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Technology, school librarians, and the ALA Code of Ethics

Evening lights at Friendship Beach, April 2012

I am back working on the revised version of Indispensable Librarian this week and I'll be sharing some things I'd like input on from my brilliant Blue Skunk readers. Last night I began working on the chapter on professional ethics, using a piece I wrote for Carol Simpson's 2003 book Ethics in School Librarianship as the outline. So over the next few days, I'll be looking at each of the eight ALA ethical statements in light of how technology has shaped our decisions.

As I read the opinions of Buffy Hamilton and Linda Braun about whether librarianship as a field is simply morphing into tech support specialist, ethical practice was foremost in my mind. While I see the transition as perhaps inevitable, I want the new library/tech position to retain the values that are at librarianship'score. As technology specialists seem to be taking an increasingly large bite of what were once library jobs, (Jeff Utecht did  a very good job at the EARCOS conference talking about effective search and information evaluation skills), I get concerned that these values may be lost.

How has technology impacted the ethical practice of librarians?
At a workshop on technology ethics for students, I was (to put it mildly) surprised when one of the thoughtful, lively school librarians attending revealed that she did not realize that one should not publicly post lists that linked student names and titles of overdue materials. It seemed to me to be an issue that was, as our students put it, a “no-brainer” – librarians have an ethical duty to protect the privacy of their patrons. But apparently it is not.

The sweeping impact that information technologies have had on school library programs suggests that we continually revisit the American Library Association’s “Code of Ethics” as technologies change. We have accepted as part of our mission and charge the ethical education of our students and, to some degree, our fellow educators and parents. But in order for us to do this with understanding and without hypocrisy, we need to look at the ethics of our own professional practice as it relates to use of information technologies.

While it is impossible to visit every ethical issue that technology touches, this chapter deals with those are the most significant or most confusing for the practitioner. We need a continuing dialog in our profession about our own ethical practices. A reexamination of the ALA’s “Code of Ethics” is a beginning.

Code of Ethics of the American Library Association

One of things that makes a profession, a profession is that it has a written code of ethical practice. ALA’s code for librarians has been around since 1930 and is revised on a regular basis. As of this writing, it was last changed in 2008.

While the Code doesn’t get down to specific cases, it does provide a “broad framework” for guiding the day-to-day, often confusing, often controversial, decisions librarians, including school librarians, make. To be perfectly honest, it takes a brave, values-driven practitioner to follow this Code. But it is what makes us unique and invaluable as a profession.

  1. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.
  2. We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.
  3. We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.
  4. We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.
  5. We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness, and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.
  6. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
  7. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.
  8. We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.

Adopted at the 1939 Midwinter Meeting by the ALA Council; amended June 30, 1981; June 28, 1995; and January 22, 2008. 

            Let’s look at each of the eight statement in light of how technology decisions need to be made.

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