Magazine article Special Libraries

Special Ethics for Special Librarians?

Magazine article Special Libraries

Special Ethics for Special Librarians?

Article excerpt

Special Ethics for Special Librarians?

* Special librarians have a dual identity arising from their work in libraries which support the goals of another profession or organization. They may find their professional values in conflict with institutional ones. The 1939 code of ethics for librarians recognized these sometimes competing obligations to institution, governing authority, users, the profession, and society. The 1981 code identified core values of the profession, including the highest level of service, confidentiality, access to information, and avoidance of conflict of interest. Starting with a presumption in favor of each of these values, the author proposes a two-part test for approaching the ethical dilemmas arising in special libraries.

This article is based on a talk the author gave to the Washington DC Chapter in April 1990.

The invitation to speak has given me a chance to consider one of the most difficult aspects of professionalism--the ethical dilemmas confronting librarians in special libraries. It is challenging because it raises questions not only about ethical practice itself, but also how this might vary for a librarian working in an organization with its own corporate culture, priorities, and values. Is the librarian's first duty to the corporation or to the profession? How are conflicts in values resolved? An ethical choice may be heavily influenced by who calls the shots or who pays the bills. Questions of ethics become questions of power.

What makes special librarians unique in the profession is that their libraries promote the goals of another profession or organization. So special librarians have a dual identity. In their book, Special Libraries at Work, Elizabeth Ferguson and Emily Mobley state unequivocally, "A special librarian is first an employee, a staff member of the parent organization, and second, a librarian." Although this statement would seem to create potential conflicts in values, Ferguson and Mobley do not discuss professional ethics. Neither, apparently, does Ellis Mount whose book is published by the Special Libraries Association and is used as one of the texts in the Catholic University of America's course on special librarianship. I have only just started reading Herb White's new book, Librarians and the Awakening from Innocence, but if its index is to be believed, it does not deal with professional ethics either.

What I do find in these books and many articles about special libraries are discussions about enhancing the visibility of the special library, proving its worth to the organization, securing sufficient resources and staff to do the job correctly, and occupying a strategic location on the organization chart. All of these are essential to providing effective service. Do they preclude concerns about ethical conduct? Or should we conclude that because a librarian is an employee first the values of the organization will always take precedence over the values of the profession?

Does a company doctor thinks of himself (or herself) as an employee first and a doctor second? Is the special librarian more like the company doctor, with particular expertise and an independent set of professional standards, or the company clerk, ready to follow corporate rules?

The short-lived Statement of Professional Ethics approved by the ALA in 1973 raised this concern about ethics and independence:

"It is true of this association, as it is

increasingly true of all professions, that

its individual members rarely act with that

autonomy that is sometimes wrongly

believed to characterize the activities of

most professional men and women.

...Whatever may be true of other

professions, it seems clear that the librarian

rarely acts or can act without regard to the

agency of which he or she is a part, be that

agency a school, college, university,

public library, or private organization. …

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