ethical debate everywhere in society. It even showed up in an earlier episode of ER regarding pharmaceutical companies. Makes you think! I have talked to vendors about this issue in the past when I told them I wasn’t a customer or wouldn’t allow a good meal to influence future spending. (Fortunately when your budget is cut in half, discretionary spending opportunities for unethical use disappear.) Vendors insist I am still welcome. My cynicism is always handy. Lately I have found myself selecting items from certain vendors that I can happily “share the brand.” FOr example, I love the NASA stuff that was at conference taking many things for my science teachers, but also asked ABC-CLIO for post-it notes since I no longer purchase them. If you ask at the end of the conference, many will gladly allow you to carry them home instead of them having to pack and ship. I haven’t bought post-it notes since Midwinter in Philadelphia. I was laughing about this once with a drug rep in a hospital elevator and he handed me some post-it notes to use which advertised an anti-anxiety med. Those I used with teachers!

Comment by Diane Chen — October 11, 2005 @ 8:44 pm

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