Librarianship Needs a New Code of Professional Ethics
Finks, Lee W., American Libraries
Librarianship needs a new code of professional ethics
Something is seriously lacking in librarianship's code of ethics. If the purpose of a code is to give guidance to its practitioners on their responsibilities and priorities, to inspire the practioners in advancing their professional ideals, and to state to the world at large the mission of the field, then ALA's meager statement (printed in the box on next page) has missed the mark by far.
Professional ethics means much more than merely being honest and fair. It should go without saying that we will not steal money from the fine drawer or hire only our friends and relatives. The focus of professional ethics should be on the way we do our work and whether or not we perform in a way that can honestly be called professional.
A code of ethics is--or should be-- the embodiment of the ideals and reponsibilities of a professional group. It is every profession's oppurtunity to say, "This is what we believe in. This is what we are." It is not window dressing, propaganda, or public relations. Writers on ethics agree that this effort at assuring the highest quality and commitment of its practioners is a hallmark of the true profession.
Librarians should consider adopting a new code of ethics that will serve our profession better than ALA's inadequate Code of Ethics. In its three verisons( 1983, 1975, and 1981), out code has been subjected to considerable criticism over the years, much of it scatching.
Samuel rothstein scorned the 1983 code as little more than "fatous adjurations," "banalities," and "rhetorical preenings."  L.C. De Wesse stated that the code was "not, in fact, a code of ethics...[but] a series of run-of-the-mill administrative and personnel policies...." 
Sociologist William Goode reacted to the code in 1961 with this ofen-cited remark: "How lacking in this code is any sense of drama, of moral urgency! How absent is a sturdy awareness that the profession has a task, a destiny, a set of issues about which it is concerned!" 
Goode's harsh view is endorsed in a 1983 analysis by Don Lanier and Dan Boice who state that "a significantly more favorable comparison [with other professional codes] would probably not be drawn today." (4) even after the revisions of 1975 and 1981." 
Robert Hauptman's 1988 book, Ethical Challenges in Librarianship, criticizes the code as neither useful nor enforcable, concluding that "today, with the extensive development of information services and many new ethical problems, a well-defined code is a necessity."  Jonathan Lindsey and Ann Prentice's 1985 book, Professional Ethics and Librarians, acknowledges criticism and concern about the current code, suggests that it should and will change, and offers commentary by professional leaders, almost all of whom suggest improvements. 
Arguably our most serious student of ethics in librarianship, Johan Bekker, has remarked that ALA's Statement on Professional Ethics, 1975, which was the basis for the current code, "is one of the worst codes of occupational ethics in existence."  It is Bekker's vision of a better code, developed in his doctoral reserach, that inspired this article.
Hi s study, which draws on other disciplines and professions to demonstrate the value of a well-conceived code of ethics, is worth much more attention than it has received.
As a library educator who teaches the traditional introductory survey course, I have made Bekker's unpublished dissertation, "Professional Ethics and Its Application to Librarianship" (Case Western Reserve, 1976), required for my studetns.
No other work available to us comes close to its careful, scholarly, and responsible elucidation of these matters. Bekker's analysis is based on an impressive gleaning of commentary from the works of leading philosophers, sociologists, and library and information scientists. Its length (444 pages) and scholarly style (over 200 footnotes in some chapters) may have doomed it to obscurity, but I hope that this article will place its ideas into our professional dialogue on this perennial and vital issue.
In this article, I want to present what I consider the two main contributions of Bekker's study: his presentation of how other occupations have written their own ethical codes, with examples taken from Jane Clapp's vital compendium published in 1974, and his own suggested code. The first of these I have edited to a considerable degree, both to summarize and to polish; the second I have reprinted as written. This has been done with the approval of Bekker, who now lives in South Africa.
Problems of professional ethics
Bekker begins his dissertation with a discussion of how difficult it has been over the years for librarians to deal adequately with the issue of professional ethics:
All professions are sooner or later confronted with questions such as: what is professional ethics? How does one formulate and implement a code of professional ethics? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having such a code? The literature makes it abundantly clear that almost without exception professionals do not know how to go about answering these questions, apparently because they do not have a clear notion of what professional ethics is. 
Bekker points out that unless ethical standards are recognized and followed by all members on an occupation, the standing of each one would be jeopardized. The only way a society can judge an occupation is by the behavior of its members. Only by developing and maintaining a reputation for reliability, integrity, and competency can an occupation thrive.
A code of ethics should define the limits of acceptable conduct and give guidance as to what kind of actions are regarded as right or wrong in the occupation. An explicit statement of the principles of right conduct can sometimes be a better vehicle than the example of fellow practitioners. It gives a foundation for more consistent ethical behavior among members, and it can provide the practitioner with an impersonal and welcome way of refusing an unethical request. A viable code of ethics also establishes discipline within the occupational group. It discourages and prohibits behavior that will bring the group into disrepute. It has a deterring influence by discouraging inferior practices. In this way, the code becomes a constructive ifluence in the occupation. 
Bekker continues his study by reviewing the writings on professionalism (i.e., expertise-based service), professional ethics, and the codification of ethics. He points out that the recent trend in codes of professional ethics is toward codifications that are (1) brief; (2) simple, clear, and consistent; (3) reasonable, acceptable, practical, and enforceable; (4) comprehensive and complete; and (5) positive. 
Bekker says that modern codes of ethics attempt to clarify professionals' obligations toward (1) their colleagues, as in matter of courtesy and deference; (2) the profession; (3) their agency; (4) their clients; (5) the state; and (6) society, in the sense of the common good. Bekker's analysis leads him to conclude that the ranking of priorities from the point of view of occupational ethics should be: society and state, clients, profession and colleagues, agency, and self-interest (e.G., pay). He also concludes that a code of ethics should be directed externally, and not internally; it should exist for the benefit of society and not for the sake of self-interest; and ethics related to clients must transcend institutional or disciplinary loyalties.
Bekker stresses that the professional's first ethical imperative should be altruistic service to the client. The client is to a greater or lesser extent unable to evaluate the performance of the practitioner. Only the commitment of the occupation and the practitioner to fulfilling the needs of the client will create greater trust on the part of the client. Increased effort in this direction is probably the best way in which librarianship can improve its status. Since it is not generally realized that society is need of protection from incompetent librarians, the practitioners themselves will have to take the initiative in establishing guidelines for the conduct of library personnel. 
Ethics according to Bekker
The section that follows is a summary of Bekker's chapter 8, "contents of a Code of Ethics." In it, Bekker discusses the traditional contents of an ethical code by grouping them in broad categories and illustrating each with quotations from a variety of occupational groups drawn from Jane Clapp's 1974 compendium.  He comments on how each concept would apply to librarians and suggests two additional issues that apply particularly to librarians: intellectual fredom and the selection of materials. 
Essence of Profession: A code of ethics should have within it the entire philosophy of the occupation. It should try to capture and express the essence of the occupation. It seems helpful to include this statement in a preamble, as these examples illustrate:
* Archivist: The Archivist has a moral obligation to society to take every possible measure to ensure the preservation of valuable records.... The Archivist must protect the integrity of records in his custody...[and] must ensure that their evidentiary value is not impaired.... The Archivist should endeavor to promote access to records to the fullest extent consistent with public interest.
* Journalists: The primary function of newspapers is to communicate to the human race what its members do, feel, and think.
The essence of the librarian's obligation can be best expressed in terms of function and purpose, and these should be explicitly stated. Librarians are behaving properly (or ethically) when they act in such a way that they fulfill their function, therby fulfilling the function of the library. In formulating a philosophy of librarianship, Jesse Shera''s functionalist interpretation of librarianship provides an excellent basis for the following statement, which Bekker believes expresses the essence of our profession: The basic function of the library is to optimize the value of recorded information for humankind. 
Confidential Information: The following are examples of prescriptions on confidential information in codes of ethics:
* Accountants: A member shall not disclose any confidential information in the course of a professional engagement except with the consent of the client.
* Lawyers (American Bar Association): A lawyer should preserve the confidence and secrets of a client.
* Lawyers (International Bar Association): A lawyer should never disclose, unless lawfully ordered to do so by the Court or as required by Statute, what has been communicated to him in his capacity as lawyer, even after he has ceased to be the client's counsel.
* Physicians (American Medical Association): A physician may not reveal the confidence entrusted to him in the course of medical attendance, or the deficiencies he may observe in the character of patients, unless he is required to do so by law or unless it becomes necessary in order to protect the welfare of the individual or of the community.
