Beyond the Bullet Points: IFLA Code of Ethics

IFLA just released “IFLA Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers” (you can read it here http://www.ifla.org/files/faife/publications/IFLA%20Code%20of%20Ethics%20-%20Long_0.pdf) and to call is disappointing is putting it mildly. There are few documents that so clearly represent a collection centric worldview. That is, libraries are collections, and librarians jobs are about maintaining (and circulating) that collection.

To be sure there is some good stuff here (I’m all for ethics). Yet every time it gets a good head of steam, it veers back into the old school presumed safety of objectivity, and stacks. It also assumes throughout that all the professional ethics are practiced in a library. It seems that librarians and information professionals don’t need to care about ethics unless they work in a library.

I’ve devoted the better part of a decade to countering this collection-centric worldview so I won’t rehash that decode in this post. You want to see my take on ethics, you can here. Instead let me point out some particularly problematic parts of this code:

From the preamble -

This code is offered in the belief that:
Librarianship is, in its very essence, an ethical activity embodying a value-rich approach to professional work with information.
The need to share ideas and information has grown more important with the increasing complexity of society in recent centuries and this provides a rationale for libraries and the practice of librarianship.

So far so good.

The role of information institutions and professionals, including libraries and librarians, in modern society is to support the optimisation of the recording and representation of information and to provide access to it.

That’s right, your job a a librarian is optimization. Not to improve society, not to make a difference. Your job is to make the printer to work faster and get those suckers to the shelves (or CD’s, or online searchable databases). How about that for inspiring passion.

Information service in the interest of social, cultural and economic well-being is at the heart of librarianship and therefore librarians have social responsibility.

Remember this line for later when we get to neutrality. For now, can someone explain to me how optimization of recording representation of information (at least we can agree it is not information itself) is a social good?

OK, that’s just the preamble. Off to the actual ethics. First up, Access to Information”

The core mission of librarians and other information workers is to ensure access to information for all for personal development, education, cultural enrichment, leisure, economic activity and informed participation in and enhancement of democracy.

Now I actually really love the second part of this statement. The problem is it is not the ethical responsibility to actually further communities education or participation in democracy…nope, we ensure access [to a collection] that will do that for us. Read: librarians are passive and our effect is from our collections.

Librarians and other information workers reject the denial and restriction of access to information and ideas most particularly through censorship whether by states, governments, or religious or civil society institutions.

Surely, I can’t have any problems with resisting censorship you say. And you would be right. Of course, resisting is an active verb that would imply we do more than reject it (rejecting a denial at that), but actually fight against it and arm our communities to do so as well. Of course the idea of doing anything with our communities would imply that we are more than just collections, and that doesn’t fit in this document.

Librarians and other information workers offering services to the public should make every endeavour to offer access to their collections and services free of cost to the user. If membership fees and administrative charges are inevitable, they should be kept as low as possible, and practical solutions found so that socially disadvantaged people are not excluded.

Read…you are a collection and an institution. Apparently if you are an embedded librarian or work in places other than a library no ethics for you.

Librarians and other information workers promote and publicise their collection and services so that users and prospective users are aware of their existence and availability.

Do we promote our skills? Do we promote our communities? Nope, our collections and services (presumably in relation to the collection).

I actually like section 2. RESPONSIBILITIES TOWARDS INDIVIDUALS AND SOCIETY. There is still an emphasis on collections, but at least it acknowledges that we live in a community and that community has a culture we must respect.

Section 3 is pretty good with the exception of…

The relationship between the library and the user is one of confidentiality and librarians and other information workers will take appropriate measures to ensure that user data is not shared beyond the original transaction.

This is so un-nuanced I cannot stand it. It just begs for an additional clause on the end about “without the knowing approval of the user.” Don’t even get me started on the term user. It is well intentioned here, I just hate the term.

Section 4 is fine, until you realize it is all about other people’s intellectual property rights. Underlying the entire section is an assumption that libraries are places of consumption that build collections through acquisition, as opposed to community creation.

But then we come to section 5. NEUTRALITY, PERSONAL INTEGRITY AND PROFESSIONAL SKLLS and I run to my keyboard.

Librarians and other information workers are strictly committed to neutrality and an unbiased stance regarding collection, access and service. Neutrality results in the most balanced collection and the most balanced access to information achievable.

Neutral has the same root as neuter. Now I won’t go through a lengthy conversation about how we as human beings cannot be neutral, nor ever leave the biases built into us as individuals and as a society. I’ve done it other places. Instead let me ask how in the world can neutral people provide “information service in the interest of social, cultural and economic well-being is at the heart of librarianship and therefore librarians have social responsibility” as stated above. If we see libraries as important in the social scheme that is not neutral. If we talk about social responsibility, we are biased towards the norms of that society. If libraries are going to do anything other than collect and wait, HOW CAN WE BE NEUTRAL? This very document screams bias. It shows a clear bias towards open access…hardly universal. It shows a clear bias towards transparency, and equitable access. THESE ARE ALL BIASES. Just because we agree with them doesn’t make them neutral. Librarians are heavily biased towards access and equity.

I would so have loved IFLA to take on the much richer, and much more messy discussion of ethics in the real world. Ethics in the world of majority and minority world views. Ethics that acknowledge individual biases, and ways of overcoming, or at least representing them. As it is this line reads like a piece of throwaway fluff that totally avoids the hard questions of context, and social definitions of right and wrong.

Librarians and other information workers define and publish their policies for selection, organisation, preservation, provision, and dissemination of information.

…because that is all librarians do after all is build collections.

Librarians and other information workers distinguish between their personal convictions and professional duties. They do not advance private interests or personal beliefs at the expense of neutrality.

Wait…what? Oh, I see. We are all biased individuals, we as librarians just have a special super power to turn off those biases and forget we are human beings. This line at least gets closer to reality. We should talk about intellectual honesty, about representing both majority and minority viewpoints in a transaction (really a relationship) with members.

Librarians and other information workers have the right to free speech in the workplace provided it does not infringe the principle of neutrality towards users.

Sigh…does anyone else see the inherent problem with the concept that neutrality is a choice? Either you can be neutral or not.

Librarians and other information workers counter corruption directly affecting librarianship, as in the sourcing and supply of library materials, appointments to library posts and administration of library contracts and finances.

AAAARRRRGGGGG!!!!! So let me get this straight…librarians only care about corruption that directly affects librarians? The rest of the community has to fend for itself. Take a bribe and screw the poor is OK, as long as it doesn’t effect our materials budget?! Oh, and we’re back to the library as a collection, because the only way that corruption can effect libraries is through our materials (because we’re only a collection), hiring in a library, and library money.

OK, there is my rant for the day. To be honest there is some really good stuff in here about librarians needing to be open, collegial and constantly learning. However, the underlying worldview is that librarians work in libraries, and that libraries are collections. The focus is on libraries buying stuff, and lending it out to users. This not only ignores the reality of being human and how people learn, it creates internal contradictions that ultimately turn this potentially important document into jingoistic truisms.

Be ethical, not just when you’re in a library, but all the time. Fight corruption, and discrimination, and censorship all the time, and actively. See your community as more than users that must be coddled and protected. Librarians are ethical, and noble and have a rightful claim to the moral high ground. We take that right not from being passive and neutral, but by being ADVOCATES for the well-being of our communities. Our ethics define us as librarians, so we should take better care to ground those ethics in a worldview that reflects a focus on community and learning, not collections and institutions. We can do better, and our communities should expect more of us.

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