Thursday, August 30, 2012

30th Year Reflections/13: Ethics

“As members of the American Library Association, we recognize the importance of codifying and making known to the profession and to the general public the ethical principles that guide the work of librarians, other professionals providing information services, library trustees and library staffs.” — Code of Ethics of the American Library Association

I have to admit that it has been some time since I’ve reviewed the ALA Code of Ethics. This is not good professional practice; it is a document that should be reexamined annually (if not consulted more often, pinned to a bulletin board, or taped on a wall or window near our desk, always at hand). Perhaps we should build such a review into the performance evaluation process we go through each year at our place of employment. It is not the kind of professional statement we should ignore or tuck away in a desk drawer and forget about until faced with a crisis.

So now, having confessed my professional sin, I am faced with a question: why did I ignore the code? Was it because I was so certain, given my years of experience that the code automatically coursed through my being? Was it an act of pride or a belief that I knew what was expected of me in any given situation? Was it because I have been freed from ethical conflicts and therefore had no need to consult the code? Or was it (more likely) a case of professional sloth? And if so, what can be done to remedy the situation?

There may be at least one mitigating circumstance that I can point to that in some way gives truth to the statement that the code did, indeed, run through my veins. (For a brief history of the code I suggest some additional reading.) That truth is rooted in the teaching, understanding, and wisdom that I experienced at the feet of David K. Berninghausen (1916-2001) in classes taken from him while at Minnesota’s library school. Berninghausen was the founder and long-time chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. His book The Flight From Reason (ALA, 1975) is a must read for any professional. He was seen by some of his contemporaries as “a young turk” and “more radical than many of the established leaders” of the profession. Yet, as Elliott Kanner observed in an October 2002 tribute in American Libraries:

Despite being the consummate idealist and perfectionist in his work, Berninghausen was always warm and humane. "Love, compassion, empathy, consideration for others, brotherhood, all these will help men to live together with other men," he said. "But man's survival and welfare are contingent upon his preservation of the principle of intellectual freedom.” I owe him so much, as do we all.

As do we all. This is why I need to keep the ALA Code of Ethics in front of me at all times. One can still hear echoes of Berninghausen in the current code:

We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.

Ethical concerns come our way almost every day. DKB was a mentor. It is good to hear his voice again. And wiser still to pay attention to a set of principles that mean so much to the profession.

1 comment:

Tim Johnson said...

For more on professional ethics see the recent blog post by Lane Wilkinson at: