Introduction to Library and Information Science/Ethics and Values in the Information Professions

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After reading this chapter, students should be able to articulate:

  1. The importance of defining a profession's values
  2. The difference between professional, general, personal, and rival values
  3. Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science
  4. ALA's Library Bill of Rights
  5. ALA's Code of Ethics
  6. A point of conflict between two different sets of value
  7. Their personal values
  8. How their personal and professional values will inform their LIS practice

The Values of librarianship

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Values are essential to the success and future of librarianship: they highlight what is "important and worthy in the long run," and help to define our profession. In a literature review on professional values in LIS, Lee Finks argues that these values fall into four categories:

  1. Professional values are inherent in librarianship and include recognizing the importance of service and stewardship; maintaining philosophical values that reflect wisdom, truth, and neutrality; preserving democratic values; and being passionate about reading and books.
  2. General values are "commonly shared by normal, healthy people, whatever their field." Librarians' work, social, and satisfaction values express a commitment to lifelong learning, the importance of tolerance and cooperation, and the need to feel accepted.
  3. Personal values specifically belong to library workers and include humanistic, idealistic, conservative, and aesthetic values.
  4. Rival values threaten the mission of libraries with bureaucratic, anti-intellectual, and nihilistic ideas. Librarians must have faith in the profession's ability to do good. [1]

This section will mainly discuss professional values, but we will touch on several general, personal, and even rival values throughout the course of this book.

Defining professional values

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In 1999, the ALA formed a task force to "to clarify the core values (credo) of the profession". This task force believed "that without common values, we are not a profession," and proposed the following definition of common goals for our field:

  1. Connection of people to ideas
  2. Assurance of free and open access to recorded knowledge, information and creative works
  3. Commitment to literacy and learning
  4. Respect for the individuality and the diversity of all peoples
  5. Freedom for all people to form, to hold, and to express their own beliefs
  6. Preservation of the human record
  7. Excellence in professional service to our communities
  8. Formation of partnerships to advance these values [2]

Despite the work of this task force, the ALA did not adopt a Core Value Statement until June 2004. This statement represented a compromise between the task force and its critics, and took its 11 core values from ALA policies that were already in effect. While the task force's document positioned these values in relation to our profession (for example, our profession must provide "assurance" that access to recorded knowledge is free and open), the official ALA policy simply lists the values. The ALA's wording also leaves its list open to other values as well, and lists these as examples of core values:

  1. Access
  2. Confidentiality/privacy
  3. Democracy
  4. Diversity
  5. Education and lifelong learning
  6. Intellectual freedom
  7. Preservation
  8. The Public good
  9. Professionalism
  10. Service
  11. Social responsibility [3]

Ranganathan's five laws

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Establishing a core set of values is not the only way to define and provide direction for a field. Many of the natural sciences are based not on values, but on scientific laws. This led mathematician and librarian S.R. Ranganathan to propose Five laws of library science in 1931. Ranganathan envisioned these laws as a set of fundamental laws, analogous to the scientific laws that serve as fundamental principles for natural and some social sciences. Ranganathan's original laws were:

  • Books are for use.
  • Every reader [their] book.
  • Every book its reader.
  • Save the time of the reader.
  • A library is a growing organism. [4]

Michael Gorman respectfully adjusted Ranganathan's laws to better fit the future needs and practices of libraries. Gorman's revised laws are:

  • Libraries serve humanity- They should serve the individual, community and society to a higher quality. When making decisions, librarians should consider how the change will better serve humanity.
  • Respect all forms by which knowledge is communicated- If there is a new means of communication of knowledge, and it is a better carrier, utilize it.
  • Use technology intelligently to enhance service- Technology needs to be integrated so that it is used intelligently in a cost-effective and beneficial way.
  • Protect free access to knowledge- The library is central to freedom. It needs to preserve all records so none are lost, and should be transmitted to all.
  • Honor the past and create the future- Libraries need to combine the past and future in a rational manner. Not clinging to the past but looking forward for the better. [5]

Professional Ethics

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Once we have defined goals for our profession, we need to make sure that we meet these goals in ethical ways. Library and Information workers are expected to follow certain ethical standards, typically codified in documents called Codes of Ethics. These codes offer a basis for making ethical decisions and applying ethical solutions to problems in LIS.

In the United States, professional librarian ethics are codified in the ALA's Code of Ethics, which are discussed below. However, there are other codes of ethics that are important to the LIS community, which are discussed later in this chapter.

