Librarianship Needs a New Code of Professional Ethics

By Finks, Lee W. | American Libraries, January 1991 | Go to article overview

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." [1] 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...." [2]

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!" [3]

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." [4]

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." [5] 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. [6]

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." [7] 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. …

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