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« Library ethics for non-librarians - Statement II | Main | Library ethics for non-librarians - introduction »

Library ethics for non-librarians - Statement I

ALA Library Code of Ethics Statement I: 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.

Information technologies – the automated catalog, electronic databases, and access to the Internet – have allowed even the most humble school library to offer services even research libraries could only dream only a few years ago. But, our jobs have become increasingly complex as a result. It should go without saying that the ethical, or just plain competent, librarian should provide the highest level of service. Let’s look at each of these qualities of service in turn to see what issues are emerging as a result of new technologies.

School budgeting is a “zero sum” game: there is a finite, and usually inadequate, number of dollars that can be spent by a school district in any one year on the total educational program including class size, basketballs, toilet paper, staff development, and superintendent’s transportation allowance. What this means is that every dollar spent on technology or library resources is a dollar that cannot be spent for other potentially worthwhile purposes. Ethically, we must spend every dollar in ways that will do the most good for our staff and students, keeping the entire school funding picture in perspective.
As informational resources become available in both in print and digitally, we need to carefully appraise which format best suits curricular purposes and our budgets. Collection development strategies are more important than ever as our scarce resources need to be stretched to cover ever higher demands. Materials purchased “just in case” or for a “well-rounded collection” that remain untouched by human hands are not just unwisely, but unethically, acquired.

It is ethically irresponsible not to have a budget. Too often we confuse having a budget with having a fully funded budget. Every library needs to have a written, goal-oriented, specific proposed budget. If students are to have access to the resources necessary for an effective educational program, all school librarians must accurately inform decision-makers of the cost of those resources. The greater outlays necessary for technology in schools, among other things, makes this more critical than ever.

The use and abuse of technology resources requires that the librarian must be able to create good policies and rules related to their use. While we are rightfully expected to enforce board adopted policies such as the Acceptable Use Policy, each individual library has its own set of expected rules and consequences for their infractions that are set by the librarian and library advisory committee or school leadership team.

Since technology is an unfamiliar resource for many adults, our policies tend to be overly harsh in proportion to the importance of the act committed. I too often hear a student losing “Internet privileges” for an entire year or semester for a minor or first infraction of a rule. When formulating consequences for rule or policy infractions, librarians need to:

  1. Examine the existing consequences for other similar improper activities. If a student sends a harassing email, for example, the consequences for harassment already in place should apply.
  2. Graduate the penalties. Students should not be denied access to the Internet for an extended period of time for a first infraction of the rules. One might ask, “Should a child be banned from reading if he/she was caught reading something inappropriate?” If the inappropriate behavior repeats itself, the penalties can be increased.
  3. Bring parents in on any ethical use violation.
  4. Allow and encourage student personal use the Internet. If the Internetworked computers are not being used for curricular purposes, students should be allowed to research topics of personal interest (that are not dangerous or pornographic, of course), chat, or send email to friends. One reason for allowing this is that students are far less likely to risk loss of Internet privileges if it means losing access to things that they enjoy.
  5. Make sure all rules are clearly stated, available, taught as part of library orientation, and consistently enforced.
  6. Develop school-wide ownership of the rules. Having a site-based leadership team or library committee that helps set the rules of technology for a school keeps the librarian from having to be the “heavy” and results in rules that more accurately reflect the culture of the school.

The librarian has an ethical duty to advocate for liberal access to electronic resources for all students in a school. Home access and public library access to information technologies alone will not close the “digital divide.” This means serving on building technology teams and advocating for:

1.    Access to technology for all students. Too often technologies have been acquired and sequestered by certain departments, grade levels or individual teachers within schools. Librarians must voice the need for non-departmental (library) access to information technologies that are available before, during and after school hours. Our “whole-school” view puts us in a unique position of knowing which children are getting technology skills and access in our buildings.

Adaptive technologies have made more resources available to the physically challenged than ever before. The librarian needs to be the voice for awareness and adoption of such technologies. We also need to help schools understand and be in compliance with ADA regulations such as the mandate that all school webpages be machine readable by providing alternate text descriptions of all visuals.

2.    The least restrictive use of information technologies. The pursuit of information by students to meet personal needs should be encouraged in schools. Life-long learning strategies, practice in information evaluation, and experiences in building effective communication strategies are all reinforced when students use information technologies to meet personal goals.

As educators, we need to lighten up a little in regard to what students are doing with the Internet in our libraries and classrooms as well. The Internet has vast resources that are not directly related to the curriculum but are of high interest to students at all grade levels. Information about sports, fashion, movies, games, celebrities, and music in bright and exciting formats abounds. 

The use of the Internet for class work of course must be given priority, but computers should never sit idle. And there are some good reasons to allow students personal use of the Internet:

  • It gives kids a chance to practice skills. After all that’s why we have “recreational” reading materials in our libraries. Do we really subscribe to Hot Rod or Seventeen because they’re used for research? If we want kids who can do an effective Internet search, read fluently, and love to learn, does it make much difference if they are learning by finding and reading webpages on the Civil War or Civil War games?
  • It gives weight to the penalty of having Internet access taken away. The penalty for misuse of the Internet is often a suspension of Internet use privileges. As a student, if I were restricted to only school work uses of the Internet and had my Internet rights revoked, I’d pretty much say, “So what?” and wonder what I had to do to get my textbooks taken away as well. But if I am accustomed to using the Internet each morning before school to check on how my favorite sports team was faring, the loss of Internet access as a consequence of misbehavior would be far more serious.
  • It makes the library media center a place kids want to be. Many of our students love the library for the simple reason that it is often the only place that allows them to read books of personal interest, work on projects that are meaningful, and explore interests that fall outside the curriculum in an atmosphere of relative freedom. Kids need a place like that, and we should provide it – even at the Internet terminals.


3.    The greatest range of electronic resources. Email, chat, and instant messages are often banned by schools, fearing their misuse by students. Yet such resources can put learners in touch with one of the best primary resources – the human expert. The ability to access sound and video files and computer programs is also often banned, even when there is demonstrated instructional need.

Accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests 
One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons has Calvin on the phone asking if the library has any books on “why girls are so weird.” Frustrated when his need goes unmet, he concludes: “I’ll bet the library just doesn’t want anyone to know.” For some requests it is genuinely difficult to give an “accurate, unbiased and courteous” response.

Anyone who has worked with children and young adults knows that they have probably as wide a range of interests and information needs as adults. While giving priority to requests for help meet academic needs, we need to honor all information requests, keeping in mind that we do have a responsibility for providing guidance to our young charges as well. Personal interests can motivate reluctant readers to read, reluctant technology users to use the Internet, and library-shy students to use our resources.

And I sincerely hope we never forget that courtesy is a part of our ethical code. Opinions about libraries and librarians are formed at a young age and are often life-long. The kids we serve today will be our school board members and legislators of tomorrow.

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Reader Comments (1)

very well written article impressive

June 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMuhammad

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