Beyond the Bullet Points: IFLA Code of Ethics

IFLA just released “IFLA Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers” (you can read it here and to call is disappointing is putting it mildly. There are few documents that so clearly represent a collection centric worldview. That is, libraries are collections, and librarians jobs are about maintaining (and circulating) that collection.

To be sure there is some good stuff here (I’m all for ethics). Yet every time it gets a good head of steam, it veers back into the old school presumed safety of objectivity, and stacks. It also assumes throughout that all the professional ethics are practiced in a library. It seems that librarians and information professionals don’t need to care about ethics unless they work in a library.

I’ve devoted the better part of a decade to countering this collection-centric worldview so I won’t rehash that decode in this post. You want to see my take on ethics, you can here. Instead let me point out some particularly problematic parts of this code:

From the preamble –

This code is offered in the belief that:
Librarianship is, in its very essence, an ethical activity embodying a value-rich approach to professional work with information.
The need to share ideas and information has grown more important with the increasing complexity of society in recent centuries and this provides a rationale for libraries and the practice of librarianship.

So far so good.

The role of information institutions and professionals, including libraries and librarians, in modern society is to support the optimisation of the recording and representation of information and to provide access to it.

That’s right, your job a a librarian is optimization. Not to improve society, not to make a difference. Your job is to make the printer to work faster and get those suckers to the shelves (or CD’s, or online searchable databases). How about that for inspiring passion.

Information service in the interest of social, cultural and economic well-being is at the heart of librarianship and therefore librarians have social responsibility.

Remember this line for later when we get to neutrality. For now, can someone explain to me how optimization of recording representation of information (at least we can agree it is not information itself) is a social good?

OK, that’s just the preamble. Off to the actual ethics. First up, Access to Information”

The core mission of librarians and other information workers is to ensure access to information for all for personal development, education, cultural enrichment, leisure, economic activity and informed participation in and enhancement of democracy.

Now I actually really love the second part of this statement. The problem is it is not the ethical responsibility to actually further communities education or participation in democracy…nope, we ensure access [to a collection] that will do that for us. Read: librarians are passive and our effect is from our collections.

Librarians and other information workers reject the denial and restriction of access to information and ideas most particularly through censorship whether by states, governments, or religious or civil society institutions.

Surely, I can’t have any problems with resisting censorship you say. And you would be right. Of course, resisting is an active verb that would imply we do more than reject it (rejecting a denial at that), but actually fight against it and arm our communities to do so as well. Of course the idea of doing anything with our communities would imply that we are more than just collections, and that doesn’t fit in this document.

Librarians and other information workers offering services to the public should make every endeavour to offer access to their collections and services free of cost to the user. If membership fees and administrative charges are inevitable, they should be kept as low as possible, and practical solutions found so that socially disadvantaged people are not excluded.

Read…you are a collection and an institution. Apparently if you are an embedded librarian or work in places other than a library no ethics for you.

Librarians and other information workers promote and publicise their collection and services so that users and prospective users are aware of their existence and availability.

Do we promote our skills? Do we promote our communities? Nope, our collections and services (presumably in relation to the collection).

I actually like section 2. RESPONSIBILITIES TOWARDS INDIVIDUALS AND SOCIETY. There is still an emphasis on collections, but at least it acknowledges that we live in a community and that community has a culture we must respect.

Section 3 is pretty good with the exception of…

The relationship between the library and the user is one of confidentiality and librarians and other information workers will take appropriate measures to ensure that user data is not shared beyond the original transaction.

This is so un-nuanced I cannot stand it. It just begs for an additional clause on the end about “without the knowing approval of the user.” Don’t even get me started on the term user. It is well intentioned here, I just hate the term.

Section 4 is fine, until you realize it is all about other people’s intellectual property rights. Underlying the entire section is an assumption that libraries are places of consumption that build collections through acquisition, as opposed to community creation.

But then we come to section 5. NEUTRALITY, PERSONAL INTEGRITY AND PROFESSIONAL SKLLS and I run to my keyboard.

Librarians and other information workers are strictly committed to neutrality and an unbiased stance regarding collection, access and service. Neutrality results in the most balanced collection and the most balanced access to information achievable.

