A Note on Library Ethics

What does it mean to work in a library?

You may have heard William Gibson's quote, "The future is already here; it's just not evenly distributed." Libraries in the 21st century are striving to be the even distributors of the future. In the United States, public libraries are one of the weirdest quirks of a capitalist society, providing a place where information, resources, help, and access to an ever-growing variety of things (from technology to tools to citizenship classes to board games) are freely available to all members of their communities. At many public libraries in the U.S. today, you could work with an English tutor, send designs to a 3D printer, check out a cake pan, take a child to storytime, and get help reformatting your resume all in one trip.

Librarianship is, at its core, a rule-based profession (think about those labels and numbers we slap on everything) that has ethics and standards that are baked into the minds of future librarians when we attend graduate school. There are good things and bad things about the history and demographics of our profession that we are grappling with in the present day.

We are overwhelmingly white as a field, there is a disproportionate number of male-identifying individuals with leadership positions in a profession that is predominantly female-identifying, and many of the choices made in information organization by folks like Melvil Dewey came from the dominating white cishet male Christian point of view of the turn of the 19th/20th century. We see white members of our profession silencing or speaking over the voices of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) members at conferences and other important meetings. A recent debate sparked by the question of whether or not libraries should allow the use of their meeting spaces by hate groups has led to many librarians standing up in favor of free speech, presumably at the cost of the safety and comfort of its most marginalized staff members and patrons.

In short, we have a lot of work to do, but we are getting some stuff right, like defending privacy and free access to quality information in a world where both of those things are in jeopardy.


 Code of Ethics of the American Library Association
The American Library Association (ALA) is the professional organization of librarians in the U.S. This is a guideline for library workers on how to uphold the values that libraries symbolize. Equal access to service and intellectual freedom are at the core of this code.

 Critlib.org Recommended Resources
Critlib, short for "critical librarianship," is a sort of Twitter hashtag offshoot/community that describes itself as "a movement of library workers dedicated to bringing social justice principles into our work in libraries...[they] aim to engage in discussion about critical perspectives on library practice." There are semi-regular #critlib discussions on Twitter and a group of moderators and curators that work to add diverse perspectives to this space. This list of recommended resources ranges from videos and magazine pieces to academic articles; topics covered include services for people with disabilities, revisions to library cataloging systems to remove problematic bias, and much more.

 In the Library with the Lead Pipe (journal)
In the words of this journal's editors, "[we believe] libraries and library workers can change the world for the better. We improve libraries, professional organizations, and their communities of practice by exploring new ideas, starting conversations, documenting our concerns, and arguing for solutions."

 Diversity Standards: Cultural Competency for Academic Libraries (2012)
The Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) created this framework to help guide librarians towards more inclusive hiring, collection development, and service delivery practices. It encourages developing an understanding of cross-cultural information resources and challenges library staff to approach providing service with a knowledge and "self-checking" of their own biases.

 ALA Library Bill of Rights
Created by the Intellectual Freedom Commitee of ALA, this is a bill of rights for patrons and their intellectual pursuits, advocating for equal access and privacy. The interpretation and practice of this document warrants a critical eye today.

 How a Small New Hampshire Library Fought Government Fearmongering
The Library Freedom Project is a librarian-run organization that focuses on helping libraries uphold their promises to patron privacy in the 21st century. In 2015, the LFP's director, Alison Macrina, worked with the Kilton (Lebanon, NH) Public Library to keep their Tor relay intact when the Boston DHS attempted to shut it down. The LFP now teaches librarians in a yearly bootcamp run through NYU about how to work towards and advocate for patron privacy at their organizations.