The American Bar Association distinguishes between a "confidence," which is a privileged communication, and a "secret," which is defined in part as information "the disclosure of which would be embarassing or would be likely to be detrimental to the client." Bekker prefers to make a distinction between "privileged" communication of information, which refers to a legally established right of professionals (it either forbids them to disclose, or permits them to withhold, certain information), and "confidential" communication of information, which need not be protected by law. The former is a legal concept while the latter is an ethical concept.
The principle that certain communications of information between a practitioner and a client should be privileged has been accepted in the case of some professions because a free exchange of information is regarded as an essential prerequisite for the client to derive the optimum benefit from professional expertise. Clients must feel that they can safely entrust the practitioner with their most private and vital affairs. This situation has a moral dimension, since the professional must be regarded as a person of character.
In the case of librarians, privileged information does not exist. The Propriety of keeping information confidential when it is in the interest of society and in the interest of the library user is, however, a clear ethical obligation for the librarian. The library user may rightfully assume that confidential statements will not be compromised, unless disclosure is compelled by law.
Extraoccupational Activities: Extraoccupational activities are those that fall outside a practitioner's normal occupational duties. Codes of ethics refer to extraoccupational activities in the following ways:
* Academic Political Scientists: The college or university teacher is a citizen, and like other citizens, he should be free to engage in political activities insofar as he can do so consistently with his obligations as a teacher and scholar.
* Judges: A judge should regulate his extra-judicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with his judicial duties.
* Museum Workers: No member shall engage in anything outside his profession that would conflict with his duties and responsibilities.
Whatever off-duty conduct impairs practitioners' work when they are on duty must be classified as an unethical practice from the occupational point of view. Propriety, in this context, is the avoidance of any extraoccupational conduct that might adversely effect occupational performance. The invasion of the so-called "private life" of a practitioner by means of a code of ethics is a contentious matter, but can hardly be avoided.
In the case of librarians, their jobs have first claim upon their time--even first claim on their leisure time. Librarians' social and recreational activities should be in quantity and quality of the kind to increase rather than decrease their performance as librarians. However, while staying aware of cultural and political issues would be more beneficial than many other possible pastimes, certain aspects of the librarian's life have nothing to do with the fact that he or she happens to be a librarian.
As far as community morality is concerned, it can justly be expected that in personal conduct, practitioners should not knowingly disregard the accepted pattern of behavior of the community in which they live and work. They should adhere to any reasonable pattern of behavior accepted by the community for professional persons.
Finally, when a library is supported by public funds, it must be nonpartisan, regardless of the social or political enthusiasms of the librarian. A library should not serve political or religious creeds unless, of course, the party or the denomination is the parent and financing body. The taxpayer cannot be expected to maintain a partisan library. Clearly, librarian must not make the library a propaganda instrument for their personal beliefs or causes.
Continuing Education: Codes of ethics sometimes emphasize that practitioners should maintain and enrich their competence by continuing education:
* Dentists...need continuing education and training to maintian and improve professional knowledge and skills.
* School Administrators: The school administrator has a professional obligation to attend conferences, seminars, and other learning activites which hold promise of contributing to...professional growth and development.
It is obvious that a program of lifelong (or at least careerlong) learning is an occupational obligation implicit in the social contract of the professional. New information develops continually and requires of the practitioner alacrity, adaptation, and application. Continuing education is essential for intelligent practice.
The link between librarianship and scholarship used to be very strong. Until the present century, it was taken for granted that a librarian would be a scholar. Librarians were respected since they actually worked with the contents of the books. Bekker believes that today, this scholarly orientation is more essential than ever before. The librarian should seek to be an intellectual in the true sense of the word.
This emphasis on scholarship and continuing education is not without sound foundations. It has a direct link with the librarian's function. Librarians who make a virtue of ignorance and disclaim the ability to cope with scholarly problems are failing their scholarly library users and are not useful as intermediaries. Unless librarians serve as models of how to become and remain lifelong students, they will relegate themselves to the role of ineffectual spectators in the efforts going on around them.
Research: In contemporary occupations, and particularly in the professions, continuing education is almost inevitably linked with research. We find prescriptions such as the following in codes of ethics:
* Air Traffic Controllers: Each member will endeavor to contribute new knowledge by making known any significant work, improvements, or research accomplished.