The ALA's Code of Ethics

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Highest level of service to all users

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We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

Intellectual freedom

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We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.

Intellectual freedom is a major area of conflict within libraries. Intellectual freedom is a goal that most library workers can agree on in theory, but situations in everyday library work can complicate this seemingly simple rule.

Challenged materials.

Another issue, brought up by John Swan, is how libraries should represent points of view that are completely wrong. Swan asks if "Truth" should play the pivotal role as the raison d’etre of libraries, or if libraries serve another cause entirely? His topics for discussion include:

  1. Are libraries committed to "Truth" for legal purposes?
  2. The role of "Truth", "Untruth" and Libraries.
  3. "Truth" is necessary for the law, but "Untruths" are a necessary function of libraries.
  4. Intellectual freedom, not "Truth" should be the driving force for libraries.
  5. Libraries have a duty to present Untruths".

His conclusions are that libraries exist, by their very nature, as forums for ideas. According to Swan, both "Truth" and "Untruth" are necessary in providing information to the public in these forums. The role of libraries is access to both, and in fact one cannot exist without the other. Swan makes distinctions about the differing roles of the legal system, third party groups, libraries and the role that censorship plays from pressure groups. These distinctions are as real and pertinent today as they were 20 years ago, in fact more so, as there is more "conflicting" information available to the public today due to advances in technology (internet, blogs, etc.).[6]

Privacy and confidentiality

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We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.

Intellectual property rights

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We recognize and respect intellectual property rights

Intellectual property rights are a difficult issue. While most of the rest of the ALA's Code of Ethics talks about how libraries should provide unrestricted access to information, copyright and other intellectual property rights can sometimes provide restrictions on this flow of information. Libraries have taken an active interest in open licensing, free software, and new publication and distribution models that respect the rights of information creators while allowing more widespread access to ideas.

David Dorman asserts that the Open Source Software movement is akin to librarians' views of information. That is, information is public property and as such anyone should have access to it. OSS furthers this by emphasizing the software that holds the information: if control of the software is eliminated, the information itself is more free and accessible. Thus, the Information Control Wars is the battle between those who believe technology should promote free access to information, and those who believe technology should control it for their economic and political gain. Dorman presents a thoughtful treatise on the philosophical, democratic, and tangible merits of OSS. His analysis sheds light on the legal implications of patent and copyright legislation of which the casual supporter of OSS may not be aware.

The discussion of OSS in context with information belonging to all brings to mind SCO Group’s many lawsuits against companies who allegedly copied source code that, OSS advocates argue, was free to begin with. Little SCO taking on the big, bad corporation of IBM, for example, seems on the surface to underscore democracy. But SCO’s claims run against the intent of OSS, and their attempts to extract monies seem ill-founded at best. The question arises nonetheless: how does one determine when intellectual property has been violated in OSS? If there is a violation in the OSS world, what implications does that have for its future? What are the implications for those who support free information and access?[7]

Respecting fellow library workers

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We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.

Non-advancement of private interests

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We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.

Distinguishing between personal convictions and professional duties

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We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

Librarians have often taken a politically neutral stance as a way to gain professional status. In this literature review, the author argues that by not defining their political values, librarians will be influenced by those with economic and political power. This will threaten the public’s access to information while corporations profit. The author disagrees with a prediction by Thomas Suprenant and Claudia Perry-Holmes that libraries can enhance their “institutional status” by charging patrons and offering “information stamps” to those who cannot pay. They believe the profession can stay alive if librarians focus on “efficiency, productivity, and quality control” and compete with the private sector. Librarians must lose their neutral viewpoints and publicly fight for equal access to information.[8]

The author’s argument is made stronger with examples of how information traditionally handled by the government was turned over to private vendors during the Reagan administration. Library services based on ability to pay, which the author compares to this country’s health care system, would greatly accelerate the digital divide. Since this article was written, librarians have become more outspoken. Legislation following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prompted the ALA to adopt resolutions opposing attempts to restrict access to government information on the basis of national security issues. Librarians’ concerns about the Patriot Act led to proposed legislation and several ALA policies urging user privacy and open access. Librarians are fighting the government for the public’s sake, but they must act before access is threatened, not after it is denied.

Excellence in the profession

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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.