Neutral has the same root as neuter. Now I won’t go through a lengthy conversation about how we as human beings cannot be neutral, nor ever leave the biases built into us as individuals and as a society. I’ve done it other places. Instead let me ask how in the world can neutral people provide “information service in the interest of social, cultural and economic well-being is at the heart of librarianship and therefore librarians have social responsibility” as stated above. If we see libraries as important in the social scheme that is not neutral. If we talk about social responsibility, we are biased towards the norms of that society. If libraries are going to do anything other than collect and wait, HOW CAN WE BE NEUTRAL? This very document screams bias. It shows a clear bias towards open access…hardly universal. It shows a clear bias towards transparency, and equitable access. THESE ARE ALL BIASES. Just because we agree with them doesn’t make them neutral. Librarians are heavily biased towards access and equity.

I would so have loved IFLA to take on the much richer, and much more messy discussion of ethics in the real world. Ethics in the world of majority and minority world views. Ethics that acknowledge individual biases, and ways of overcoming, or at least representing them. As it is this line reads like a piece of throwaway fluff that totally avoids the hard questions of context, and social definitions of right and wrong.

Librarians and other information workers define and publish their policies for selection, organisation, preservation, provision, and dissemination of information.

…because that is all librarians do after all is build collections.

Librarians and other information workers distinguish between their personal convictions and professional duties. They do not advance private interests or personal beliefs at the expense of neutrality.

Wait…what? Oh, I see. We are all biased individuals, we as librarians just have a special super power to turn off those biases and forget we are human beings. This line at least gets closer to reality. We should talk about intellectual honesty, about representing both majority and minority viewpoints in a transaction (really a relationship) with members.

Librarians and other information workers have the right to free speech in the workplace provided it does not infringe the principle of neutrality towards users.

Sigh…does anyone else see the inherent problem with the concept that neutrality is a choice? Either you can be neutral or not.

Librarians and other information workers counter corruption directly affecting librarianship, as in the sourcing and supply of library materials, appointments to library posts and administration of library contracts and finances.

AAAARRRRGGGGG!!!!! So let me get this straight…librarians only care about corruption that directly affects librarians? The rest of the community has to fend for itself. Take a bribe and screw the poor is OK, as long as it doesn’t effect our materials budget?! Oh, and we’re back to the library as a collection, because the only way that corruption can effect libraries is through our materials (because we’re only a collection), hiring in a library, and library money.

OK, there is my rant for the day. To be honest there is some really good stuff in here about librarians needing to be open, collegial and constantly learning. However, the underlying worldview is that librarians work in libraries, and that libraries are collections. The focus is on libraries buying stuff, and lending it out to users. This not only ignores the reality of being human and how people learn, it creates internal contradictions that ultimately turn this potentially important document into jingoistic truisms.

Be ethical, not just when you’re in a library, but all the time. Fight corruption, and discrimination, and censorship all the time, and actively. See your community as more than users that must be coddled and protected. Librarians are ethical, and noble and have a rightful claim to the moral high ground. We take that right not from being passive and neutral, but by being ADVOCATES for the well-being of our communities. Our ethics define us as librarians, so we should take better care to ground those ethics in a worldview that reflects a focus on community and learning, not collections and institutions. We can do better, and our communities should expect more of us.

8 Replies to “Beyond the Bullet Points: IFLA Code of Ethics”

  1. You asked for my opinions on Twitter, so here goes…

    I’m on record as believing that access is one among many values that librarians have, and we overprioritize it:

    That said I don’t think access *necessarily* presumes a collection-centric worldview. There’s a grain of this idea in ILL, for example: the belief that libraries provide access even to materials not in their collections. I think libraries dramatically underenvision the possibilities here (why is the OPAC search typically limited to my library’s collection? why do I have to know there’s an alternate route for materials I don’t find in that search in order to execute ILL transactions in the first place? why is my library not providing me with access, or its best approximation of access, to materials it does not have — why do my searches *ever fail*? all searches should return some next action…)

    The way we implement access, yes, that’s collection-centric. But it need not be and ought not to be.

