Competency A:  Ethics and Values

articulate the ethics, values and foundational principles of library and information professionals and their role in the promotion of intellectual freedom;

 

Introduction

For the members of any field or career to be respected by their peers and the public they serve, they need to agree on and abide by a set of internal ethical rules and guidelines, designed to tell the world that they can be trusted to follow stated law, and further to do “what’s right.”  Whether espoused by librarians, archivists or records managers, certain core values are consistent to each of these groups.

All three fields strongly support access to information as their first and most important foundation.  The American Library Association states in the preamble to its Code of Ethics that “we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations (ALA Code, 2008, preamble).”

The Society of American Archivists, in its first theme, affirms that, “Archivists promote and provide the widest possible accessibility of materials, consistent with any mandatory access restrictions, such as public statute, donor contract, business/institutional privacy, or personal privacy. Although access may be limited in some instances, archivists seek to promote open access and use when possible. Access to records is essential in personal, academic, business, and government settings, and use of records should be both welcomed and actively promoted (SAA, 2011, Access and Use).”

ARMA, as a trade association representing the records management field, supports “the free flow of publicly available information as a necessary condition for an informed and educated society (ARMA, 2012, Social Principles).”

According to Mirriam-Webster (2012), ethics is “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.”  Gorman (2008) defines values as “the things I purport to believe in and that you should be made to conform to (in Haycock, p. 18).”  However, what is considered ethical and a “value” can change over time.    For example, the first ALA Code of Ethics  in 1939 stated, “It is the librarian's responsibility to make the resources and services of the library known to its potential users. Impartial service should be rendered to all who are entitled to use the library (ALA, 1939).”  However, according to McCook and Phenix (2008), “African-Americans were denied the right to read in public libraries in the segregated South (in Haycock, p. 25).”  It’s likely that those librarians considered themselves to be upholding their ethical commitments, believing that African-Americans were not “entitled to use the library.”

We expect today’s information professionals to honor the values set forth by each industry segment and to follow industry values, particularly when they conflict with individual values.  In fact, the ALA Code of Ethics states, “We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources (ALA, 2008).”

Today’s codes of ethics and values statements for the various industry associations (ALA, SAA, ASIS&T, ARMA, etc.) reflect our current emphasis on access for all (everyone is considered to be “entitled”), intellectual freedom, and balancing the rights of the populace to have information vs. the rights of copyright holders to their legal rights of protection.  Even for archives who do restrict access to some or all of their collections, those restrictions are not based on race, gender, or religion, but on need and purpose (some archives provide access only for doctoral or similar research), or donor contract.

In addition to the issues of intellectual freedom and access, each of these codes of ethics addressed the issue of workers receiving undue personal benefit through their work; each includes specific wording that the members will not put private gain over that of their patron communities.  Further, they require that the rights of their users will be respected.  These rights include both the right to access their information without outside observation, as well as the right to privacy of individuals mentioned in stored records.  Regardless of which field or focus area information professionals work in, they uphold a strong protection for the common rights of users to access the knowledge contained in the respective repositories.

Another major area of discussion in our fields relates to copyright, fair use, and related topics.  While copyright is first a matter of law, those laws nevertheless leave room for interpretation.  The questions of whether specific information is available for distribution or reuse, and whether a specific use is acceptable, has prompted much debate in library/archival circles as well as the legal community.  The law also changes, and works previously unprotected since their creation may be suddenly protected.  Even works which had been protected, and lapsed into the public domain, can be re-protected by statute.

Evidence:

For this competency, I included an analysis of privacy issues related to a real digitization project, discussion of a hypothetical situation regarding the possibility of personal gain, a discussion of how archivists can be impacted by access issues, and  an analysis of copyright issues surrounding hypothetical digital collections. These represent my understanding of several different aspects of ethics and foundational values.

 

Evidence #1 - Case Study of a Digital Collection

For my first evidence, I included a case study from LIBR 284: Digitization.  We were to find and analyze an online digitization project, then discuss several aspects of the digitization process, benchmarks, metadata, etc.  Within this assignment, I discussed how the creating organization (the Colorado State University Libraries) began this project with a series of oral interviews in the 1970s, and explored whether they should include those audio interviews and their transcripts on the website.

Before adding these materials to the website, the creators discussed how to best balance the rights to privacy of the interviewees (the interviews were conducted long before the Internet became popular), against the rights of users to access the sound recordings as primary records.  Based on guidance from an advisor involved in the original project (and who had talked to many of the participants) they decided to include both the audio files and transcripts, with a clearly-visible caveat that any relative who had concerns should contact the library.  To date, no interview has been removed from the website.

This section of my paper (it is highlighted in the document, on page 2) demonstrates that I am aware of the fine balance which must be found between providing access at any cost, and protecting the rights to privacy of individuals involved.  This team at the Colorado State Library analyzed their potentially-conflicting values, and chose a path which has seemed to be the best one for the library and community.

