Friday, September 24, 2010

Library Ethics / Jean Preer -- Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited, 2008

The following review is scheduled to be published in The Library Quarterly, 81(1), 2011.

There are two common approaches to thinking about ethics: descriptive and normative. Descriptive ethics attempts to understand the ethical standards employed by a person, institution, or society. Normative ethics attempts to justify specific ethical standards. Jean Preer’s Library Ethics is mainly descriptive. She writes, “this book will examine how our understanding of library ethics has evolved along with the development of librarianship itself” (p. xiii) and “librarians developed rules in practice that were determined by institutions, customs, and local needs. Indeed, ethics relates to ‘custom,’ the word deriving from ethos, the way things are done” (p. 2.). Often works of descriptive ethics are inherently conservative. They guide us by describing prevailing practices. Preer’s work does a fair job of avoiding this trap by giving fair accounts of countervailing ethical tendencies. In the end, the reader gains a firm understanding of the main ethical challenges facing the profession as well as the evolving answers to those challenges as codified in the American Library Association (ALA) Code of Ethics, the ALA Library Bill of Rights, and other documents. Moreover, the reader is poised to consider these issues more deeply and with fresh eyes.

Early on, Preer addresses the professional aspirations of 19th and early 20th century librarians. A code of ethics is presented as an essential element of any profession. While the aspiration to professional status may seem self-serving, the 1938 ALA Code gave guidance to library workers who sought to understand what the profession expected of them. One year later, the ALA Library Bill of Rights was a promise to patrons, communities, and the world as to what they could expect from the profession.

In tracing the subsequent development of these documents, Preer describes a transformation of ethical imperatives from concrete obligations to broad assertions of professional values. Her history begins with statements by eminent librarians, most importantly Charles Knowles Bolton’s 1909 library code. Bolton prescribed library administrators’ obligations to the library’s board, staff, and patrons. The 1938 ALA Code of Ethics preserved Bolton’s approach with its implicit value of library service; however, according to Preer, the social conditions and the practice of librarianship gradually changed the profession’s ethical foundations. In 1975, the ALA adopted a Statement on Professional Ethics in which specific obligations gave way to an assertion of values; furthermore, the explicit value of access replaced the implicit value of service.

Preer presents the re-conceptualization of library ethics from obligations to values as an advance, but it is hard to see how this is so. To provide concrete help in behaving ethically, a code must not be couched in overly general, ambiguous statements of value, particularly when the code includes multiple conflicting values, e.g., freedom of information and respect for copyright. This is not to say that statements of value are useless, but they must be able to specify obligations that direct our actions. Perhaps a more useful way to think about this history is that the elements of a general formula have been emphasized differently over time. Consider the basic ethical formula: “Librarian A has an obligation to B (a patron, community, or society) to do or not do action X.” Bolton’s code and the 1938 ALA Code more or less explicitly specified the formula’s variables, but by 1975, the object of our obligations (B) had become amorphous and the substance of our obligations (X) had become abstract. Given these changes, we indeed might want to characterize our code as asserting “values.” On the other hand, we simply may have abandoned the difficult work of identifying our obligations in favor of bromides that will pass in the ALA Council.

The more consequential evolution that Preer identifies is our shift from valuing service to valuing access. In the 19th and early 20th century, our ability to provide access was relatively limited. We, therefore, emphasized our role as educators. Preer quotes Alvin Johnson, president of the New School, as observing, “Not buildings nor even book collections, but trained, intelligent, enterprising library service makes a real library” (p. 10); but as the publishing industry expanded, as our collections grew, and as we developed increasingly sophisticated tools for controlling information, our emphasis shifted toward helping each patron access whatever information she or he could identify. The role that information plays in a democratic society ennobled this effort, but when access is the paramount value, the librarian’s primary role is technocratic. We identify the requested item or meme and provide it, increasingly “just in time” rather than “just in case.” We become, essentially, unfiltered search engines.

It is noteworthy that with the expansion of free, full-text internet access to increasing shares of the information universe, access is slipping out of the hands of librarians and into the hands of advertisers, like Google. If our primary value is access, this trend will undermine our reason for being and potentially doom the profession. The following might be as self-serving as developing a “professional” code of ethics, but resurrecting the venerable value of service could give us a more lasting future. At the same time, it will resurrect important ethical problems that faded with the valorization of access.

When service is paramount, other ethical obligations arise. Preer describes an early role of librarians as educators who sought to raise the intellectual and cultural standards of the community. She quotes ALA President Arthur Bostwick’s 1909 presidential address, saying that the books to be collected “must be morally beneficial, contain accurate information or satisfy the esthetic sense in its broadest meaning” (p. 90). Today, most librarians recoil from a role that seems to objectify goodness, truth, and beauty, but this might be only because of our recent, overriding commitment to ostensibly neutral access. Against this, the explosion of readily available information and the commercial provision of this information leaves patrons in need informed advice about which information sources to take seriously and which to ignore. A new day may be dawning for the services of the reader advisor.

Clearly, a move back to valuing service over access would resurface numerous ethical issues. Many of these issues are valuably illuminated by Preer’s fourth and fifth chapters, “Access: What Information” and “Conflicts of Interest: Philosophical.” Her fourth chapter focuses on issues of censorship and obscenity, but it also discusses quality assessment and selection criteria. Separating the wheat from the chaff can be the service that librarians add to ready online access. In her fifth chapter, Preer addresses significant ethical pitfalls on this path. It is difficult to know how we can set aside our “personal” beliefs when selecting items for their goodness, truth, and beauty. Indeed, what counts as a “personal” belief and whether we should set them aside merits examination. Different criteria might be needed for writing general guides versus offering specific advice to individual patrons. In any case, the expertise of the librarian would certainly be at a premium with this restored educational role. We would no longer be technocratic experts in document delivery, but we would become qualified subject specialists whose task would be to provide our patrons with the best of what they want, not merely anything that approximates it. This would require knowing the subject matter, the available resources, and the specific needs of the patron. In school and academic libraries a certain amount of paternalism would be in order just as teachers have an obligation to use their expertise to guide the research of their students. The ethics of librarians would begin to look more like the ethics of teachers.

Preer’s eighth chapter, “Confidentiality,” deserves special attention. Preer notes that confidentiality (or privacy) initially appears in conflict with access, but she does an admirable job of explaining how freedom of expression is predicated on freedom of inquiry which in turn requires a safe environment for inquiry. This can only come about when researchers have reasonable assurances that their research will not be made known against their will. Preer goes on to apply this principle to several circumstances and patron populations. The chapter ends with a succinct discussion of privacy in the era following Sept. 11, 2001 and the advent and implications of the USA PATRIOT Act.

Throughout Library Ethics, Preer traces the ethical attitudes within the library profession and how these attitudes became expressed in codes, statements, and particular policies. It is, as she declares, an examination of library ethics based on practice. Preer largely escapes the conservativism of descriptive ethics through the depth and sensitivity of her treatment of the issues. One might say that Library Ethics begs the normative ethical questions in a good way. The reader is left understanding many of the ethical issues that have challenged librarians as well as understanding how and why ethics codes and statements were promulgated. Equipped with this knowledge, the reader is primed to ask the ultimately more important normative questions.

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