Professional Values and Ethics
Being able to articulate and employ professional values and ethics in a variety of situations and circumstances is fundamental to librarianship. The American Library Association (2004) refers to an “essential set of core values that define, inform, and guide our professional practice.” The association further states that “[e]thical dilemmas occur when [those] values are in conflict” (American Library Association (ALA), 2006). In other words, professional values and ethics serve as the operating guidelines for librarians and other information professionals, informing consistent, respectful service to all patrons.
Almost everything that an information professional does involves their values and ethics, from maintaining patron privacy and confidentiality to ensuring equal access to library resources for all users. Professional ethics and values motivate the type of behavior library and information professionals engage in: thoughtful, respectful behavior, taking into account not just the information that they are handling, but the creators, vendors, licensors, and users of that information.
I believe that I possess a particularly strong moral character, and I have an extremely firm belief in the ability of individuals to access information, educate themselves with it, and allow that information to transform their lives. This is only possible if the information is made available to people in the first place, which requires that people feel capable and comfortable with accessing information at a library or other information center. While an individual’s comfort level varies from person to person, core librarianship values are meant to be employed regardless of the library and patron type, size, location, or other demographics. No patron should be judged by what information they are seeking out or asked to explain why they want access to specific resources.
Regardless of the library environment I eventually find myself employed in, I will be helping users who have an expectation of equal access, confidentiality and privacy, free expression, diverse representation, the opportunity to educate themselves, intellectual freedom, and professional, courteous service. In order to genuinely be of service to any individual, be they a patron, a co-worker, or another library stakeholder, I not only need to be able to articulate these professional values and ethics but embody them by respecting and valuing every interaction.
Ethics and values are a core part of librarianship, which is why case studies examining real-world scenarios played a part in the first semester of this program, particularly during my Fundamentals in Library and Information Science (LIM 500) course. Case studies afford students the opportunity to think about difficult ethical situations while removed from them, which enables them to think carefully and critically about the various aspects of an ethical dilemma.
Typically, these sorts of case studies are based on real events but have been modified or anonymized so that it isn’t clear simply by reading the study how you are “supposed” to think. By presenting students with a factual description of a scenario, case studies such as the two I tackled with my first semester teammates challenge one’s thinking. Not everyone in a group –whether they are teammates in a class or co-workers at a library– will necessarily agree with how to respond to an ethical dilemma. For this reason, these artifacts demonstrate not only my ability to articulate my personal sense of ethics and values but how I would actively employ them in an environment where others may disagree.
Values and Ethics Team Case Study #4: Who to Protect?
Artifact course context and relationship to program goal. In the first of the two case studies I responded to with my team, we examined the dilemma of the new Head of Public Services at the Main Branch of the Clark County Public Library. This scenario serves as an example of something very realistic that many of us would fear happening in some form if were to work in a public library. In it, an employee at the Clark County Public Library Main Branch brings Jerome, the new Head of Public Services, some papers she believes came out of books returned by a specific patron, Terry. The papers include marked-up plans of Terry’s former workplace, a daycare, along with Internet printouts about poisoning and death by overdose. Finally, one of the papers seems to be a suicide note, although it is undated and ambiguous in nature. Because Jerome is aware that Terry used to work at the daycare, and that Terry felt he had been wrongfully dismissed, there seems to be the possibility that the papers, if they did, in fact, belong to Terry, indicate he may endanger himself or others. It is quite easy to see where the ethical dilemma here lies: where does Jerome draw the line between patron privacy and concern for the welfare of other people?
On the one hand, Jerome’s library has a policy of not monitoring what a patron borrows. Additionally, Terry repeatedly inquired about whether his interactions with Jerome were confidential and private, and Jerome had assured him that they were. During those interactions, Terry revealed personal information about his employment situation and his own depression. On the other hand, Jerome’s co-worker has reason to believe the papers definitely belong to Terry, and, given what Jerome knows about him, the documents could indicate that Terry plans to harm himself or people at the daycare. Jerome might be upholding a library code of ethics and abiding by the core values of librarianship if he respects Terry’s right to privacy in regards to what he’s borrowed… but is he being consistent with applicable federal, state, and local laws? The answer to that actually depends on details that the case study did not give.
