10 Questions: Tom Froehlich: A Leader in the Effort to Develop Ethical Guidelines for Information Professionals Explains How Librarians Can Act Unethically and Why It's Important for Them to Raise Ethical Awareness in Themselves and in Their Organizations

Article excerpt

At its December 2010 meeting, the SLA Board of Directors approved a set of ethics guidelines for a two-year trial period, after which time they will be reviewed to determine what impact they have had and whether they need to be modified. The guidelines were developed under the auspices of the Information Ethics Advisory Council, a group of SLA members interested in professional ethics. The council is charged with, among other things--

* Advising the chief executive officer on emerging ethical issues that may inform additions and/or revisions to the ethics guidelines;

* Collaborating with the Professional Development Advisory Council on efforts to incorporate the ethics guidelines into the SLA professional competencies document;

* Assessing the potential for offering Click University programming, continuing education sessions at annual conferences, and a certificate program for information ethics; and

* Developing tools and resources for use by members in their day-today work and for the promotion of information ethics within their work organizations.

Tom Froehlich, director of the master's degree program in information architecture and knowledge management at Kent State University (Ohio), co-chaired the advisory council during the development of the guidelines and has agreed to continue serving in that capacity through the end of this year. Information Outlook interviewed him about why ethics guidelines are needed in the library field, the kinds of ethical quandaries information professionals face, and how the guidelines can benefit SLA and its members.

Q: When and why did you get interested in ethics?

There were formative influences in my upbringing--family, peers, teachers (those Catholic nuns!). I seem always to have had a strong sense of social responsibility and a need for social justice, which were enhanced by many key events--for example, the Vietnam War--that occurred as I went through college and graduate school.

I earned a master's degree in philosophy from Penn State University and a PhD in philosophy from Duquesne University, and I spent four years teaching philosophy at both schools. But my interest in ethics didn't lead me into philosophy--it was actually the reverse. While I was studying and teaching philosophy, I was always into ethical issues, so when I entered the library and information science field, it was natural for me to teach and research ethical issues.

When I accepted my current position at Kent State, it was a challenge to temper my feelings about a university where such outrageous events as the 1970 killing of four students occurred. Each year we hold a commemoration that includes discussions about the event and conversations about how to avoid political violence, heal breaches and maintain democratic ideals.

Q: The notion of an "unethical librarian" seems far-fetched. Why are ethical guidelines needed in the information profession?

On one level, you may be right that there are few, if any, librarians who so routinely engage in questionable practices as to be labeled an unethical professional--that is, their unethical practices are so pervasive that their character is labeled unethical. Yet librarians and information professionals do engage in unethical acts or behavior, though they may often do so unconsciously.

Some examples of unethical practices are: when a public librarian offers reading suggestions to a patron based on the specific recommendations of another identified patron; when an information specialist sabotages another colleague's attempt to obtain a better position in the information center; when he or she labels materials with a warning about their content or miscatalogs a book (so as to foster its lack of being found by patrons); when a collection developer does not include certain materials in the collection because of personal values; when the information specialist searches incompetently; or when an information specialist is told to charge a client for online searches for his or her employer. …