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R. David Lankes

Agreement Description

It was 1999, and the AskA consortium was meeting at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. The panel of librarians, library instructors, AskA services, and government officials were discussing a set of quality standards in virtual reference (Kasowitz et al., 2000). When the standard stating that services should be without bias was brought up, an interesting discussion ensued. Joseph Janes observed that the biases of a given AskA service were in many ways the strength of the service. Take AskShamu (, for example. AskShamu was a service of SeaWorld that answered questions on marine biology and was considered an exemplary service. “What kind of answer do you think they will give when asked whether keeping animals in captivity is a good thing or bad?” asked Joe. Likewise, one could ask a library about the benefits of fair use.

The point was not that these services were without bias, but whether their biases were obvious, and more important for the consideration of a virtual reference consortium, whether the network of all the services achieved a neutral stance. This may seem like a fine distinction, but it highlights an inherent struggle in the ethics of a profession that is situational but seeks universal approaches. Take the ALA code of Ethics (American Library Association, 1995). The first code states, “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses
to all requests.” Here the professional librarian should be neutral and unbiased. Yet in the sixth code, librarians “…do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.” So, as in the case of AskShamu, what happens if the employing institution has a bias? I argue that all organizations and all individuals have inescapable biases. The best one can do, from an ethical perspective, is to disclose those biases as much as possible. At the least, this allows our patrons to be aware of potential distortions in service.

Such a disclosure is an essential part of conversation. Conversation Theory and later theories on discourse and communication talk about a sometimes subtle negotiation process that takes place between parties in a conversation. Issues of status, language, and experience all factor into an interaction. These interactions and negotiations ultimately end up in a series of agreements that form the basis of knowledge creation. The library profession is quick to point out such biases in service populations— the public thinks books are all the library offers, the patrons think the library is stuffy, and so on. Sometimes these biases are elicited through research and found in data, but often they are actually perceptions/biases the professional holds about the public.

With this more situational approach to ethics, where biases and ethical constraints are negotiated as part of knowledge creation, it also becomes clear that the inevitable biases of librarians will shape the conversations of the community. This is far from a bad thing. Librarianship is a principled profession. That is to say, it is a profession that has taken the time and effort to make explicit its principles and ethics. As such, it is seen as an honest broker in many conversations and information-seeking processes. It has become a respected and credible voice because it is so forthright about its ethics and principles.

However, such a principled approach can degenerate into a sort of paternalism when not guided by adherence to some larger goal. In librarianship, this ultimate goal is service, and it should prevent paternalism. Without this drive to serve and be part of a community, the library can seek to shape the community based on a narrow and elite view. This can easily be seen in the early American library movement when the promotion of literacy became the promotion of the “right” literacy as defined by the library (most often Christian white men). One can still see such paternalism in reactions to the rise in gaming programs at the library. Stocking public library shelves with science fiction and romance novels is acceptable, but promoting videogames somehow does not rise to the bar of propriety. Worse, public libraries that may have story times and knitting groups shy away from game nights because teens should somehow be engaged in more educational programs, such as knitting and puppet shows?

The bottom line is that ethical neutrality is a myth. Everyone and every organization have a stance and a set of biases. The best it can do is to make such biases known. Further, it is only by grounding a field’s ethics and principles in the ultimate goal of service that librarians avoid separation from the community and promotion of their ethics over those of the community.

Obligations to the Community

The flip side of paternalism toward a community is surrender to that community. A comment to the Ann Arbor District Library asked for “free prostitutes and pie” ( Although this would be sure to attract some new patrons, many would question whether prostitution and pies belong in a library. Some would base these questions on the ethics of a library that would trade in human desire and promoting obesity, even in communities where both might be legal. Clearly, although the library is of the community, it does not have to reflect the full range of ethical positions of that community.

How can the library have it both ways—reflecting the community’s ethics while maintaining its own? The answer comes again through Conversation Theory. In a conversation among individuals or community members, such as the library and its patrons, there is a negotiation occurring between two sides. Each actor in the conversation is working toward an agreement that includes what information, actions, and the like are “in bounds.” Libraries and librarians must reflect the ethics of their community, but they must also shape them. In many cases, the libraries have negotiated an understanding that intellectual freedom and fair use, for example, are ethical imperatives that enrich a community, although in other agents of the community they are suppressed. In some cases, however, libraries have failed in these negotiations, such as in CIPA, and they must resign themselves to operating the best they can within the boundaries the community has set.

What we see in these often subtle negotiations is that sometimes libraries and librarians actively promote their ethical frames, sometimes they simply make such frames and biases explicit, and sometimes they actively suppress them in the service of a higher ethical burden—service.