Various states have what is called a “duty to warn” (National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 2015) in regards to potentially violent actions that an individual might make against themselves or others. Of the twelve states that have a “Clark County” within their borders, most have mandatory duty to warn laws only for mental health professionals, organizations or agencies, such as therapists, counselors, and psychologists. The state with the most populous Clark County, in Nevada, has no mandatory reporting laws at all, while South Dakota is the only state with a Clark County where all record holders would be subject to mandatory reporting laws. Bearing this in mind, it is very likely that Jerome would have no legal obligation to report his co-worker’s concerns to authorities, especially since the suicide note is ambiguous. Furthermore, since there is no way to definitively connect Terry to the papers that Jerome’s co-worker found without breaching Terry’s privacy. Nonetheless, the concern is not just whether or not Terry might commit suicide, but whether or not he might harm anyone at his former place of employment, a daycare.
After careful consideration, our team decided that if Jerome had a means of contacting Terry without utilizing patron records, approaching Terry about the papers might be helpful. If that were not possible, Jerome should bring his co-worker’s findings to his manager to determine what to do. Considering the connections between the papers and Terry only seem to make sense when patron privacy is breached, Jerome certainly has no ethical obligation to report. Nonetheless, Jerome has the option of making an anonymous report to police or contacting the daycare management. Ethical decisions such as the ones presented in this case study are difficult to make when lives are at stake, especially children’s lives, as in this scenario. Ultimately, our team decided that even though patron privacy is an utmost concern for library and information professionals, human life holds a far greater value. Though upholding professional values and ethics is fundamental to the longevity and public respect for any profession, it is difficult to weigh those ethics and values against a human life.
Case studies such as this one are capable of setting precedent: if we’re willing to waive our ethics and values in the interest of maybe saving lives, are we willing to do so to possibly prevent other crimes? What if the crimes are relatively minor, or don’t directly harm someone, such as illegal immigration? It isn’t possible to paint the professional ethics and values needed in librarianship with a broad brush; there are too many “what ifs” and points of discussion and debate. Similarly, library students can’t base their entire set of professional values and ethics off of one case study; such values and ethics must be built over time, through a combination of experience, thoughtful discussion, and careful examination of other scenarios.
Values and Ethics Team Case Study #2: When Open Access Meets a Closed Door
In this case study, my teammates and I put ourselves into the shoes of Skye Gray, the head of Corporate Library and Information Services for the fictional Acorn Technologies, a multinational medical technology company. The case study describes Skye as a fierce advocate for open access publishing, to the point that she started an Open Access Initiative at her workplace, pulled a Corporate Services librarian away from her normal job, and insisted on pitching her idea for mandated open access publishing at Acorn. When budget cuts demanded that Skye let go two members of her team (based on a glib comment she had made if open access publishing truly ended up saving the company money on expensive databases and journals), instead of firing the most recent hire, the employee from Corporate Services that Skye had pulled into her Open Access Initiative, she fired two workers from Research Services. Unsurprisingly, Skye’s decisions ended up backfiring on her when her persistence brought the issue to a company-wide vote, and her initiative was defeated. After she posted about the incident on her Facebook page, she Tweeted a vague message disparaging Acorn. When Skye returned to work the next day, the CEO suspended her, pointing out that Skye had contractual obligations regarding non-disclosure of Acorn activities, processes, practices, or developments. Skye had the option of taking the day and returning with a proposal for resolution, taking into account what the CEO had said about her personal projects clouding her ability to make decisions based on company needs.
As with the previous case study, the dilemma here is clear: was Skye in the right regarding her advocacy of open access at a corporate library, or did she let her personal passions interfere with her ability to make sound judgments at work? Again, “ethical dilemmas occur when values are in conflict” (American Library Association (ALA), 2006). Skye’s values clearly conflicted with the values, ethics, and standard practices in place at Acorn Technologies. In order to determine the exact nature of Skye’s dilemma, my team and I needed to find relevant statements of values, ethics, or standards that could serve as a guide for someone in Skye’s position, and help others avoid a similar scenario.
After some research, our team decided that the Special Library Association (SLA)’s competencies served as an excellent statement of standards to which Skye should adhere in her work environment. The competency dealing with information handling states that librarians in specialized environments like Acorn Technologies should protect “the information privacy/data of clients as well as intellectual property rights and maintains awareness of, and responses to, new challenges to privacy/data protection or intellectual property rights” (Special Libraries Association (SLA), 2014). This statement encompasses how Skye should take Acorn Technologies’ own confidentiality agreement and contract into account, along with the subsequent statements of compliance that she signed.
