The Ethos of Librarians

The ALA has a Code of Ethics currently undergoing revision. (I have a tiny part in that process as the RUSA representative to the ALA Committee on Professional Ethics.) It’s important to have a code of ethics in case of disputes, just as it’s important to have collection development policies or other documents to refer to when a serious question arises. However, I don’t think librarians rely much on codes like this in their usual practice, but instead in times of stress or struggle. This isn’t a bad thing, because when it comes to the ethical culture of libraries, we shouldn’t be promoting a culture of rules, but a culture of character.

The Code of Ethics, indeed all codes of ethics, can be considered deontological documents. Here’s my very quick summary of ethical theories from an article I wrote on the virtue of reference last year: “To develop my argument I must give some background on “virtue ethics” and in particular on Aristotle’s Nicomachaen Ethics. Ethical philosophers have paid an increasing amount of attention to Aristotle’s ethics over the past few decades as “virtue ethics” has become prominent along with deontological and consequentialist ethics. While deontological ethics judges ethical actions by a particular standard of rightness or wrongness it is our duty to obey (e.g., the Ten Commandments or Kant’s categorical imperative) and consequentialist ethics judges ethical actions by their consequences (e.g., utilitarianism’s “greatest happiness for the greatest number”), virtue ethics follows Aristotle in focusing not on rules of conduct but on the character of the moral actor. What sort of person acts ethically? How do we raise and educate such people? What virtues (or excellences) does a person require to be an ethical human being? Those are some of the sorts of questions virtue ethicists might ask.”

Such codes are useful, as I said, in times of dispute, but in general we want to create a culture of character where librarians don’t think about the code or any code and don’t run to the rulebook to make any decisions. In culture of character, we perform virtuous actions because we have developed virtues or excellences through long habit, rather than through explicit rule following. We don’t keep lists of rules about proper professional or ethical behavior; we just behave appropriately, or we do not. For those who don’t behave appropriately, referring to codes is unlikely to reform their behavior because codes won’t overcome their lack of virtues and their habitual misbehavior. In library schools and libraries, we should strive to create this culture of character.

For the most part we already do this, and I’m not trying to present a radically new understanding of the ethical culture of libraries so much as trying to understand for myself what already goes on. Consider some practical examples. In a reference transaction, there are proper and improper behaviors. Failing to make eye contact while addressing a library patron would be inappropriate, as would lying to them. Some inappropriate behaviors are worse than others, obviously. In developing collections, we get a feel for what’s appropriate for the collection and what’s not. Perhaps there are people who frequently consult their collection development plans to see what they should be buying, but I’m not one of them.

As an example of habit and action being poorly formed, I’ll offer my own experience in chess, which I play at a mediocre level. I have a list of rules I keep in my head and that I run through before making moves, especially in the middle game. Fight for the center. Develop the pieces. Move the pawns only once. A knight on the rim is dim. Make a threatening move if you can. Leave nothing en prise. Etc. All the rules you might find in an introductory chess book. The problem is that I still rely on explicit rules because I’ve never developed adequate chess virtues, where moves just feel right. I read once of Boris Spassky analyzing a game and making a move. When asked, he couldn’t explain why it was a good move. It just had the feel of a good move, so he made it. Most grandmasters are probably like that. We all know, or at least should know, that feeling in our jobs. We do things because they just seem the right thing to do, even if we can’t articulate why.

Instead of a rule following culture, it would be better for libraries to develop an ethos where responsible action based on good habits was the norm, where people were allowed and encouraged and educated to act in these ways. The question is how to do this. Is the character of librarians something that can be taught, or do people who already have certain ethical habits just better at the job? Can one train a reference librarian to be considerate and thoughtful of the research needs of a library patron? Or is it that those people who aren’t already like that just won’t make good reference librarians? I don’t know. I can only speculate that certain cultures don’t encourage good habits. Rule following cultures. Rigid cultures. Micro-managing, permission-driven cultures, where people are afraid to act or are constantly being told what to do at every level. These are certainly not work cultures conducive to properly virtuous librarians.

Regardless, while I’m glad the ALA Code of Ethics exists as a normative set of rules to be depend upon if necessary, or that certain types of behavioral guidelines for librarians exist for various purposes, I can only think that if we have to go back to the rulebook, then we’ve already failed somehow.

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