March 21, 2018

Interrogating the American Library Association’s “Core Values” Statement | Peer to Peer Review

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.

Fundamental Principles

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.

Subordinate Principles

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.

Rick Anderson About Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson ( is Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. He serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog. He currently serves as president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and a collection of his essays titled Libraries, Leadership, and Scholarly Communication was published this year by ALA Editions.

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  1. Beth Posner says:

    In the print realm, both preservation and access were valued; sometimes at odds, but both important library functions. In the digital world, with libraries licensing, rather than buying information, preservation seems to be considered less important than access, but if libraries do not preserve information, relying on the publishing industry to do so, then access is threatened. On the other hand, if libraries negotiate preservation rights, and advocate for open access, then we can focus more on service.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Hi, Beth —

      It’s tempting to think about this issue in a very reductive and binary way: “preservation used to matter to libraries/now it doesn’t”; “either libraries will preserve or they will rely on publishers to do so”; “libraries used to buy print/now they license online access”; etc. But I think it’s important to resist that temptation. Libraries do still buy print, and do still preserve content, and do still value the preservation function. But different libraries have different missions, and each library’s individual mission has to guide its strategies. It’s not enough to say that both access and preservation are important — since each library has scarce resources of time and money, each must set priorities. So it may make a lot of sense for one library (at a community college, for example) to focus primarily on access and for another (the Folger Shakespeare Library, say) to focus primarily on preservation. It would be nice if all of libraries could focus equally on both–unfortunately, doing so would require either unlimited funds (unlikely) or disregard of mission (unwise). But none of this means that the digital environment has led to a disregard of preservation in favor of access. On the contrary: the digital revolution has led to a renaissance of preservation options and projects.

    • Beth Posner says:

      I do agree…not all libraries can do all things. (I’ve written about binary librarian stereotypes myself and the dangers of binary thinking!) I’m just thinking about preservation as a core value of librarianship, and that we should make decisions about what we spend money on with that in mind. OA could solve this in the future, but for now, with so many libraries licensing, rather than purchasing, digital information, it is an issue we need to face and not assume that it will be taken care of by some other profession in some other way.

  2. Jenny Reiswig says:

    I guess I would also suggest that preservation is a core value. One of the unique aspects of libraries – in aggregate, not necessarily any specific library – is our long-term view. We support access and service to users who exist now, but we also consider users who are not yet born and have no current need for access or service. What they need is preservation.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      I agree that preservation is a core value. What I argue in my piece is that, as a core value, it’s subordinate to the core value of access. (Preservation has no purpose in and of itself — it’s meaningful only because it makes ongoing access possible.)

  3. Wayne Bivens-Tatum says:

    Rick, although it’s not as obvious as intellectual freedom, I think democracy can also be defended as a value because it’s one of a cluster of values upon which intellectual freedom depends, along with individual rights and liberty, the value of reason in investigations and disputes, political power resting in the sovereignty of the people, and other values we associate with the Enlightenment or modernity. Intellectual freedom can’t exist in a freedom vacuum, which is why citizens of non- or antidemocratic states usually don’t have the same intellectual freedoms of Americans.

    You ask, “how should the library serve a patron who is doing research in support of explicitly anti-democratic political goals?” That of course would depend on the situation. I know the librarian dogma is that every question matters, but if I discovered that the person I was helping was doing research with the explicit goal of a fascist coup and takeover of the U.S., for example, I don’t think it would be unprofessional of me to refuse the use of my services. If I discovered the person was doing research with the explicit goal of a terrorist attack, I might take further action.

    Usually, though, librarians don’t know or ask why people are doing research, and if it didn’t come up things would proceed normally. Unless someone came out and said something like, “I wan’t to find books on bombs so that I can strap one onto myself and detonate it in a public place,” I can’t imagine the question ever coming up.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Wayne, it’s important not to confuse democracy with diversity and freedom. Democracy is a political philosophy that predates the Enlightenment by many centuries, and as a practical system it by no means guarantees political or intellectual freedom. Unless democracy is structurally constrained (by, for example, a constitution that puts boundaries around what the people may enact as law), minorities will be at the mercy of the majority–which does not generally bode well for either intellectual or political freedom. So it really doesn’t work to argue that democracy is a value upon which intellectual freedom depends. You can have intellectual freedom in a monarchy if the king supports free inquiry, and you can have terrible intellectual repression in an unrestricted democracy if the majority of the people decide that some subjects of inquiry are taboo. Democracy is the friend of diversity and intellectual freedom only as long as a majority of the demos wants diversity and intellectual freedom (or if it is constrained in ways that limit the power of the majority).