* Archivists..develop professional interests through historical and archival research.
Professional must do research. The stakes in the modern world are too high to allow practitioners to avoid the effort of constant advance. Vital professions are, in fact, maintained by those who read, write, and investigate.
Concern for improving the profession requires that librarians seek out promising library practices and relevant research findings and share with others any significant research or innovate practices from within their own agencies. Furthermore, individual librarians must be capable of evaluating, interpreting, and applying research results to library activities.
Occupational Development: Francis Bacon has said that we are all debtors to our professions. Our consequent responsibility is that we should each dedicate ourselves to our particular profession. The duty to keep current is owed not only to our clients but also to our peers, because poor performance may reflect discredit on the occupation as a whole. In codes of ethics, we find prescriptions such as the following:
* Counsellors: Members exert what influence they can to foster the development of the profession and continue professional growth throughout their carrers.
* Physicians: Physicians should strive continually to improve medical knowledge and skill, and should make available to their patients and colleagues the benefits of their professional attainments.
Furthermore, the occupational development of individual practitioners leads to, or implies, the development of the occupation. In this regard we find clauses like the following:
* Judges: A judge may engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice.
* Lawyers: A lawyer should assist in improving the legal system.
Another important dimension of the development of an occupation is that practitioners should cooperate rather than compete. This includes the obligation to assist aspiring or junior practitioners, as well as support staff, in their efforts to become fully qualified and accepted in the professions:
* Engineers: They will endeavor to provide oppurtunity for the professional development and advancement of engineers in their employ or under their supervision.
* Hospital Administrators: Encourage, assist, and teach others in the principles and practice of health care administration.
Membership in Occupational Associations: It is generally acknowledged that self-organization is one of the key characteristics of a profession. Membership in an occupational association can be regarded as desirable for practitioners because it gives them opportunities for professional development and makes possible the enforcement of a code of ethics.
The American Medical Association considers membership in medical societies to be an ethical obligation. Also, a cited study of certified public accountants' ethics determined that members of a professional association are less likely than nonmembers to violate its prescriptions of conduct.
It is reasonable that a code of ethics would expect librarians committed to the advancement of their occupation to affiliate with state, regional, and national library associations.
Peer Group Control Over Conduct: Professionalization requires peer group acceptance of responsibility for the conduct of each practitioner. In the professions, individual practitioners are their "brothers' keepers."
In codes of ethics, we find in this connection prescriptions such as the following:
* Accountants: A certified public accountant shall expose to the proper authority without fear or favor incompetent or corrupt, dishonest, or unethical conduct of certified public accountants.
* Agricultural Consultants: A member will condemn unethical or illegal conduct by other consultants and shall report any infraction of these principles to the Society for proper investigation and action.
* Physicians: The medical profession should safeguard the public and itself against physicians deficient in moral character or professional competence. Physicians...should expose, without hesitation, illegal or unethical conduct of fellow members of the profession.
Since practitioners are often reluctant to report unethical conduct of fellow members, it would seem essential that a provision similar to those mentioned above be included in a code for librarians.
Special Issues: Within each profession, there may be ethical issues that apply particularly to that profession. In the case of librarians, there are two: intellectual freedom and the selection of materials.
Intellectual Freedom: Librarians have a special obligation for preserving access, as free as possible and as free as socially desirable, to expressions of all points of view, on all subjects, for all people. Only by knowledge of both pros and cons can library users reach a balanced judgment. The library loses its effectiveness as a community catalyst where all ideas are welcome if it takes an official line supporting one idea against another.
Librarians could clearly prejudice intellectual freedom if they were committed to an ideological program that required advocacy of, or caused them to advocate, a particular point of view. To suppress information contrary to their personal convictions could destroy the integrity of the library agency and of the library occupation. Librarians are obligated to restrain any personal tendencies that are in conflict with the best interests of their
agency and occupation.
Selection of Materials: Within the broad framework of intellectual freedom, it is an essential obligation of the librarian to exercise material selection for the benefit of library users. Much of the literature on intellectual freedom and against censorship gives the impression that everything should be made available to everybody, that nothing is produced that is worthless or tasteless, and that nobody can be harmed by anything they read, no matter how base or vile. Jesse Shera once wrote, "The disciples of 'intellectual freedom' are on extremely shaky grounds when they try to argue that the reading of 'good' books is beneficial while the reading of 'bad' books will do one no harm." 
