A recent discussion on a librarian listserve I follow brought the question of ethics in libraries to my attention. Someone asked whether a general ethics course is a requirement for MLS programs. So I looked into it, and while I didn’t find an “ethics” course, I did find a lot of courses like the University of Alberta’s course on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in Librarianship.
In fact, a lot of schools offer a similar course, based on the various ethical issues that librarians encounter. But like Alberta, most of them are electives: they don’t fulfill any general requirements. If, as they pound into our heads in library school, librarianship is a service oriented profession, why don’t they insist on a little bit more instruction into the whys and wherefores of this aspect of the job?
We spend our time learning about the advent of gaming programs in public libraries (a totally awesome part of the curriculum, don’t get me wrong) and reading the latest YA titles, while at the same time, if we choose, grueling over cataloguing courses and trying to understand why serials are managed the way they are. But when it comes to the theory of why we do what we do, and why intellectual freedom matters, most people don’t bother.
So here we are, degreed librians, working happily in our chosen field, with strong convictions about freedom of information and opposition to the USA Patriot Act, but no real idea what the different components of that Act include. We just know it’s bad. We leave with convictions, but no history to found them on.
So where’s the problem? Why should we know the history, as long as we make sure to uphold the ethics in our work? For the same reason we should know the history behind any conviction: how can we fight for something if we don’t a) know why we’re fighting for it and b) know how previous fights for the same freedoms have turned out? Wihtout an undestanding of that which we fight against, we lack a solid foundation for our future. The library becomes like a house built on sand, and all these strong convictions that build our frame will collapse with the first storm.
If we want to come together as a unified front against those who would try to limit intellectual freedoms, we have to have more than just a strong conviction. It takes more than beliefs to win on fights like this. The “right to privacy” and “intellectual freedom” should be more than just buzzwords in the library community. They need to be real platforms, founded on the strength of a long history of the fight for these liberties.
Whew. I’m winded. I’m stepping down from my soapbox.