On not revising the ALA Code of Ethics: an alternate proposal.

Author:Buschman, John
Position:American Library Association

Revision of a paper given at the ALA Annual Conference, Chicago, June 26, 2005

The American Library Association (ALA) Committee on Professional Ethics is undertaking a several-year review of the Code of Ethics, nominally for reasons stated in various Annual Conference announcements: "Relevant or relic? Does [it] live up to the challenges of the new millennium?" "The rusty, old ALA Code of Ethics gets new scrutiny.... [It] needs rigorous revision to distinguish individual ethics from institutional protection." (1) The reality behind those simplistic statements questions is much more complicated, and I am here making the case for not revising the ALA Code of Ethics. I do so not because it is already perfect in every little way, nor because I consider it so fundamentally flawed that it should be scrapped entirely and begun again. On the contrary, if actually followed and enforced, our policies would place librarians among the ethical and intellectual leaders in the professions. There are three strong reasons not to revise the Code of Ethics and I will review each in order.

  1. We already have a good set of interlocking policies on our ethics and related issues.

    If one rereads the Code of Ethics, there is a good bit of territory already covered: a public mission linked to intellectual freedom in a democracy; equitable, unbiased access and service; privacy; fair employment conditions in libraries; and maintaining distinctions between our private interests (be they intellectual, spiritual, or economic) and our responsibilities as professionals. (2) Furthermore, there are many policies that ALA has passed or endorsed which refer directly to the Code of Ethics or further articulate its stated principles. For instance, the ALA Core Values statement refers specifically to Intellectual Freedom embedded in the Code of Ethics, identifies libraries' "fundamental" role in a democracy and as an "essential public good" along with "broad social responsibilities." (3) ALA endorsed and adapted for librarians the national standard for academic freedom and tenure 59 years ago, stating that "academic freedom means for the librarian intellectual freedom" which was in turn linked to the "practice of [our] profession without fear of interference or of dismissal for ... unjust reasons." (4) This language is currently equated with tenure in the security of employment section of the ALA Policy Manual (5)--which itself points us right back to the statement on our ethical responsibilities. We have excellent policies against "compulsory affirmations of allegiance as a condition of employment," (6) on the freedom to read (7) and view, (8) and on not abridging the intellectual rights of children by acting in loco parentis (9)--without even mentioning the landmark Library Bill of Rights (10) and our ethical principles concerning censorship.

    In short, we have covered the policy waterfront very well and staked out our place as "trustees of knowledge with the responsibility of ensuring the availability of information and ideas, no matter how controversial, so that teachers may freely teach and students may freely learn" (11) and citizens freely inquire on whatever matter they wish--to quote and adapt yet another relevant policy. Please note, I am not saying we are overburdened with policy--only that I see little room for improvement. Our policies are fundamentally sensible and grounded, and they are already on the books. However, this very foundation leads to the second reason not to amend the ALA Code of Ethics.

  2. ALA leadership has taken the most conservative possible approach to ethics policy--and especially the connection between librarians' professional responsibilities and rights.

    It is important to briefly walk through the underpinnings of what I mean here, and the best way is to examine one model of the interrelationship between professional responsibilities (for instance, those in the Code

    of Ethics), the rights and protections that come with those responsibilities, and a means to enforce them. Founded by John Dewey, the functioning of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is an alternative example of how a professional association deals with its ethical and professional standards. The AAUP has stated the basic principle very clearly: tenure (in whatever form) is not an end in itself. Rather, tenure exists as a means to protect academic freedom. A higher education system conducted "for the common good ... depends on the free search for truth and its free expression." In other words, academic freedom is essential to the core, public, democratic purposes of higher education--and tenure exists to protect it, not the individual interests of teachers and researchers--who not incidentally have corresponding ethical obligations and limits in their work. (12) Further, the AAUP has taken as its mission not only articulating the standards, but also the investigation of serious instances of their violation. The Association deliberates on the evidence gathered, measures it against policies and standards, and if warranted, votes to censure institutions in its annual membership meetings (13)--placing them on what has been called "academia's blacklist," the list of censured administrations published in each issue of Academe along with full reports on those added or removed. (14) Those institutions range from the small and obscure involving local issues like dismissal for disagreeing with the college president--to large and well known universities with famous cases of academic freedom, for instance Angela Davis and free speech at Berkeley or Father Curran's theological teaching and scholarship at Catholic University of America. Finally, the standards and process have both been legally recognized--not by legislation, but by the courts, both as an employment standard for professors and as setting reasonable limitations on their actions--and thus forming a legitimate basis for discipline and even dismissal of tenured professors. (15)

    Why have I taken this detour into another professional association's workings? First, it is important to remember that, for 59 years,...

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