Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Ethical, Unethical, or Benign: Technical Services Decisions and Access to Information

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Ethical, Unethical, or Benign: Technical Services Decisions and Access to Information

Article excerpt

No matter what libraries do in the way of information architecture (Morville, 2000), they are always engaged from the start in developing, maintaining, and cultivating a selective collection of resources for a specified library community. A library, like a corporation, a non-profit association, or an educational institution, will endeavor to fulfill a proposed mission and state this publicly-it usually does not try to be more than it is. How the library delivers the content of its collection, whether through books on shelves or through electronic databases, may have consequences for patrons. Some of these consequences can be a direct result of Technical Services decisions about purchases, cataloging, or even technology used in the provision of resources.

The one glitch in considering ethical questions regarding libraries and access to information is that every library is unique and different, and meant to be that way. Each library, whether public, special, or academic, has its own particular vision and purpose, its own particular collection, its own library community, its own budget, and its own technical services department. It might be easier to think in terms of the physical library. One library's newspapers and journals are on the main floor, and another locates its serials on the second floor. Each makes decisions to best serve its library patrons, and each makes these decisions with pre-existing conditions. The main floor seems like easier access, but maybe the second floor is quieter. If the library is an old building with no elevator, handicapped individuals will not enjoy the same privacy in browsing if they need to ask a staff member for help in retrieving an item from the upper floors. Additionally, public libraries struggle with providing full Internet access in an environment that must consider the needs of adults and children (and requirements for federal funding). Trying to compare different libraries and information access is almost impossible. Still, librarians from all types of libraries continually meet in a wider arena and work at establishing benchmarks and "best practices" in their efforts to be the best they can be.

Librarians, like other professionals, agree on standards to perform their duties in a professional and ethical way. Often a profession (e.g., law, medicine, psychology) will emphasize standards of conduct, or confidentiality, or consent, or human rights. Librarians do follow the "Code of Ethics of the American Library Association" (American Library Association, 1995). But technical services departments and catalogers in particular work toward uniformity in library practices to afford patrons easy access to information, and so use the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules and the Library of Congress Subjects Headings, for example. A library could be compared to a news "source" in that it strives for objectivity and aims to provide patrons access to information to research, interpret, and analyze. A library would never want to consider itself a "gatekeeper" of information, although by its very nature (it very purposefully develops a collection) it certainly is. However, in technical services, the emphasis is on providing access to all information and resources the library has in its collection. It never asks, "Should we provide access?," it only asks, "how can we best provide access?" What is the alternative? "While Google's ambitious project could help millions of Internet users gain access to information once buried deep in library stacks, some question whether a forprofit company should be a gatekeeper for such vast storehouses of knowledge" (Swartz, 2005).

Within the limits of its mission, a library could be found to be succeeding or failing its patrons in its "competency in supplying adequate or correct information" (Froehlich, 2004). The decisions of a technical services department do affect how or whether information is accessed, and the results could be seen as unethical or negligent. …

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