Articulate the ethics, values and foundational principles of library and information professionals and their role in the promotion of intellectual freedom.


Every librarian worth his salt has a little membership card in his wallet which folds out to read:

  1. 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.
  2. We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.
  3. 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.
  4. We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.
  5. 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.
  6. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
  7. 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.
  8. We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.

This is, of course, the American Library’s Association (ALA) code of ethics, a body of laws and values which should rightfully guide the behavior of the librarian. These guidelines for behavior are so important that the ALA deemed it necessary to imprint them on the association’s iconic membership cards, covering more than half of the surface volume.  Other information science associations (such as the Society of American Archivists; SAA) have their own distinct codes but such values often serve as corollary rather than replacement to the ALA’s credo, which presents chiefly by way of the Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights. To the contemporary librarian the ALA’s ethical code is central to their work and has become a mantra from everything ranging from the reference interview to major institutional policy decisions. But why is such a code necessary in the first place? The library science domain is a critical factor in the development of knowledge, and as the physical scientist must remain faithful to the rigors of the method, so must the librarian adhere to a common professional ground so as to remain a progressive and healthy force in academia. And as librarianship is a service-oriented vocation, the well being and educational lives of our patrons are often in our hands. How we act may very well decide the relationship a patron will have with the educational or academic system, and may help nurture or stagnate information retrieval skills critical to navigating our new world of information.

Where there are ethical codes there is a place for unethical behavior to reap destruction. The librarian is often one of the child’s first guides to knowledge, and plays a critical role in helping to develop important research skills in the older student. The public librarian is a community pillar who has the opportunity to forge community bonds and provide a clean place for recreation and self-improvement. Aside from educational and social roles, the librarian is also tasked with preserving knowledge, safekeeping it from not only the stresses of time and space, but also governments, corporations and mobs. Often the librarian is a bulwark between ignorance and wisdom, and has from time to time been murdered for safeguarding the latter, as with Hypatia at Alexandria. The librarian is often the one responsible for managing a state’s foundational legal papers, and the critical cultural heritage records which may define a people, country or race. It can be of no surprise that the first targets a belligerent strikes are national libraries (as with the National Library of Sarajevo during the ethnic strife within the Balkans during the mid 1990s); to destroy the library, and the services the librarian provides, is to destroy a people. In all these areas there is room for the librarian to misbehave;  to sell information to the highest bidder when he should be guarding it, to neglect his collections and allow them to rot, digitize copyrighted materials, to pawn off library resources for favors, disregard the private or confidential matters of a patron, and to disservice those who he is prejudiced against, amongst a myriad of other, innumerable offenses.

Accorded to this circumstance is a need for the librarian to be ethical. Ethical in the sense that they:

  • Are able to perform their duties in a consistent, honorable, modest and professional manner
  • Understand the basic value of information, and the importance of preserving it
  • Take an interest in the well being of their patrons, especially as it applies to their learning and exposure to information
  • Develop a passion for expertise; they remain current in the literature and continue to develop as scientists
  • Are willing to aid allied professions, as well as others in the community of information science

Yet the ALA’s code, or any provisional set of rules, is not sufficient to produce a librarian who is ethical and has an appreciation for the values and foundational principles of the vocation. Such a knowledge may produce a librarian who might perform a job in a technical, limited sense but otherwise will be useless when confronted with the great host of ethical dilemmas which frequently befall the librarian. For that, the librarian must be a philosopher. That is to say: the librarian must have a love of the good, and must use reason to rule his life. The ALA is not a source of wisdom, but a source of rules, that without a base of reasoning behind them are not but hollow creeds. For a list of rules without the reasons behind them are shallow: they provide an absolute morality without a flexibility to cater to circumstance, change or exception. How one could develop good character, reasoning skills and virtuous conduct is up for debate though the Platonic tradition has served me well. In my understanding the behavior of an ethical librarian only follows naturally ,and effortlessly from a pre-existing disposition toward the good and reasonable. Furthermore: what is ethical or has value supersedes any professional code; a professional code might invoke facets of a greater good, but does not define or create that good. This is not to suggest that we should inject our beliefs into our library work, only that flourishing as a librarian requires a greater ability to reason, conceptualize and investigate which exceeds the expectations and provisions which are provided in a simple professional code. The professional code should be considered, and adhered to where possible, but should not falsely bind us to act in disagreement with right reason. The competent librarian is an independent and creative thinker who is capable of considering the ethical implications of a dilemma within the context of the greater society, circumstance, professional expectations and broader reasoning.

