Statement of Competency
Core Competency A: demonstrate awareness of the ethics, values and foundational principles of one of the information professions and discuss the importance of intellectual freedom within that profession.
In order to comprehend Competency A, I had to understand and reflect on the value the profession places on ethical responsibility and its relation to good librarianship. In the information culture of 2017 I would define the library’s ethical mission as follows: to promote equal access to information for all while respecting privacy. This emphasis on equal accessibility of shared knowledge is what steers many, if not all of us, towards public librarianship, and certainly is what sparked my decision to pursue a career in public law librarianship. It is important for librarians to be familiar with the values prescribed to our profession. A love of books and interest in the community, although nice, must come second to a librarian’s dedication to the principles that govern the profession. This is because library and information professionals may be viewed as an army of workers, who, if we remain united in our moral base, can help others facilitate great change and growth. The principles that guide the profession are articulated in several core documents drafted and revised by the American Library Association. These documents are particularly important to an information professional engaged in law librarianship, as there are additional ethical standards connected to the legal profession that must combine (and may conflict) with the principles of public librarianship. In such instances, it is necessary to remember that I am a librarian first, and a legal professional second. The following outlines the controlling documents that guide my conduct:
Intellectual Freedom and the Library Bill of Rights
Because librarianship is an ancient profession, stretching at least as far back as Ashurbanipal in the 7th century BC, it has always been necessary for the mission of a library to be in flux. Recorded information and the principles that guide those charged with maintaining it have evolved over time and reflect the values of their era. In the United States, the ethical constant of those principles is that they must reflect the intellectual environment and cultural landscape they support.
The Intellectual Freedom Manual, 7th edition (ALA, 2006) was created by members of the Office of Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) of the ALA. This manual offers day-to-day guidance directly from the American Library Association (ALA) on maintaining free and equal access to information for all people.
Intellectual freedom can exist only where two essential conditions are met: first, that all individuals have the right to hold any belief on any subject and to convey their ideas in any form they deem appropriate, and second, that society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium used, the content of work, and the viewpoints of both the author and the receiver of information.
-Intellectual Freedom Manual, 7th edition
The history of the Library Bill of Rights is described in librarian and advocate Trina Magi’s History of ALA Policy on Intellectual Freedom (Magi, 2015), which is a supplement to the Intellectual Freedom Manual (ALA, 2006). In 1939 the American Library Association’s Council adopted the Library Bill of Rights (Magi, 2015) a document outlining basic policy on intellectual freedom . At that time, the country was in the midst of confronting the intolerance, both ethnic and political, that was devastating Europe during World War II. It is no surprise then that the focus of much of the Library Bill of Rights then was placed on providing equal representation to the full spectrum of political thought. Race, nationality, politics and religion would play no part in the selection of materials, except as related to what the people wanted to know about (Magi, 2015). The people should be free to read about whatever they wanted to learn about. It is in this spirit of intellectual freedom, according to Magi (2015), that the ALA defined the library as “an institution to educate for democratic living” (p.44). Similarly, during the era of McCarthyism, the ALA added principles to the Library Bill of Rights to reflect concerns over censorship of media other than books, in the 60s to address issues raised by the civil rights movement in regards to social equality, and again in the 70s to direct gender equality in light of the Feminist movement (Magi, 2015).
Simply put, the ALA looks to expand the Library Bill of Rights as demanded by the society it supports. Today, amendments to the Library Bill of Rights have been focused on matters of the impact of new technologies on user privacy, copyright and the confidentiality of electronic records (Magi, 2015). This is in no doubt prompted not just by the explosion of electronic records, but also by the country’s current concerns with cyber-security in light of terrorist attacks and intellectual property theft. During its 2013–2014 review of ALA intellectual freedom policy statements, the IFC proposed revisions to fourteen existing interpretations, all of which were approved by the ALA Council at the 2014 Annual Conference in Las Vegas (Magi, 2015).
Report of ALA Task Force on Privacy
In 2000, the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) undertook the creation of the American Library Association’s Task Force on Privacy and Confidentiality in the Electronic Environment. The task force’s subsequent report in 2000 (LITA, 2017) outlines recommendations for how librarians should handle privacy in the electronic age. The report urges librarians to become responsible for monitoring informational transactions between large for-profit database companies and the patrons that use their information (LITA, 2017).