Other Codes of Ethics

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Society of American Archivists Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics

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The Hacker Ethic

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Hacker ethic is a term for the moral values and philosophy that are standard in the hacker community. The early hacker culture and resulting philosophy originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1950s and 1960s. The term hacker ethic is attributed to journalist Steven Levy as described in his 1984 book titled Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. The key points within this ethic are access, freedom of information, and improvement to quality of life.

As Levy summarized in the preface of Hackers, the general tenets or principles of hacker ethic are:

  • Sharing
  • Openness
  • Decentralization
  • Free access to computers
  • World Improvement

In addition to those principles, Levy also described more specific hacker ethics and beliefs in chapter 2, The Hacker Ethic:

Access to computers
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Access to computers - and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works - should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
Information should be free
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All information should be free: Linking directly with the principle of access, information needs to be free for hackers to fix, improve, and reinvent systems. A free exchange of information allows for greater overall creativity.

In the hacker viewpoint, almost any system could benefit from an easy flow of information, a concept known as transparency in the social sciences. This is only limited by a concern for maintaining the privacy of certain information, such as medical information. This concept can be seen as roughly analogous to the concept of Intellectual Freedom in the ALA's documents.

The Free Software Foundation notes that "free" refers to unrestricted access; it does not refer to price.[9]

Mistrust authority
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Mistrust authority - promote decentralization: The best way to promote the free exchange of information is to have an open system that presents no boundaries between a hacker and a piece of information or an item of equipment that he needs in [their] quest for knowledge, improvement, and time on-line. Hackers believe that bureaucracies, whether corporate, government, or university, are flawed systems.
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Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not criteria such as degrees, age, race, sex, or position: Inherent in the hacker ethic is a meritocratic system where superficiality is disregarded in esteem of skill.

While this is an admirable part of a code of ethics, there is a huge lack of diversity within the hacker community and free culture. The Ada Initiative notes that "[w]omen are one of many groups currently under-represented in several areas of open technology and culture. Recent surveys have shown that around 2-5% of open source developers are women (compared to 20-30% of the larger tech industry), and that women represent just 10-15% of Wikipedia editors."[10] Even though the Hacker Ethic does not place any formal restrictions on participation, it does foster environments in which women are targeted in very specific ways, and attempts to address these issues are seen as censorship.[11]

Art and beauty
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You can create art and beauty on a computer: Hackers deeply appreciate innovative techniques which allow programs to perform complicated tasks with few instructions.
Computers can change your life
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Computers can change your life for the better

Hackers felt that computers had enriched their lives, given their lives focus, and made their lives adventurous.

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According to Levy's account, sharing was the norm and expected within the non-corporate hacker culture. The principle of sharing stemmed from the open atmosphere and informal access to resources at MIT. During the early days of computers and programming, the hackers at MIT would develop a program and share it with other computer users.

If the hack was particularly good, then the program might be posted on a board somewhere near one of the computers. Other programs that could be built upon it and improved it were saved to tapes and added to a drawer of programs, readily accessible to all the other hackers. At any time, a fellow hacker might reach into the drawer, pick out the program, and begin adding to it or "bumming" it to make it better. Bumming referred to the process of making the code more concise so that more can be done in fewer instructions, saving precious memory for further enhancements.

In the second generation of hackers, sharing was about sharing with the general public in addition to sharing with other hackers. A particular organization of hackers that was concerned with sharing computers with the general public was a group called Community Memory. This group of hackers and idealists put computers in public places for anyone to use. The first community computer was placed outside of Leopold's Records in Berkeley, California.

This second generation practice of sharing contributed to the battles of free and open software. In fact, when Bill Gates' version of BASIC for the Altair was shared among the hacker community, Gates claimed to have lost a considerable sum of money because few users paid for the software. As a result, Gates wrote an Open Letter to Hobbyists.[12][13] This letter was published by several computer magazines and newsletters, most notably that of the Homebrew Computer Club where much of the sharing occurred.

Hands-On Imperative
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Many of the principles and tenets of hacker ethic contribute to a common goal: the Hands-On Imperative. As Levy described in Chapter 2, "Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems—about the world—from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and more interesting things."

Employing the Hands-On Imperative requires free access, open information, and the sharing of knowledge. To a true hacker, if the Hands-On Imperative is restricted, then the ends justify the means to make it unrestricted so that improvements can be made. When these principles are not present, hackers tend to work around them. For example, when the computers at MIT were protected either by physical locks or login programs, the hackers there systematically worked around them in order to have access to the machines. Hackers assumed a "willful blindness" in the pursuit of perfection.

