Information Ethics : Our Standards, Responsibilities and Duties as Librarians

As many of you are aware from reading this blog, my husband is a lawyer. One of the areas he is most interested in is professional ethics, discipline and self-governance. While his interests are mainly focussed on professional ethics surrounding the legal profession, much of what we discuss together involves all professionals, our responsibilities, and how we conduct ourselves. Like lawyers, we serve the public and, as a result, are public figures. We hold a position of trust in the public eye.

Having developed an interest in professional ethics through our discussions, I have been reading articles on our own profession, and our responsibilities. The following excerpt is from an article I recently came across called Information Ethics: The Duty, Privilege and Challenge of Educating Information Professionals – University of Pennsylvania.

In our increasingly complex, multicultural, and information-intensive society, many critical issues related to information access and use are misunderstood, inadequately considered, or even ignored. These issues may involve balancing individual and societal needs (such as in protecting both an individual’s privacy and the public’s right to know); resolving conflicting views about library collection policies between librarians and parents of schoolchildren; resolving disagreements between individual archivists and retention policies concerning electronic records; understanding one’s own view of what is ethical; or many other topics. In a growing number of instances, decisions concerning information access and use are placing information professionals in sensitive, and sometimes vulnerable, positions.

Knowing how to create, find, manage, access, preserve, and use information effectively provides a form of power to the information professional, whether it is through speed of access to needed sources, the ability to hack into a system, or complex skills to find and create new multimedia information resources. Information professionals, as well as those who rely on them to provide a wide array of services to help people work more efficiently, compete with others, or improve the quality of their lives, must recognize and understand that with power comes responsibility. Like those who acquired power from their knowledge of how to split the atom, librarians, archivists, and other information professionals must learn to understand the possible and real consequences of their actions, reflect on the alternative choices they may make, and determine how best to use their power and act responsibly.

Individuals seeking to become professional librarians or archivists, or seeking to work in other types of cultural heritage institutions or information-related organizations must first learn to develop and hone their own individual sense of ethics, live an ethical life, and be educated about ethical issues in their professional life. In addition, the information professional must learn how–and be ready–to make ethical decisions and take ethical actions (Hammond, Keeney, & Raiffa, 1998).

What I find most intriguing about this article is the emphasis on the creation, retrieval, management and access to information. I have specifically chosen this excerpt because of the current movement among cataloguers to push for a larger cataloguing curriculum in library education. Cataloguing is more than just a skill set. What we do requires a high degree of professionalism. We make decisions regarding political correctness versus access, censorship, labeling, personal opinions, and much more. Information ethics is heavily imbedded in cataloguing. Before the information is ever accessible or organized for the public, it passes through our hands. As a result, our profession carries with it a large amount of responsibility.

While I am hopeful that increasing awareness in our professional responsibilities, as well as our skills and knowledge, will assist in developing a higher level of education among current library students, I am also bringing attention to ethical standards because I believe this area of librarianship has been neglected. I also believe that in an increasingly information-centered world, our ability to outline exactly what our code of ethics is and how we govern ourselves will become even more important.

As a result, I hope to explore this topic further in future posts and look forward to any feedback from you in this regard.

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Filed under Our Profession, Professional Ethics, The Cataloguer

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