Consider again the issue of filtering Internet access. At first, it seems to go against the basic principle of free and unencumbered intellectual access to information. However, let’s take the situation of a public library that turns off filtering of public access computing for adults on request. Now let’s say that the police, aware of this practice, start patrolling the library and looking over people’s shoulders, in particular watching for parole violations by sex offenders. One can well imagine that such observation might have a chilling effect on Internet usage. Is it ethical to require filtering of all terminals to remove the police presence, thereby allowing the greatest access to the greatest number of people? The ultimate answer to this question can only be derived by actively engaging the service community in conversation. It may sound like this approach rules out ethical stands or that the lowest ethical common denominator shall win, but this ignores the power of a principled profession that in most cases already holds credibility and the good faith of the community. Put plainly, negotiations can be active and spirited, and sometimes people agree to disagree.

Inclusion of Communities

Another community aspect of our new approach to librarianship and the question of ethics is direct inclusion of the patron into the library’s processes. As the technology brief states1:

How can such a traditionally rigid system [the catalog]… be made more participatory? What if the user, finding no relevant information in the catalog, adds either the information or a placeholder for someone else to fill in the missing information? Possibly the user adds information from his or her expertise. However, assuming that most people go to a catalog because they don’t have the information, perhaps the user instead begins a process for adding the information. The user might ask a question using a virtual reference service; at the end of the transaction, the user then has the option to add the question, along with the answer and associated materials, to the catalog. Or perhaps, the user simply leaves the query in the catalog for other patrons to answer, requesting to be notified when an answer is posted. In that case, when a new user does a catalog search and runs across the question, he or she can provide an answer. That answer might be a textual entry (or an image, sound, or video), or simply a new query that directs the original questioner or new patrons to existing information in the catalog (user-created “see also” entries in the catalog). (Lankes et al., forthcoming)

This idea of community inclusion directly into library processes has also included ideas of offering community organizations shelving space for them to house (and maintain) their own documents. Other ideas discussed as part of ongoing conversations with the Free Library of Philadelphia include the library publishing works by community authors and musicians or accessioning video of local events and town meetings.

Although such ideas raise questions of quality, expertise, and the like (to be answered in an ongoing and active conversation with the community), there are ethical issues raised as well. As we have just discussed, libraries are not required to represent the full range of ethical norms of their communities in their offerings, just as a community’s churches, courtrooms, or classrooms are places with strong ethical boundaries. What is interesting about all of these settings is that, at their best, they invite open discussion and instruction on ethical conduct.

This idea that a library can be a proactive cauldron to instruct ethical behavior is far from a unique concept. Discussions on intellectual freedom, copyright, and the role of libraries in digital divide issues are at their heart as much about ethics as they are about policy, technology, or practice. Even the ALA Code of Ethics prescribes action:

We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.

“Striving” and “fostering” imply moving beyond a simple unbiased or neutral approach to work. Instead, they imply actively biasing conversations. Note the fifth code of the previously mentioned ALA code of Ethics, which states that librarians should “advocate conditions of employment.” Or look at the third code where librarians “protect each library user’s right.” This has translated into a pronounced bias and position with regard to things such as the PATRIOT Act. By inviting the community into the library as partners, we also have a chance to invite the community to learn and share (and continuously shape) our ethics. Librarians are free to do so because they understand that it is impossible to enter into any relationship (including a service relationship) without biases.

A Biased and Principled Profession

Knowledge is created through conversation. As an individual or community seeks to learn, it seeks to engage in a process of communications that lead to a series of agreements. Ethics plays a two-part role in this knowledge-creation process, and both are vital. The first is in the belief that librarians must act ethically in these interactions. They must be dedicated to service, dedicated to providing the best information available to them, and doing so in a way that best represents the community within which the librarian is situated. The second role of ethics is in the communication act. Librarians must make their ethical stance clear and discoverable. This includes being upfront about potential biases held by the librarians, the library, and the profession as a whole. It is only by being up front and honest about existing ethical stances that the profession can continue to be a trusted member of the community and broker of information.

Librarians are biased toward disclosing more information than less, providing more viewpoints than fewer, and doing so in a way that biases personal privacy over institutional supervision. In essence, librarians believe in private interactions with public information. Librarians must understand these are biases founded in ethics and that the span and scope of their ethical behavior must be constantly negotiated within the community of which they are a part.

Related Artifacts

This Agreement Supplement was derived from Lankes, R. D. (2008). The ethics of participatory librarianship. Journal of Library Administration, 47(3/4), 233–241.

1. Lankes, R. David, Silverstein, J. L., & Nicholson, S. (2007). Participatory networks:
The library as conversation. For the American Library Association’s Office of
Information Technology Policy [available at ].