    Other points:

    I, of course, share your frustration about the construction of librarians as people in libraries (apparently public libraries at that). Of course the question of “who is a librarian” is deeply fraught, and I find it problematic that, with nearly zero library experience and an MLS, I am an unquestioned librarian, whereas people with dramatically more experience but no MLS often face questions as to their belongingness.

    I noticed the same things in sections 3 and 4, and I agree that neutrality is a fraught concept, and freedom from bias — while arguably a goal to strive toward — is not something one ever reaches.

    I think the free speech/neutrality sentence is dodging a fascinating, messy, unresolvable-but-worth-debating question.

    As for my personal ethics-of-librarianship, I think I’m too new to the field to have a well-developed theory or philosophy there; I believe philosophies of practice should emerge *from* practice, not be library-school essays written from fifteen years of academic training in how to be glib. I’m evolving mine: But I do not think “libraries are safe spaces for the sphere of deviance” and “libraries are liminal spaces” are going to be taking over the professional canon any time soon.

  2. I agree, just because you talk about access does not mean you have a collection centric view….a collection centric view is implied when you talk only about access to collections. Access to other members of the community, access to tools of content creation, providing the world access to your genius are all access issues that come from a much more community/participatory view. I don’t see any of that in this document.

    I’m thinking about the philosophy of practice (and being glib after 15 years of academic training). I end up here. As a librarian you are identified by what you do and why you do it. However, over time what you do will change, and guiding that change should be why you do it. That deeper understanding of purpose and desired impact I don’t think naturally emerges from practice. It requires reflection and a lot of thinking with input far beyond a single context of practice.

    If you define your theory of practice solely by what you do, all you can say is that why you are doing is either working or not working (if that).

    1. Hm, I wouldn’t say that defining theory of practice solely by what people do is an accurate characterization of how I think it should work. Rather I’m criticizing the common practice (particularly in my prior field, teaching) of expecting people to write philosophies of their field as students, before they’ve had (in many cases) any substantial professional practice. I think a deeply informed philosophy requires grappling with the issues as they emerge from practice — both because the practice broadens our perspective and because the grappling itself is a key component.

      This means, just as much, that writing down your job description can’t possibly constitute a philosophy, either. Philosophy goes deeper than everyday tasks and ought to take into account things unseen. So, no, I would never say that it emerges *naturally* from practice, because lots of people never do the grappling.

      I think what I’m saying is that both theory and practice are required for a philosophy of practice to be meaningful, which is why I dislike the common phenomenon of having people without practice write one. But either way it’s tangential to most of the points i was making.

      1. “both theory and practice are required for a philosophy of practice to be meaningful, which is why I dislike the common phenomenon of having people without practice write one”

        Double plus agree!

  3. To quote from the document:

    “Librarians and other information workers offering services to the public should make every endeavor to offer access to their collections and services free of cost to the user.”

    To quote from you:

    “Apparently if you are an embedded librarian or work in places other than a library no ethics for you.”

    This is taking the statement from the document way out of context.

    The document is saying that IF you are a librarian who is offering services TO THE PUBLIC, then the following applies to you.

    IF you are NOT a librarian who is offering services TO THE PUBLIC, then the following does NOT apply to you.

    Nowhere does it say, “IF you are a librarian who works at a place other than a library, then you don’t need ethics.” That’s just such a wild leap, I can’t even begin to fathom where that came from. Librarians work in a variety of areas, and thus not every part of the document is going to apply to every librarian. If they had to make every part of the document applicable to every librarian, then we’re making it even more generic than it already is, something you seem to have already taken umbrage with. You can’t have it both ways.

    I do agree with your post in some areas, but in other areas, it’s like you were just trying to pick a fight because you can.

    1. It’s a fair comment…I was a bit hot when I wrote it. That lead to some strident statements. However, he vast majority of this document explicitly talks about the ethical responsibilities of librarians in relation to a collection.

      As you rightfully point out, and as the document explicitly points out, this is a broad statement that needs to be contextualized. However, rather than seeing maintaining a collection as a context of librarianship, it is presented as the defining activity….the core mission in fact. That’s where I have a problem.

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