We also aimed to address the other issues the case study brought up, including Skye’s personal beliefs directly affecting the employment status of other Acorn Technologies employees, as with her choice to fire two Research Services employees rather than the new hire that helped her with her Open Access Initiative. By returning to the CEO with a proposal that included a formal approach to potential budget cuts, a factual analysis of corporate spending on expensive databases and journals versus those available through open access, and an action plan wherein Skye could potentially implement open access at Acorn Technologies without it disrupting the company’s processes, practices, or developments.
As with the previous case study, Skye’s scenario enabled my teammates and I to articulate a clear ethical dilemma and employ strategies for overcoming it, and preventing similar situations in the future. Beyond just explaining what ethical dilemma the case study presents, we had to develop a means of addressing it, thereby creating a toolkit of resources for our own futures.
Roles, responsibilities, and process. For the creation of these artifacts, I served as team leader. I put together agendas and organized virtual meetings between myself and my other team members. Using a shared Google Doc, we tracked the different components of each case study: what questions did we need to answer? What did each individual team member think of each case study and its implications? I also arranged our answers into coherent paragraphs and posted them in the Moodle discussion forum for our team’s case studies.
Skills and abilities. For any assignment submitted throughout the MMLIS program, I had to make use of various technology skills, since the program exists entirely online. Using WebJunction’s Competency Index for the Library Field (Gutsche & Hough, 2014), these technology skills can be broadly classified as Core Technology Competencies, and include E-Mail, Hardware, Internet, Operating Systems, Software Applications, and Web Technologies for accessing course materials online, creating and editing shared documents, and compositing multiple videos together for submission.
Additionally, I utilized Collaboration skills in working with my teammates to come up with a coherent, unified answer to the dilemmas posed in each case study. Each of us began the assignment with different experiences to inform our beliefs in regards to the ethical situations in each study. By acknowledging what every team member brought to the table, we were able to assemble a cohesive solution to each case study, rather than supplying four disparate answers. We gave each other feedback on the answers we supplied and established tasks for each team member if additional research was necessary, as was the case for Skye’s scenario.
Unsurprisingly, I also made use of Ethics and Values skills in tackling these two scenarios. My teammates and I needed to be able to address the ethical situation at the heart of each case study, and we could not have done so without a fundamental understanding of the professional ethics and values that guide the profession. Because privacy and confidentiality played such a large role in our two case studies, I had to ensure our team could articulate what those terms meant when applied to a library environment.
Finally, I made use of Leadership skills in guiding my teammates to “guide others toward a goal” (Gutsche & Hough, 2014), which meant answering the questions associated with each case study. I aimed to inspire every team member to take ownership in their part of our group answer, and share their thoughts with everyone in a manner that reflected each individual’s unique strengths.
Future Work Environments
The ability to articulate and employ professional values and ethics will apply in every future work environment I find myself in, regardless of what type of library it is, what sort of patrons I serve, or where the library is located. As the case studies demonstrate, ethics and values play into many everyday scenarios, from patron privacy to co-worker concerns. Codified ethics act as a functioning set of guidelines for how to act in the field of librarianship. As a service-oriented industry, there will be numerous opportunities for me to answer ethical questions. Sometimes I will need to tackle these dilemmas on my own, while on other occasions, I may need to bring in library management or other parties to assist me. Knowing what to do and when is the core of having professional values and ethics.
American Library Association (ALA). (2004). Core values of librarianship. American Library Association (ALA). Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/statementspols/corevalues
American Library Association (ALA). (2006). Code of ethics of the American Library Association. American Library Association (ALA). Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics
Gutsche, B. & Hough, B. (Eds.) (2014). Competency index for the library field 2014 (2nd ed.). Dublin, OH: OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.webjunction.org/documents/webjunction/Competency_Index_for_the_Library_Field.html
National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). (2015). Mental health professionals’ duty to warn. Ncsl.org. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/mental-health-professionals-duty-to-warn.aspx
Special Libraries Association (SLA), (2014). Competencies for information professionals of the 21st century (2014). Special Libraries Association (SLA). Retrieved from https://www.sla.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/SLA_draft_competencies.pdf