Library School and Information Ethics

An interest group within the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) has released a statement advocating for inclusion of courses on information ethics in all North American LIS curricula:

ALISE draws on ethics from the “universal core values” attributed to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This means advocating for ethics such as equality of opportunity, freedom of thought, opinion, and expression, and explicit rights to privacy and education.

I think teaching information ethics is information programs is fabulously important and I wholeheartedly support the ALISE statement. Ethical guidelines are critical in a profession devoted to information access and information freedom. For instance, U.S. libraries’ protection of patron privacy in the wake of the USA Patriot Act stemmed directly from professional codes of ethics and was an admirable example of privacy protection.

But I also see such broad definitions of information ethics as just a beginning. Broad codes can be very easily and uncritically summarized by ambivalent faculty or students as “be nice to others” guidelines. As a student in my required LIS ethics course asked: “Why do we need this class? Shouldn’t we just be nice to everyone?” And while the answer to her question is yes, of course, don’t our professional ethical obligations reach beyond being nice or treating everyone equally?

Broad ethical codes don’t overtly address entrenched, structural oppressions that librarians and archivists face, and participate in, every day. The IFLA and ALISE codes of ethics do little to question archival appraisal policies which have marginalized or destroyed the records of women, queer people, and communities of color. A broad code of ethics does little to guide progressive collection development policies or to help librarians decide whether controversial books should be removed from the children’s section. A broad code of ethics provides guidelines most librarians can agree upon, but in the end, does little to navigate some of the biggest challenges in our field today. LIS educators should look beyond broad codes of ethics to question the ways in which structural inequalities challenge our ethics. Emphasizing the importance of ethics while teaching that “universal” codes and guidelines are only a start can hopefully encourage critical ethical thinking in LIS education.




Filed under LIS education

4 responses to “Library School and Information Ethics

  1. greyson

    “Why do we need this class? Shouldn’t we just be nice to everyone?”

    Aah! Oh no – it’s the dreaded “niceness” of librarians! Run!

    This is really why we blog here, isn’t it? Because librarians are by and large quite nice people – but niceness is not the same as respecting a person’s rights and serving the public in a just and equitable manner.

    I don’t really care much if you’re nice to me, as long as you act professionally and respect my rights. (Well, you specifically, Katie, I do want to be nice to me, as my friend, but I’m speaking about any librarian/banker/teacher/doctor/other professional I come into contact with in my daily life.)

    Nice is culturally based and thus culturally biased. Nice to me means exclusive to others who don’t share our cultural norms. Nice to my colleague means not challenging her when she says something racist in a meeting. Sometimes being ethical means having to be not-nice to people.

  2. Katie

    Yes, yes, and yes! To all of the above.

  3. Pingback: On saying “no” (or at least “no, but”) « Social Justice Librarian

  4. Pingback: Niceness, Helpfulness & Ethics: Feedback edition | Social Justice Librarian

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