While it is necessary for librarians to resist censorship pressure, it is their professional duty to select, rather than merely acquire, library materials.
A Catchall Clause: To make any code comprehensive and complete, there needs to be a catchall clause, two examples of which follow:
* Accountants: A member or associate should not commit an act discreditable to the profession.
* Hospital Administrators: Should conduct themselves at all times in a dignified, exemplary manner.
No code can expect to be complete as far as all possible specific applications are concerned, nor would a code wish to go into detail about matters of etiquette, honesty, or fairness. In addition, the dynamic nature of the technological base of librarianship makes future ethical issues unpredictable. A catchall clause provides a general guideline that can apply to situations or questions not dealt with in the more specific prescriptions of the code.
Bekker states that "Some Guidelines of Occupational Conduct for Librarians" (see p. 87) has been drawn up in accordance with all the principles established in his dissertation, but repeats that he does not regard the proposed code as the major contribution of the study. Instead, he believes that to be the attempt to clarify the entire phenomenon of occupational ethics in relation to librarianship.
His rubric was chosen with the belief that there are no ethical standards unique to librarianship, but rather general ethical standards that could be applied to librarianship or to any other profession. This is also the reason his dissertation is entitled: "Professional Ethics and Its Application to Librarianship."
Bekker's code expresses its ideas in a cogent, convincing way. It embodies our values and ideals. It expresses our commitment to high standards for ourselves and for libraries. It reflects both the nature and purpose of libraries and library work. Finally, it contains "teeth," the "Committee on Occupational Conduct," which would be created to serve as a detering influence.
Why should librarianship bother to adopt a new code, even if we would agree it is a better one? Are we an "unethical" group of people who need to "repent" and change our ways? No, of course not. Beyond giving us an improved code, such an effort would allow us to recharge our professional energies at a time when we, like other occupations, are contending with social and technological change. Furthermore it would remind us of our professional calling, at a time when governmental and managerial solutions seem to dominate the public debate on our problems.
Let ALA Council's Committee on Professional Ethics use Bekker's suggested guidelines as a foundation for a new code that will speak to the individual practitioner. Very few of us today have a firm idea of the content of our present code and even fewer of us use it as an ethical compass in our professional lives. This is wrong and should be changed. We need a code that we are proud of, that we regularly refer to in our work, and that speaks for us to the community at large.
 Rothstein, Samuel, "In Search of Ourselves," Library Journal, Jan. 15, 1968, pp. 156-57.
 DeWeese, L.C., "A Paradigm of Commitment; Toward Professional Identity," Special Libraries, December 1970, p. 545.
 Goode, William J., "The Librarian: From Occupation to Profession?" Library Quarterly, October 1961, p. 316.
 Lanier, Don, and Boice, Dan, "The Statement on Professional Ethics: Implications and Applications," The Serials Librarian, Winter 1983, p. 86.
 Hauptman, Robert, Ethical Challenges in Librarianship, Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1988, pp. 5-6.
 Lindsey, Jonathan, and Prentice, Ann, Professional Ethics and Librarians, Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1985, pp. 67-68.
 Bekker, Johan, "Professional Ethics and Its Application to Librarianship," Ph.D. dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, 1976, p. 4.
 Ibid., pp. 4, 76, 209.
 Ibid., pp. 227-238.
 Ibid., pp. 214-16.
 Ibid., pp. 217-25.
 Clapp, Jane, Professional Ethics and Insignia, Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1974.
 Bekker, pp. 246-93.
 Ibid., pp. 128-147.
 Shera, Jesse, The Foundations of Education for Librarianship, New York: Wiley, 1972, p. 159.
LEE W. FINKS Associate professor at North Carolina Central University's School of Library and Information Sciences in Durham, the author holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers and an MLS from Florida State University.…
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Publication information: Article title: Librarianship Needs a New Code of Professional Ethics. Contributors: Finks, Lee W. - Author. Magazine title: American Libraries. Volume: 22. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 1991. Page number: 84+. © 1984 American Library Association. COPYRIGHT 1991 Gale Group.