      As for how librarians should respond to anti-democratic patrons: your hypothetical patron’s goals are violent and terroristic. For the sake of this discussion, let’s keep it at the level of nonviolent politics. Librarians are regularly called upon to help students (and others) who are writing papers in defense of their positions on particular social issues. In the course of these interactions, such patrons often make it very clear what their positions are. Suppose that a patron asks a librarian for help writing a paper (or a letter to a senator, or an op-ed piece, or whatever) that takes an antidemocratic position. Or, to make the problem more clear-cut, suppose the patron is an aide to a local political figure and is helping that politician introduce a law that (in the librarian’s estimation) would clearly undermine democratic principles or institutions. If the librarian holds simultaneously to the “core values” of democracy, diversity, and intellectual freedom, he or she is now in a position of having to choose between them. Supporting democracy means, at the very least, not actively assisting those who would undermine it. But supporting diversity means respecting the beliefs of others and giving patrons the same level of service regardless of whether one agrees with the patron’s goals; supporting intellectual freedom implies something similar. All of these values are praiseworthy, and each is defensible as a “core value” of librarianship. And yet they are, to some degree, mutually incompatible. Therein lies the problem.

    • Wayne Bivens-Tatum says:

      Rick, you make some excellent points. If I write much more on this, I’ll probably take it over to my blog, or perhaps my next P2P Review column. But a couple of points. I didn’t say intellectual freedom depended on democracy, but that democracy is one of a cluster of values, and I should have more specifically said intellectual freedom is one of a cluster of values, including democracy, that mutually support each other. Democracy as a concept preceded the Enlightenment, but democracy as we now consider it–sovereignty of the people, equal right of everyone to participate in politics, etc.–is an idea the emerged from Enlightenment thought and arguably isn’t even complete today.

      Second, being forced to choose among values isn’t necessarily a problem. It happens all the time, as we prioritize one value over another. Values can be like rights, which are never absolute. (The claim that some rights are absolute leads to the odd situation where I can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater but I could bring in a loaded assault rifle.) The ALA values absolutely applied might be mutually incompatible, but they don’t have to be considered absolute values in all circumstances.

      As for non-violent politics, the situations you mention, and any I can think of, are still part of the democratic process, and thus not in violation of that principle. If someone wants to write a politician to support a law that I happen to think is undemocratic, that person is still engaging in democratic politics.

      Anyway, very thought-provoking.

  4. Very thoughtful analysis, Rick. Thanks.

    It has been nearly a decade since they were adopted. I have been thinking about what you said, and reflecting on my memory of the process (in which I was very involved). Those ruminations were too long for a “comment” here, so I posted on my blog here:

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Michael, thanks so much for sharing these careful, fair, and insightful comments about the process that led to the creation of the “core values” statement — I commend your blog posting to all readers.

      I’d like to add only one small piece of clarification, since this seems to have been an issue for others who have commented on my column as well: by classifying some items as representing “fundamental principles” and others “secondary principles,” I don’t mean to imply that the latter are less “core” or less important than the former–only that their core importance lies in the ways that they serve the former. Thus, I agree that “preservation” is a core value because what it preserves is access; “professionalism” is core because it characterizes our service; etc.

      Anyway, thanks again.

  5. Beth Posner says:

    Even if some of these values are not be universally held by librarians – and whether they are is a useful and important disucssion to have – I do not see why there needs to be a a hierarchy of those that are agreed upon. Instead, when values are in conflict, we need to use ethical frameworks (ie utilitarian, rights, justice, or the common good) to make good decisions on a case by case basis.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Beth, I don’t think the question is whether all of these values are universally held by librarians; given the size of our profession, it seems extremely unlikely that they are. The question is how we, as a profession, should deal with the fact that our “core values” statement is incoherent. In theory, it would be nice to come up with a more internally consistent statement–but I’m not sure that’s actually possible. In practice, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: we need some kind of framework for dealing with the internal conflicts that exist between some of our stated “core values.” And it will probably be up to each of us to come up with her or his own framework for doing so.