Over the past couple of decades, we in libraries have been asking a lot of soul-searching questions about how we can best carry out our functions in a radically changed (and still-changing) information environment. This self-examination has led to many interesting conclusions and some pretty dramatic shifts in the ways libraries do business—almost always in the context of reaffirmations of the library’s core mission and values. Less frequently have we asked ourselves whether the core principles that underlie traditional library service remain relevant and essential in and of themselves.
With that in mind, I recently decided to take a hard look at the “Core Values of Librarianship” statement at the American Library Association’s website. When I did so, I noticed two things. First, as core values go, everything on the list looked pretty timeless to me; none of the values enumerated there seemed to me at risk of being obviated by structural changes in the information environment. Second, however, I was struck by something else: the impression that the list has other problems not related to relevance or timeliness. In trying to understand and sort out those problems, I found myself dividing the list of values into three categories: those that strike me as representing fundamental principles, those that represent subordinate principles, and those that (bear with me now) we might do well to question as core values of librarianship at all.
Let me try to explain what I mean.
Values that represent fundamental principles, it seems to me, are those that engage with the question “What are the deepest and most basic purposes of the library?”. I suggest that of the values listed by the ALA as “core,” those that represent fundamental principles are these:
- Access. This is, it seems to me, about as fundamental as a library principle can get. If the library isn’t giving anyone access to information, then it’s hard to see why it exists, or even how it can meaningfully be considered a library. Indeed, I would say that access is more fundamental than collections—because collections exist for the purpose of supporting access, not the other way around.
- Intellectual Freedom. This value contemplates how and why we impose structure on access. We can impose structure for the purpose of enhancing access (by, for example, putting time limits on circulation so as to help ensure that everyone will get a chance to use the library’s resources), but we could also impose structure for the purpose of restricting access (such as to materials that we or some group of patrons consider offensive). Libraries invariably impose structure on their collections and on their service models, but it is a core value and a fundamental principle of libraries that we try always to impose structure in ways that enhance, rather than restrict, our patrons’ ability to read what they wish.
- Service. Everything we do is (or should be) built on a foundation of service. A library without service is nothing but a collection of documents sitting in a building.
Values that represent subordinate principles are not necessarily less important than those representing fundamental principles, but they are subordinate in that their importance lies in their service to fundamental principles, with which they should not be confused. Looking at the ALA’s list of core values, it seems to me that the following represent subordinate principles:
- Confidentiality/Privacy (which protects intellectual freedom)
- Diversity (which improves service quality, helps ensure equitable access, and enhances intellectual freedom)
- Professionalism (which should characterize our services)
- Preservation (the purpose of which is to ensure continued access)
There is real danger in confusing fundamental principles with subordinate ones. I once had a very interesting discussion with a colleague who believed that it would be wrong for the library to offer access to any resource that required end users to provide basic personal information, such as an email address, even if the resource was in very high demand. My colleague believed that for the library to offer it would constitute a breach of the patron’s privacy. But one could also argue that failing to offer it undermines access, service quality, and perhaps even (more alarmingly) the patron’s intellectual freedom. By restricting access to the resource in question, the library is effectively saying to the patron “We know better than you do how much you should value your privacy, and we’re going to protect you from yourself by not giving you the option of making what we think would be a bad privacy decision.” This is not to downplay the importance of privacy, of course. But when two core values come into conflict, you need a way of deciding which one will win. Knowing which one you consider a fundamental principle and which you consider subordinate can help with that decision.
Questionable “Core Values”
Now comes the harder part. Here are the items from the ALA’s “core values” list that strike me as problematic—certainly not bad or wrong in and of themselves, but troublesome in that their real-world application as core values seems unclear, or that they may conflict with other values that we also consider “core”:
- Education and Lifelong Learning. These are clearly good and important things. But can they reasonably be characterized as core values of librarianship? If so, why would any library spend scarce resources on recreational resources that provide little if any educational value?
- Democracy. Most of us in libraries will agree, I’m sure, that democracy is a good thing. But how do we square the institutional endorsement of one particular political and social philosophy with core values of intellectual freedom and diversity? There are some in the communities we serve (at both ends of the political spectrum) who question whether democratic political structures are best for society. If we consider democracy a core value of librarianship, then how should the library serve a patron who is doing research in support of explicitly anti-democratic political goals? In other words, how can we say that democracy, diversity, and intellectual freedom are all simultaneously core values of librarianship?
- Social Responsibility. In the abstract, this is certainly an important principle. However, unless everyone in our profession thinks and believes the same things (which will not be the case if we truly value diversity), “social responsibility” will be understood so differently by so many different librarians that it’s hard to see what it can actually mean in professional practice. Pick virtually any social issue—gun control; educational reform; the proper definition of marriage; tax policy—and a meaningfully diverse profession (not to mention its constituency of patrons) will harbor a wide variety of views on what constitutes socially responsible action. If we truly consider diversity and intellectual freedom to be core values of librarianship, then our profession is in a bad position to push any specific social agenda—and “social responsibility” without an agenda is meaningless.
- The Public Good. The problem with this value is not that it is in any way controversial in and of itself, but rather that it is so vague and so purely subjective. As a “core value,” it poses the same problem that social responsibility does: how can “the public good” represent a professional core value if a truly diverse profession will inevitably disagree on what best serves the public good?
In closing, let me reiterate: my purpose here is not to suggest that any of the items in the ALA’s “core values” list is in any way unworthy or objectionable. But taken as a whole, the list has a problem: one of the hard things about life in the real world is that two things can be simultaneously good and mutually incompatible. If our profession’s formally-declared values statement is going to be defensible, it must be coherent. And for it to be coherent, its internal contradictions will need, in some way, to be addressed and dealt with.