Ethics and Librarians: A Panel Discussion

A panel discussion was held on 30 August 2005, at 4:30pm at the NUS Central Library Theatrette 1 to discuss the topic of Ethics and Librarians. The panelists were Mr Choy Fatt Cheong, University Librarian, Nanyang Technological University, Assoc Prof Terry Kaan, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore and Assoc Prof Christopher Khoo, School of Communication & Information, Nanyang Technological University.

Mr Choy Fatt Cheong kicked off the discussion by posing this question, “Why is there a need for a code of ethics?” As Librarians, we tend to be governed by our own moral code of honesty and fairness and we use them to make the ethical decisions at work. He felt that a code would help to guide librarians in their daily work, to be more aware of ethics when selecting library materials; when discussing reference queries and not breaching confidentiality; deciding whether to provide a user with information that could be potentially dangerous (e.g. building a bomb); doing outside part-time work using the library resources or even deciding whether to use the office copier to make copies for personal use.

We had a look at the existing LAS Code of Ethics, which was found to be arcade and did not reflect our current needs. So it was timely that the Ethics Committee was formed to review and update the Code.

Research was done to study the codes of other Library Associations and after much deliberation, the Committee proposed a new Statement of Ethical Principles. The Committee felt that the new Code should articulate the values of our profession and be flexible enough to cope with new issues. It was also important to get buy-in from members through participation, understanding and interpreting the principles of the Code.

The principles proposed were not cast in stone and members were invited to comment on them. Mr Choy proposed that the LAS Council look at these comments and adopt selected ones as approved commentaries, which could serve as guidelines for other librarians. It was hoped that the principles and commentaries would become a living code and a practical instrument for our members.

Prof Christopher Khoo spoke on the difference between ethics and values. He pointed out that ethics involved analysis of issues to determine which response would produce maximum goodness. He also outlined the reasons why LAS needed a code of ethics. He pointed out that librarians had an impact on society as we have the power to help or harm clients. Our employer/client/society offered us a livelihood because of our knowledge and expertise and it entailed us with a responsibility.

The Code should serve the following objectives:

  • Protect our users and protect us
  • Regulate the profession
  • Express the profession’s shared values
  • Address important and difficult ethical issues
  • Sensitise professionals to ethical constraints
  • Give us a sense of who we are and what we stand for
  • Give us a sense of pride in our profession and a sense of belonging to a noble profession

Prof Khoo would like to see some noble mission espoused in our code. He encouraged members to make a stand and advocate some strong values which distinguished us from other professions and from the library profession in other countries. He felt there was no point in advocating some “wimpy” code that did not make a strong stand.

He highlighted the results of a survey of librarians done by Dole, Hurych & Koehler (2000) which showed that librarians from different types of libraries and different regions had slightly different values. Librarians in countries like USA, UK and Australia valued intellectual freedom highly, while librarians in Europe and Asia valued information literacy highly. Overall, all librarians valued service to patron and equality of access.

Prof Khoo conducted a survey of the members present asking them to rank the values that were most important to them. The highest ranked value was service to patrons, followed by preservation, information literacy and equitable access.

Prof Kaan rounded up the discussion by offering his insights based on his work with medical ethics. He had a look at the different code of ethics of librarians in different countries and he found it interesting that there was so much diversity in the codes. He cited possible reasons of different cultures and social conditions. He also wondered if it was due to a lack of common consensus.

The medical profession is working towards an international code of ethics. He replied to a question of why is there a need for a code when the medical professions had the Hippocratic Oath. The Hippocratic Oath focused on loyalty to the master and doing good for the patients, based on the best judgment of the doctor. This was a profession-centered code and the present medical profession was moving to a client-centered code.

Prof Kaan highlighted that a professional often faced problems in deciding which was the best and right decision when there was a conflict between two good principles. He addressed the issue of confidentiality of information which was a common area of concern for doctors and librarians. He pointed out that the law did not protect the confidentiality of information for patients and library patrons. The law only protected the confidentiality of information for clients of lawyers, income tax officers and bankers. If a doctor was asked in court, he would have to reveal the required information about his patient. However, if a doctor did not inspire trust from his patients, they may not be totally honest about their medical conditions. People would also have various degrees of sensibilities about the confidentiality of information. A library patron may be unconcerned or very upset if the list of books he borrowed was released to government authorities. However, they would not have legal recourse.

He highlighted the changes that technology brought about for medical information. They were previously only available on cards in the doctor’s office and there was no cause for concern. However, with the translation of medical information into the electronic format, it then becomes useful information for relational data mining by commercial organisations. A whole new arena of ethical access arises, who can make use of the information, is it only biomedical researchers, government, and what about for-profit organisations? Can anonymous information be used by these organisations?

He pointed out that Internet search engines often kept a log of a user search terms and used it to do targeted advertising. Some US state laws prohibit the use of such information but some search engines continue to keep such logs. A member raised the issue of loan records being used by IT people. Another member pointed out that if we are using American library systems, such data was not retained by the library system and therefore cannot be abused.

Prof Kaan pointed out that with the Internet revolution, there were implications for libraries and librarians as they were traditionally seen to be keepers of books. He raised the example of US and EU governments having mandated that research funded by them must be made available online and asked how librarians would handle this information.

Mr Choy highlighted that librarians played an intermediary role with information, and that information was format independent. He also raised the question of how the information handlers of the online world would handle their ethical problems. Perhaps in this online world which was less constrained by the social conditions of a country, a universal code of ethics would evolve. Prof Kaan agreed that this may happen as seen in the medical profession where there was a rush to harmonise their codes.

A member raised the problem with preservation of online information. Some people are calling it the Digital Dark Age where online information can be lost, changed or manipulated. Coping with technology obsolescence was another problem. New platforms were also being used to share information, like discussion lists and email but how was the information being preserved? Prof Kaan was optimistic that people who perceived the information as important would preserve it but some members had their reservations.

Another member brought up the issue of censorship especially when strong political forces were present. A comment by a political leader often had some librarians removing the items mentioned by the leader, even though it was not on the banned list. If librarians were more aware of why we exist (i.e. to preserve information for mankind) they would be able to make a more informed choice. The code would give us a set of values to hold to and to know when we deviate from it. It was pointed out that we exist within a society which has certain values and that we need to operate within those confines.

When it is a legal issue, it is a straight-forward case of either being according to the law or not. However, ethical issues were different and a code of ethics for librarians would give us principles to keep in mind when making decisions, whether it was for selection, weeding or loan policies. It would guide us to make decisions that reflected the moral worth of our profession.

Dole, W.V., Hurych, J.M., & Koehler, W.(2000). Values for librarians in the Information Age: An expanded examination. Library Management 21 (6/7): 285-297.

Yeo Pin Pin. 2005 September. Ethics and librarians: A panel discussion. Singapore Libraries Bulletin 15 (3): 14-15.