Ethics and Information

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Librarians are information guardians. By working to disseminate informational resources to the public, they fill a crucial societal role.

The American Library Association (ALA) and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) created their own respective codes on professional ethics. Librarians and other professionals working in library and information science can look to these codes for guidance as they handle a wide range of social challenges, including copyright, censorship and user rights issues.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by Rutgers University’s Online Master of Information program.

The Code of Ethics in the Field of Library and Information Science

Librarians can use a plethora of informational resources to guide them when implementing an institution’s code of ethics. The ALA and the IFLA are two of the most highly regarded authorities in the field of library science.

Key Principles of the ALA and the IFLA

Provide highly organized services and resources, unbiased replies to requests, and fair access.

Ensure fair treatment to everyone, including library users and colleagues.

Develop a sense of responsibility toward individuals and society.

Maintain professional excellence, accuracy, integrity and cooperation while offering transparency.

Find an appropriate balance between professional and personal convictions.

Respect intellectual property rights and refrain from censoring library resources.

Protect intellectual freedom and property as well as the right to confidentiality and privacy.

Do not pursue private interests to the detriment of the institution.

Why These Codes of Ethics Were Created

The ALA and IFLA created their codes of ethics to protect the rights of all library users, ensure that everyone is given fair and equal access to the library’s informational resources, and provide transparency to library users and the whole of society.

These codes of ethics were also created to guide librarians by improving their self-awareness, allowing them to operate efficiently while avoiding any possible ethical pitfalls. Librarians and information workers can influence and form new policies while also addressing current issues by reflecting on existing policies and important principles.

How the ALA and IFLA Codes Affect Library Policies, Regulations, Services and Ethical Decision Making

These codes were implemented to protect intellectual freedom, giving individuals the right to obtain information from an array of perspectives without any limitations or restrictions.

They prevent censorship or the suppression of ideas or messages that certain individuals — such as a government or an organization — may find disagreeable or dangerous.

These codes ensure that all information is disseminated properly to all relevant parties, while protecting individuals who come to the library for information.

Ethical Decision Making

A report published by the Council for Big Data, Ethics, and Society titled “Perspectives on Big Data, Ethics, and Society” summarized its findings via discussion between “researchers from diverse fields who were thinking deeply about ethical, social and policy challenges associated with the rise of ‘big data’ research and industry, with an eye toward developing recommendations about future directions for the field.”

The report highlights that case studies discussing arguments in data science and various other resources are made available by the Online Ethics Center. By consulting existing case studies and published arguments regarding data science, librarians can make informed decisions pertaining to any relevant problem that may arise.

Librarians and others in the research community should make an effort to participate in ethics-oriented activities connected to their professional associations, and they should also create spaces and opportunities for aiding ethical decision making and ethics engagement.

Ethical Dilemmas in Library and Information Science

Privacy Rights

The following books were challenged or banned in 2015 or 2016:

“History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond.” is a supplemental history textbook. It was challenged by parents at a school district in New Jersey for “glorifying Islamic Jihad.” The school district decided to retain the text.

“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini was suspended by Buncombe County, North Carolina in 2015 before eventually being reinstated. According to the complainant, the book did not promote “character education” and abstinence-only education.

“Dead Poets Society” by N.H. Kleinbaum was challenged but retained in Jerseyville, Illinois in 2015. When challenging the book, a local pastor said that it was “disturbing, very close to a strong, mild pornography … It shows rebellion towards teachers and has graphic immoral areas.”

Student Privacy

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, student data gathered by private organizations and schools is not protected. For example, the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) does not give students the ability to access or amend information gathered by private companies.

Copyright Vs. User Rights

Various companies and organizations argue that accessing specific copyrighted content requires monetary compensation. This is a major reason why many companies push for increased development of licensing products and remote education products requiring consistent fees.

In contrast, librarians are ethically responsible for protecting the flow of information, “the freedom to research” and “the freedom to teach and learn,” according to the Association of Research Libraries. Students and faculty should have the ability to access a wide variety of research materials, such as novels and academic journals, without any unnecessary or otherwise unreasonable restrictions.

Data Science and Ethics

Big data research is becoming more prevalent and bringing with it new and complex data sets, complicating current standards set by computer science training, institutional review boards and ethics codes.

Research librarians can and should work in conjunction with computer science researchers to better “navigate emerging issues of privacy, ethics and equitable access to data” while using their knowledge of information ethics and skills in data management.

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