 

Evidence #2 - A Discussion of Ethics (Personal Gain)

For my second evidence, I chose a discussion thread from 256: Archives and Manuscripts.  We were given a hypothetical situation, and asked to discuss how we’d handle it.  The topic related directly to the SAA Code of Ethics, “Trust” section:  “Archivists should not take unfair advantage of their privileged access to and control of historical records and documentary materials.  They execute their work knowing that they must ensure proper custody for the documents and records entrusted to them.  Archivists should demonstrate professional integrity and avoid potential conflicts of interest. They strive to balance the sometimes-competing interests of all stakeholders (SAA, 2012).”

My response (highlighted in the document) to an initial posting disagreed with that posting and that of the first commenter, by clarifying the definition of “privileged access,” and arguing that in the given situation, the proposed actions are acceptable if a few precautions are implemented before beginning.  Following my posting, our professor commented that my perspective was the correct one.

My commentary in this discussion demonstrates that I am aware of the sometimes grey areas in deciding what is ethical, and that I understand them well enough to make the best decision.  While overarching consistencies exist, ethical decisions are not arithmetical computations with crisp black-white, yes-no answers.  Each must be considered in view of the particular situation.

 

Evidence #3 - A Discussion of Access and Intellectual Freedom

For my third evidence, I chose my posting to a discussion topic posed for LIBR 200:  Information and Society.  As we explored the many issues surrounding access, intellectual freedom, and privacy, we condensed our views into a variety of commentaries.  In this discussion, we were asked to how supporting intellectual freedom could impact our (future) work situations.

I presented that archivists, while they do not necessarily deal with the  situations of censorship and materials restricted from certain age  groups experienced by libraries, could in fact deal with the filtering of information for other reasons.  I suggested that the challenge of deciding if materials should be restricted for national security reasons, or the feared threat of identity theft, are issues of ethics and intellectual freedom which must be decided.

I also acknowledged that for corporate or business archives, the rules of access, privacy, etc. may be very different.  As private archives, they are free to decide who receives how much access, if any.

By this evidence, I demonstrate that I understand some of the ethics of working in an archive, and the challenges of determining the best solutions to issues of intellectual freedom and access.

 

Evidence #4 - An Analysis of Copyright Related to Digital Collections

For my fourth evidence, I included an analysis of copyright issues for three archival collections slated to be digitized, from LIBR 284: Digitization.  We were to determine if these collections could be digitized, and why or why not, as well as any implications if we determined they were not, then digitized them anyway.

For each collection, I analyzed the relevant information as to creator, date created, type of material, etc., then determined if it should be digitized.  I consulted several websites and references for guidance as to the details of applicable copyright law before making my determinations.

This evidence aptly demonstrates that I understand many of the concepts related to copyright law, which also impacts the ethical behavior of information professionals.  As such, we must first abide by any applicable laws and statutes.  However, pursuant to those limitations we must decide such questions as ethically as we can, balancing the rights of privacy vs. access.

 

Conclusion

As archivists, librarians, records management staff, or other information professionals, we are obligated to follow the high ethical standards in our professions.  While each field has composed its own code of ethics or code of values and related documents (ALA Freedom to Read, ALA Bill of Rights, etc.), the concepts espoused in each are very similar to the others, and voice concerns common to all fields of employment.  As Michael Gorman (2008) noted, “these ethical prescriptions are applicable to professional work in all areas (in Haycock).”

Through my studies in this program, I have explored the many facets of ethical behavior, and making decisions according to both explicit and implicit codes of values.  I understand the challenges in this area of study, yet am confident I will make decisions appropriate to these guidelines when needed.

 

References

American Library Association, (2008).  Code of Ethics of the American Library Association.  Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics

American Library Association, (1939).  Code of ethics for librarians.  Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/history/index5

ARMA, (2012).  Code of Professional Responsibility.  Retrieved from https://www.arma.org/about/overview/ethics.cfm

Gorman, M. (2008).  Professional Ethics and values in a changing world.  In K. Haycock & B. Sheldon (Eds.), The Portable MLIS:  Insights from the experts, pp. 87-97).  Connecticut, Libraries Unlimited.

McCook, K. & Phenix, K. (2008).  Human Rights, democracy, and librarians.  In K. Haycock & B. Sheldon (Eds.), The Portable MLIS:  Insights from the experts, pp. 87-97).  Connecticut, Libraries Unlimited.

Mirriam-Webster, (2012).  Dictionary entry for “ethics”.  Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ethic

Society of American Archivists, (2011).  Core Values of Archivists.  Retrieved from http://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics#core_values

Society of American Archivists, (2012).  Code of Ethics for Archivists.  Retrieved from http://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics#core_values

Evidence for Competency A

(each link will open in a new tab or window)

1. Case Study of a Digital Collection

2. A Discussion of Ethics (Personal Gain)

3. A Discussion of Access and Intellectual Freedom

4. An Analysis of Copyright Related to Digital Collections