LITA’s stance on public versus private information is essential in guiding my conduct as a librarian in situations that often arise in a public law library. Electronic records of legal research and documentation conducted in a public law library by both attorneys and the general public includes especially sensitive information. Court records, police videos, child custody agreements, wills and bankruptcy declarations are only some of the extraordinarily personal and often incriminating information that passes through the library each day. The public uses our law library because we provide access to exorbitantly priced legal databases and materials owned by enormous international information conglomerates (like Elsevier/RELX group), databases that they would otherwise not be able to afford.
ALA Code of Ethics and Equitability
There are eight principles stated in the ALA Code of Ethics, statements drafted specifically to act as a guide in the moral and ethical grey area that can arise in library services. Commitment to equal and equitable access to information is the underlying theme of ALA’s Code of Ethics (ALA, 2017). In fact, the first stated principle of is dedicated to providing fair and impartial service to the community the library serves. Of these eight principles, 5 directly address impartiality in the profession. These are listed below:
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.
III. 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.
IV. 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.
VI. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
VII. 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 (ALA, 2017).
Overseen by the Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE), the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association aimed to translate these principles into actions. It is important to remember though that COPE was and is careful to specify that these statements provide only a framework and that “they cannot and do not dictate conduct to cover particular situations.” (ALA, 2017).
Certainly, full impartiality and equality in access to information is an ideal to strive for, if not an executable reality. Although the framework ALA provides gives us direction, in practice it is up to the librarian to determine what is ultimately the most ethical option. For example, in the law library I have often been exposed to situations where patrons are prevented from performing the research necessary to represent themselves in court by a lack of technological understanding. Databases, websites, and catalogs (even without legal terminology) require a certain level of familiarity with technology that not all sections of public exhibit. The information profession has come to refer to this disparity as digital divide. This this issue has not been given a lot of attention lately (perhaps in the misconception that it will get better with time), the disparity remains a problem. On too many occasions I have seen patrons in their sixties, forties, and even twenties being unable to navigate websites, use a mouse or type due to lack of exposure to technology. In these instances, I have been asked to perform research and technological functions on their behalf. However, such personal engagement in private interests would cross the line of impartiality as well as privacy. Thus I am forced to weigh the principles of equal access against other ethical concerns. Guided by the Code of Ethics and the Intellectual Freedom Manual, I have to set and communicate the limits to my technological assistance for the public.
Access and Usability
The “Digital Divide” brings up the subject of usability, a term to describe how easily one can use electronic resources. Usability needs to be considered as a form of access: if the way information is organized by an institution is too specialized, how can it be accessible and how can we, as information professionals fulfill our mission of “promoting equal access to information for all while respecting privacy”? Reference and User Sevices (RUSA) is a division of ALA “interested in the improvement and extension of informational, bibliographical, and research activities in all types of libraries, at all levels and in every subject field” (RUSA, 2017) . Established by the ALA Council in June 1956 (cite), RUSA provides guidelines for maximizing usability. A RUSA task force produced Professional Competencies for Reference and User Services Librarians (RUSA, 2003), a guideline that stresses how reference librarians are entrusted with ensuring usability. “Consistent assessment of resources in the context of users’ needs is essential to keep any information service vital and relevant.” (RUSA, 2003). For example, although library technical services methodology, such as MARC 21 records and now RDA may be attempting to standardize the way information is organized, it is only those trained in MARC 21 and RDA that will be able to effectively access and amend those records, thereby undercutting wider access to information. Another usability barrier to access is lack of streamlined organization. Government websites in particular feature labyrinthian website organization that easily jump you from one government entity to another, leading you off the correct path to gather the information you were initially seeking. A third usability barrier to access is language. For example, if library resources, both electronic and print, are limited to English, this prevents those that do not speak the language from accessing information they may need.
Considering usability as a measure of equality in information access is a topic that I have explored in several classes and papers I have produced since I began the iSchool in 2013. These explorations prove that I am dedicated to maximizing access through usability to promote equal access to information for all.
RECORDINGS AND DIRECTING DIRECTORS
In my final paper for LIBR 200, Information and Society, I was invited to explore an area of personal interest as related to the field in greater depth. I elected to explore the limiting factors of cataloging practices that rely too heavily on rigid standards, particularly in an information culture that now relies so much on images as visual communication. Research conducted for the paper RECORDING RECORDINGS AND DIRECTING DIRECTORS suggests this is in large part because library catalogers are often not keeping the end-user in mind, stuck instead in formalized conventions of the field, using cataloguing language that those outside the field would be at a loss to understand. Cataloging standards are therefore inadvertently limiting access to information. The diverse forms of media information that we are now communicating with are not being integrated effectively into library catalogs, resulting in clunky, difficult to navigate online catalogs.