When Values Conflict

By Symons, Ann K.; Stoffle, Carla J. | American Libraries, May 1998 | Go to article overview
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When Values Conflict

Symons, Ann K., Stoffle, Carla J., American Libraries


For libraries, as well as the rest of society, these are revolutionary times. Change is so rapid that it is impossible to keep up. Today's upheavals in information and telecommunication technology hold great opportunities and challenges for our libraries and our customers. But the rapidity and magnitude of the changes mean that the nature and speed of our traditional library responses are inadequate in this new environment.

For libraries and librarianship to survive as special institutions and a unique profession, we must go back to our very foundations. We must remember our core values and let them guide us in creating future libraries and library services.

Why should we deconstruct our profession down to its core values? These values - and how we apply them in service to our customers - are what we are about. They describe who we are and why we are a profession - why, in fact, librarianship exists. They are the basic principles, standards, or qualities that are guideposts for our actions and behaviors, and they undergird our various activities and services. Professional values evolve over time, through debate and dialogue, and are codified and promulgated by our professional association - the American Library Association. Our values are important; how we implement them is what distinguishes librarianship from other information professions.

If, as a profession and an association, we accept the foregoing as true, then it is critical to identify core values of librarianship and regularly invoke these to gauge our individual actions and activities. Identifying professional library values is a fairly easy task. A cursory review of the library literature and the ALA Policy Manual, or even a brief discussion with colleagues, soon identifies the following core values: intellectual freedom, equity of access, free access to information for individuals, privacy for individual users and user records, professional neutrality (balanced collections), fair use as it applies to copyrighted materials, social responsibility (including diversity), preservation of the cultural record, and the right of users to a safe environment for intellectual exploration. While not every one of us will agree with every one of these, and some of them overlap and deal with similar content, most of these values would show up on most librarians' lists.

It is also fairly easy to identify the priorities of the members of ALA, who presumably represent the library profession. Surveys (1993, 1995) of ALA members place access to information, legislation (copyright, funding, information policy), intellectual freedom, and public relations as the highest priorities. These priorities correspond to our core values. However, neither the ALA Policy Manual nor member surveys provide a guide for making decisions or applying values when two or more of our values come into conflict. Herein lies our problem: We have no clearly established hierarchy of professional values.

Continuum conundrum

No official action of ALA has ever established a hierarchy of values. Nowhere does the profession talk about a continuum upon which we each apply our actions on a single value, or even acknowledge that such a continuum exists for each value, let alone guide us when our values conflict with one another. For example, while every librarian would identify intellectual freedom as a core value, for many it is our paramount value; all other values are secondary. However, other librarians perceive a broad range of appropriate actions and responses depending on the situation; their approach to applying values is in stark contrast to the position of the intellectual-freedom absolutists.

In the past, when our values have come into conflict on a national level, our profession has experienced convulsions that have almost destroyed us.

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When Values Conflict


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