February 17, 2018

An Excess of Ethics | Blatant Berry

No principle or rule of professional ethics requires that library workers forfeit any of their rights or job benefits in order to hold their jobs. Support for professional development and advancement is a benefit of working in good libraries. This often includes time off and even payment of costs for conference attendance. I was surprised when many library administrators seemed to disagree with those assertions in a fascinating recent discussion on the PubLib list.

Even the American Library Association (ALA) Code of Ethics (COE) leaves some room for dispute about the ethical responsibilities of library workers and what they owe their employer when they take advantage of certain job benefits and opportunities. For example, Rule V in the COE says, “We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.” To some that is sometimes in conflict with the COE’s Rule VIII: “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.”

I’ve always wished all the COE regulations were a bit more explicit about how libraries as institutions and their administrators should support Rule VIII and professional development. Of course many libraries and library administrators find myriad ways to support professional development, and their actions benefit both the workers involved and library service in general.

I was grateful to Ardith Ohka, an LIS student working on a class assignment, when she asked PubLib subscribers to respond to this scenario:

The library you work for has just agreed to pay all your expenses for the ALA conference. You have been in your current position for six years and feel it is time to move on. The conference will be a great place to job hunt and interview. Your employer has no idea this is part of your plan. Is there anything wrong with interviewing at the conference?

Some, including me, saw no ethical problem or issue with the intentions of the librarian here. Others saw a breach of ethics if that employee were to seek a better job at the conference, especially if the employee landed that better job and gave notice after the meeting. Most of those in higher level positions were more concerned that the library “get its money’s worth” (COE Rule VI) from paying for conference costs than that librarians get professional advancement.

There is a larger question here. As a profession, we constantly seem to suggest limitations on the rights and freedoms of library workers, based on what we each see as the core values of the profession. We have witnessed efforts to force librarians to remain neutral on social and political issues because of our professional commitment to free expression in our library services and collections. We don’t have to give up our rights as citizens to express our views on those issues for libraries to remain institutionally neutral.

We also don’t have to give up our use of personal time. Good libraries support the professional development, growth, and advancement of their staff. Opportunities for continuing professional education, to share best practices with others, and to advance one’s career are the benefits of working in a library with an enlightened administration. Conference attendance is part of that commitment to staff professional development. The best libraries pay all of the costs. It doesn’t give library administrators the power to dictate in which activities their staff members may participate. Therefore, if a library worker takes advantage of placement services and job offerings at a conference, even if their library covers the costs, there is no breach of ethics. It is simply the exercise of a personal benefit, using personal time.

The last thing librarianship needs are rules of ethics that put limits on professional development. It’s bad for library careers and even worse for library service.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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