A librarian must be a scholar of the law. The work of librarianship often involves legal matters: something as simple as posting an image of a record on a website can produce legal troubles for an institution. The librarian must not only have an intimate knowledge of state and local law which provisions information and the library, but also international copyright and in particular laws regarding digitization, ownership, privacy and funding. Law regarding digitization is an especially common concern for the contemporary librarian, who often is want to digitize everything, but must navigate a labyrinth of statutes and provisions in order to do so without offending the state or the individual rights of citizens. Accordingly the contemporary librarian must be savvy to the laws of the land and not merely in the sense of familiarity ad consensus; the librarian must instead have a working knowledge of legal documents, particular rulings and statutes. The expert information scientist understands the entirety of the law and seeks new angles to accomplish service concepts within and by way of it.

Lastly the librarian is an advocate for intellectual freedom. Intellectual freedom is defined by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This speaks to the librarian’s need to withhold censoring information, and to provide unbiased access to it where possible while protecting the privacy of the patron. While defined as a fundamental human right by the United Nations it also has been enshrined as a core value in librarianship by the The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, the American Library Association (by way of the ‘Intellectual Freedom Manual’)  and the national associations of various world states. The relevance of this value is that a user is guaranteed to explore information freely, without constraint or judgment, and be supported in his creative expression. It is this value which oft is the impetus for increasing access to library services, improving information literacy and information retrieval skills and for advocating for educational reform. It is intellectual freedom which fuels net neutrality (a topic I touch on below) and the free commodities of the Internet. Intellectual freedom should be the prime concern of every librarian: every piece of information which is in a silo or otherwise sequestered from investigation is a squandered resource to the greater community of patrons.

Applied Work

While at SJSU I have studied the professional ethics, values and principles of our time, posited by the American Library Association, and correspondingly developed my own thought as companion to them. I also have extensively studied other ethical codes and the legal issues surrounding librarianship, the latter of which often are married to the former. I have expressed this study in two primary forms: the treatise and the philosophical meditation. For my evidence I provide two of the former and five of the latter. The treatises were furnished as exams or papers while the meditations often derive from op-ed pieces from my blog or from discussion boards from class. Together this work has helped me to analyze the currently standing professional guidelines and ethics, solidify my own credo and speak to the importance of promoting intellectual freedom.

The first piece of work I present is a paper on the essential legality of digitization, as it applies to copyright. This is perhaps one of the central ethical and legal conundrums of the contemporary librarian, as he increasingly encounters orphaned works, dubious copyright and a wealth of records which are want to be introduced to the open web. Unfortunately there are a myriad of legal and ethical issues which surround digitization and this paper defines them.

My second piece of work is a final exam from Erin Lawrimore’s  Archives and Manuscripts class. Within I define and examine the Society of American Archivist’s ethical code and also discuss the nature and responsibilities of an archivist. This is particularly important to this competency and my own portfolio, as I specialize in special collections and archives.

The next four pieces of evidence I present are philosophical meditations or opinion pieces. All of them are relevant in the sense that I consider the ALA’s ethical code and other common professional values, offer insights and comment on their utility, effectiveness and coherence. I believe this competency speaks to the ability of a student to be a lucid philosopher; for at least in my mind it is not enough merely to be proficient in regurgitation of the ALA’s code, but one must be able to reason to ethical value. The five are:

  • Against Sophistry, Amorality and Neutrality – this exercise considers and critique’s the ALA’s implied stance that all reference requests should be processed, regardless of the harm that may result from them.
  • Erasmus vs Machiavelli – this meditation concerns whether librarians should consider the needs or wants of the patron within the context of information retrieval.
  • Role of the Librarian – considers the existential nature of the librarian in an information world which is changing; a world which presents new challenges to the advancement of intellectual freedom.
  • The Importance of Net Neutrality – a passionate defense of net neutrality and a call for librarians to rally to it.

Digitization and Copyright (.PDF)

Archives and Manuscripts Exam (.PDF)

Against Sophistry, Amorality and Neutrality

Erasmus vs Machiavelli

Role of the Librarian

The Importance of Net Neutrality


American Library Association. (2008). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics.cfm

American Library Association. (2005). Intellectual Freedom Manual. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/iftoolkits/ifmanual/intellectual.cfm

American Library Association. (1996). Library Bill of Rights. Retrieved from  http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/index.cfm

Rubin, R. E. (2004). Foundations of library and information science (2nd ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

Society of American Archivists. (2005). Code of Ethics for Archivists. Retrieved from http://www2.archivists.org/standards/code-of-ethics-for-archivists

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a19

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