This behavior was not malicious in nature: the MIT hackers did not seek to harm the systems or their users (although occasional practical jokes were played using the computer systems). This deeply contrasts with the modern, media-encouraged image of hackers who crack secure systems in order to steal information or complete an act of cyber-vandalism. Dorothy Denning notes that even hackers who crack secure systems illegally are often motivated by personal morals and beliefs, rather than by malice. [14]

Community and collaboration
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Throughout writings about hackers and their work processes, a common value of community and collaboration is present. For example, in Levy's Hackers, each generation of hackers had geographically based communities where collaboration and sharing occurred. For the hackers at MIT, it was the labs where the computers were running. For the hardware hackers (second generation) and the game hackers (third generation) the geographic area was centered in Silicon Valley where the Homebrew Computer Club and the People's Computer Company helped hackers network, collaborate, and share their work.

The concept of community and collaboration is still relevant today, although hackers are no longer limited to collaboration in geographic regions. Now collaboration takes place via the Internet.[15]

Protocols for Native American Archival Materials

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The Protocols for Native American Archival Materials is a list of best practices for non-tribal institutions that hold Native American archival materials. The protocols have been pretty controversial, partly because of the cost involved; the archivist at the University of Washington said that he would need to hire at least one full-time staff member whose sole job would be ensuring compliance with the protocols.[16] But the main reason is that it goes against a lot of traditional (European) LIS values, such as Universal Access.

Most of the document is about opportunities to collaborate and consult with tribal leaders about the care of materials in archives. However, the short sections on "Accessibility and Use" and "Culturally Sensitive Materials" state that "For Native American communities the public release of or access to specialized information or knowledge—gathered with and without informed consent—can cause irreparable harm. Instances abound of misrepresentation and exploitation of sacred and secret information." As such, the protocols establish expectations of repatriation of certain materials, and allow Native American communities to restrict access to formerly open collections, stating that "[a]ccess to some knowledge may be restricted as a privilege rather than a right."

Another part that bothered some was in the context section, which suggests cataloging practices for describing materials containing pejorative content. I really liked a lot of the suggestions (e.g. one of their sample notes: "The [tribal name] finds information in this work inaccurate or disrespectful. To learn more contact ...."), which I felt added more information for catalog users. At the same time, I felt challenged by other suggestions that involved removing certain content (i.e. their suggestion that librarians "remove offensive terms from original titles and provide substitute language" in catalog records). I understand where this is coming from -- I wouldn't want to look up a book about a community I belong to, only to find words ridiculing that community and challenging its right to exist -- but it also totally challenges my "accept no censorship! Provide lots of access points!" mindset. [17]


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  1. Finks, Lee W. “Values Without Shame.” American Libraries 20 (1989): 352–356.
  2. Sager, D. (2001). The Search for Librarianship's Core Values. Public Libraries, 40(3), 149-53.
  3. American Library Association. (2009). B.1 Core Values, Ethics, and Core Competencies. In Policy Manual. American Library Association. Retrieved from
  4. Ranganathan, S. R. (1963). The five laws of library science. Bombay, New York: Asia Pub. House.
  5. Gorman, Michael. "Five New Laws of Librarianship." American Libraries 26 (September 1995): 784-785.
  6. Swan, John. "Untruth or Consequences." Library Journal 111 (July 1, 1986): 44-52.
  7. Dorman, David. “Open Source Software and the Intellectual Commons.” American Libraries 33, no. 11 (December 2002): 51-54.
  8. Blanke, Henry T. "Librarianship and Political Values: Neutrality or Commitment?" Library Journal (1989): 39-43.
  9. Stallman, R. What is Free Software? (2011, November 29). Retrieved from
  10. FAQ. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  11. Reagle, Joseph. "“Free as in sexist?” Free culture and the gender gap" First Monday [Online], Volume 18 Number 1 (30 December 2012)
  12. Charles Leadbetter (2008). We-Think. Profile Books.
  13. Fiona Macdonald (12 March 2008). "Get a fair share of creativity". Metro. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. Denning, D. Concerning Hackers Who Break into Computer Systems. (1990, October). Retrieved from
  15. Levy, Steven. (1984, 2001). Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (updated edition). Penguin. ISBN 0-14-100051-1
  16. Bolcer, John. The Protocols for Native American Archival Materials: Considerations and Concerns from the Perspective of a Non-Tribal Archivist. Easy Access, January 2009, p.3.