On Reforming ALA's Code of Ethics

By Stichler, Richard N. | American Libraries, January 1992 | Go to article overview

On Reforming ALA's Code of Ethics


Stichler, Richard N., American Libraries


A years ago, American Libraries published a provocative article by Lee W. Finks critiquing ALA's Code of Ethics. [1] Over the following months numerous readers responded in the magazine's "Reader Forum" department to Finks' comments. By entering the discussion myself, I hope to not merely add further to the provocation but also to shed more light on the issues raised by Finks.

Whatever our reaction to Finks' suggestions for reforming the ALA Code of Ethics, we should acknowledge that he has focused attention on a number of important ethical principles that librarians need to articulate more carefully. It is clear that particular attention must be given to the analysis of the special responsibilities of librarians--intellectual freedom and selection of materials. But before we consider the meaning and import of these responsibilities, our examination of the ALA Code of Ethics should begin with a more fundamental question: "Is librarianship really a profession--or is it merely a trade?" Our answer to this question has an important bearing on our subsequent analysis of the librarian's special responsibilities.

I argue that the defining characteristic of a profession is self-governance, and a profession's code of ethics is its public disclosure of the ethical principles by which it governs itself. Thus, in order to claim a legitimate title to professional rights and privileges, and to justify the public's trust, a code of ethics should include a means by which the members of the profession ensure compliance with the responsibilities they profess. For if occupational groups lack effective means of self-governance, they are not qualified to call themselves professions.

Although Finks mentions "peer group control over conduct" as one of the provisions that should be included in a professional code for librarians, he does not seem to recognize either the overriding importance of this requirement or what it actually entails. It is not enough for a code of professional ethics to clearly articulate the ideals and responsibilities of an occupational group. For a code of ethics to be something more than what Finks calls "window dressing, propaganda, or public relations," [2] it must be enforceable, and the members of the profession must be organized in such a way as to be capable of enforcing it. An examination of some of the professions that have developed socially responsible ethical codes will bear this out.

It is important to recognize at the outset that the professional codes of ethics that we select as socially responsible models will be determined by how we define the term "profession." Part of the problem of developing an unbiased definition of the term is related to the fact that "codes of ethics" have come to be used as means to gaining public recognition of an occupation's professional status. Moreover, the rapid proliferation of the professions in the late 20th century has resulted in considerable confusion about the nature of the professions and professional ethics. In the rush to gain the advantages of professional respectability and privilege, many occupations have drawn up codes of ethics in order to lay claim to an area of professional autonomy.

But should we not question the legitimacy of these claims to professional status when it is clear that members of the occupational group have not achieved an organized form of self-governance? If we look at the historical development of the professions, we find that they have been traditionally distinguished from trades, businesses, and other nonprofessional occupations by certain criteria: 1) members of a profession possessed specialized knowledge or skill; 2) they held themselves to higher ethical standards than other members of society; 3) they were self-governing in the sense that they regulated entrance into the profession, monitored the performance of members, and expelled those who violated their responsibilities; 4) they provided important benefits to society; and 5) they were accorded certain rights and privileges ordinarily denied to other occupational groups. …

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